I get a number of questions from readers asking if "X" is considered cheating in art. My answer is usually the same across the board - nothing is really cheating as long as it helps you create what you want to create and that your integrity remains intact.
Below are some of the questions and my brief thoughts. You may have a different opinion. Feel free to share in the comments if so.
Is It Cheating to Trace?
I think tracing is the closest thing you can get to actually cheating in art. I remember doing it when I was a child and had no idea about drawing. Whilst it may help you draw with great accuracy, it will most likely cripple you in the long run as you will not develop your freehand drawing ability. It is like riding a bike and never taking off the training wheels.
But, tracing can be useful if you only want to focus on color and tone. It will save you some time and provide you with a quick template to apply your colors.
Is It Cheating to Use a Grid?
A better alternative to tracing is to use a grid to assist your drawing. All you need to do is place a grid on your canvas and a grid on your reference photo and then try to match the segments. I do not consider this to be cheating, provided you do not rely on the grid too much.
I sometimes do this for large-scale paintings to ensure all the shapes and lines are roughly in the correct places.
Just be careful that you do not fall into a "paint-by-numbers" approach, where you try to accurately copy the reference photo segment by segment. Try to use the grid as a rough guide only, not as a crutch.
I used a grid to assist me with the initial drawing in the painting below.
Is It Cheating to Use Reference Photos?
Back during old master times, photography was relatively primitive at best compared to what we have today. The masters often painted from life rather than from reference photos.
I do not consider reference photos to be cheating, but rather a useful tool for artists. Reference photos allow you to capture a point in time, zoom-in, crop, alter and inspect the colors. This is not possible when painting from life.
But reference photos are not perfect and there are many advantages to painting from life. With a reference photo, you cannot touch, smell or see the surrounding context of the subject. Also, whilst photos are great for capturing a point in time, they cannot capture how you see and interpret the subject.
Is It Cheating to Use Editing Software?
Here is where we start to merge traditional art with digital art. I think that traditional artists who take advantage of editing software are at a great advantage to those who choose not to.
It is not cheating, provided you are not altering photos of your paintings significantly to make them look better on a computer than they actually are in real life. In most cases I would consider that to be cheating as it seems disingenuine.
I frequently use Photoshop to clean up and inspect a reference photo before I start painting. Some artists take it to the next level and move objects around in the reference photo but I prefer to paint it how it is.
Using the reference photo below and editing software, I am able to identify with complete accuracy what certain colors are. This is valuable information because sometimes our eyes see colors which are not actually there.
Is Digital Art Cheating?
Of course not. Digital art is just another medium. It is no different to oil painting, watercoloring or drawing. The only difference is you are using a digital brush or pencil to create your art. With that being said, I do prefer the physical nature of traditional art. To me, there is nothing like the feel of brush to canvas, or pencil to paper.
(If you want to learn more about color mixing and painting in general, I invite you to join my free email course, 7 Days to Better Paintings).