The Traced Portrait Project

I’m really happy with these traced black-and-white portraits.

I didn’t expect it to be such a thing for me. I had the idea early last week, hoped I’d be able to pull it off, and was pretty happy for the assignment when the first few came out looking like family members in a reasonable amount of time. When I finished the next day, I couldn’t resist sharing the final project.

It might have stopped there, but my friend Theresa asked me to do one for her as well. And I went to a concert on Friday, and thought to try making some for the artists. And it was still fun, and I was feeling…proud of them.

The Process

For me, the setup doesn’t seem so ambitious. Step 1: Find a photograph. Step 2: Using only black and white, trace over the photograph in Acorn (or any other drawing program). Step 3: Profit!

Portrait of singer-songwriter Zach Balch, in photo, overlay, and final forms

My mind has been arguing with itself about whether or not this is really art. On the one hand, I’m just tracing over photographs. Anyone can do that, right? Even an automated program can do it.

On the other, it does take some skill. And I am making creative decisions: which details should be included in the stripped-down black-and-white format? What should be reduced or simplified?

But perhaps the strongest indicator is that people seem to be treating it as art. Since art is inherently subjective, that pretty much closes the issue. (My mind does tend to get caught up on silly things.)

And I’m surprised to find that I’m relieved about this. I don’t think of myself as a strong visual artist, which I touched on a bit in discussing a posted sketch a few months ago. So to find a small bit of visual art that I am actually good at—or at least passable—is like finding the first foothold in climbing up the face of a cliff. I’m a long way from being a really good visual artist, and still can’t do anything freehand…but, like with my few months of Korean, I now have a place to start. And I guess I wanted that.

In the end, though, whether or not this is really art isn’t important. What’s important is that these portraits have a positive effect on my visual art aesthetics and abilities, and that I enjoy making them.

The Project

So for the next year, I’m going to continue making portraits, one a week. I’m not going to set a limit on the subjects: they could be friends, family, musical artists, celebrities, whatever. (I will take requests, though!)

This project has several goals: improving my own skill with this form in particular and visual art in general, documenting a year’s worth of progress within a form, and possibly informing other, non-tracing attempts at art involving faces. And having fun—so far I’m still really enjoying making these, and I hope that lasts.

I could have called this “until next June”, but June’s not a particularly significant event, so instead I’ll be using Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference as my end date. WWDC 2013 begins tomorrow.

I reserve the right to change all the rules I’ve set for myself. But we’ll see.

I’ll be putting the portraits from this project up on Flickr. I have never used my Flickr account for anything, but it’s an easy place to put oodles of images, and they just went through a site redesign. I don’t want to spam this blog with a picture every week, so watch the Flickr set for updates. At the risk of sounding like Hollywood technobabble, you can even add my photostream’s newsfeed to your news reader.1

TLDR: I’ll be making portraits from now until WWDC 2014, and they’ll all be on my Flickr account.

  1. I could have put these on Facebook, and in fact since most of them will probably be of friends and musical artists they’ll probably end up there anyway. But by putting them somewhere else, the project’s not tied in with my online personal social life. I think abstractly that’s better for mental organization, and concretely it will probably make it less likely that I’ll abandon the project. ↩︎