To Project or Not to Project…

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My demo piece from last year’s workshop at Flemish Classical Atelier.

Projecting a photo onto a canvas before painting — is it “legal”? Is it legitimate to project? If I project can I call myself a real artist? When I project how do I deal with that little voice inside yelling “Cheater!”. I think there are some things to consider here. It’s not just cut and dried “wrong” or “right”. Here’s my take:

I like to ask this question: WHY are you projecting? Is it because you can’t draw, or is it to save time?

If you are projecting because you can’t draw, you’ve already discovered you WILL lose your drawing in the painting process. If you can’t draw, you’ll still screw it up. You know who you are. You’ve done it many times. You still have to be a good draftsman to pull it off. Let me tell you, if you still struggle with drawing and you’re projecting because you think it will help you, you’re fooling yourself. You NEED to learn to draw first. I don’t care who told you otherwise. They are dead wrong. I’ve seen learning painters lose their projected image over and over again. They project and trace a photo. Then they start losing the drawing within the first few hours of painting. You HAVE to learn to draw.

I know a few artists who regularly project a photo, or part of a photo in order to save time. I get it. When you have to make a living with your art you don’t always have the luxury of maintaining your ideals. Especially if you have a family to support. Then there are deadlines. It’s competitive out there for the working professional artist. It’s tough. Many do what they can to survive these difficult times. But these artists are also EXCELLENT DRAFTSMEN. They don’t really NEED to project. But it saves time. Their paintings are still excellent. Personally I don’t have a problem with these artists who do this.

Do I (David Gray) project?


I have a family. I have a wife and two kids. My wife doesn’t work for pay (She actually works harder than I do. She home educates our children!). I have a home mortgage. I have all the financial responsibilities of the working family man. I have to make ends meet. So why not project? Why not save time? The answer has two parts to it.

Part 1: Remember I said if you have responsibilities you don’t always have the luxury of maintaining your ideals? Well, I do anyway. For me it’s a point of honor to hand render everything. Even when working from photo reference I hand draw my composition without the aid of a projector. Have I EVER projected? Yes, I have. And I don’t like it. So I don’t. Drawing skills are at the core of my work. I like honing those skills every time I do a painting. It’s a personal decision for me. If you’re a good draftsman and you want to project to save time, okay, fine. I don’t have a problem with it. But it’s just not for me.

Part 2: I’ve found that I tend to edit what I see when it comes to a photographic image. The camera is monocular. It doesn’t see the same way we see (Assuming you have two eyes. Not everyone does, of course). Therefore I find little disturbing ways the camera sees that I don’t like. So I edit that part. I find when I personally hand render the image, subtle things happen in my drawing that are more pleasing to me. I do tend to idealize my subjects a bit. Or maybe I should say I tend to draw my subjects the way I WANT to see them. Hand rendering the image allows this to happen to a greater degree. My own aesthetic and artistic sensibilities are allowed to emerge in the drawing if I render it myself. I didn’t always realize this. I discovered it by observing my finished paintings of photographic imagery. My paintings didn’t look quite like the photo. If fact, I PREFERRED my painting to the photo. I was delighted at this discovery and it made me even more determined NOT to ever project a photo.

In the end, of course, it’s up to you. I STRONGLY recommend a consistent regimen for building your drawing skills. Find out what your weaknesses are and build them up.

There’s an opportunity for you to do this coming up this Summer. July 1-11, 2015 I’m teaching a ten-day intensive portrait class in Bruges, Belgium with Flemish Classical Atelier. We are going to be spending the first 4 days drawing. I’ll be teaching my way of building the drawing in preparation for doing the painting. You’ll see that there are no fancy tricks. I break the process down for you and demystify this essential skill. Please consider joining us. I know we’ll have a great time learning together. And Bruges is a lovely and inspiring place to be. I look forward to working with you…and then sipping a beer or two after class. Please click this link to find out more or to register:

Hope to see you there!

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A scene from last summer at Flemish Classical Atelier. Students working on the portrait drawing.

19 thoughts on “To Project or Not to Project…”

  1. I don’t always project. But when I do…. I lose my drawing every time. The ability to draw IS absolutely essential. Enjoyed the post. 🙂


  2. I paid a lot of money for a projector, and as I look back, I don’t know why I did. I am more than capable of producing a good drawing. I used the projector one time and didn’t like it. You lose your drawing somewhere along the line (no pun intended) and the result is definitely less than the desired result. Art must be based on good drawing. You can’t have a good painting without the foundation of a good drawing. Thank you for the post David. Always valuable information.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You’re..RIGHT! how did drawing get such a bad name anyway…? Besides, painting IS drawing, with the added difficulty of colour thrown in. :))


  4. I purchased a projector to speed things up and it messes me up every time. I like to draw and get the feeling of the features. I don’t care if anyone else uses one but it does t work for me.

    Good article. Drawing is essential.


  5. Great post. I would love to be able to join your class. I have been enjoying your work and your videos for some time. You have been very generous in your online videos. I pray that everything goes well for you and all the students that are able to join you in Belgium. Thanks for posting David. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello David Thank you! Someone had to say THIS!!! I agree that especially with oil painting it is true. I love your work and hope you continue to be inspired Irene

    Sent from my iPhone



  7. Thank you for the wonderful videos!! Your work is breathtaking! I have not tried painting for years( and I mean over 40!!). I just started and hope when I retire, to spend my time learning portrait art. I dream that one day I will be able to attend one of your sessions. Your talent is so inspiring!!


  8. Absolutely love this post and your videos. I have traced/projected on two occasions and it has always bothered me. I have the two pieces and I don’t think that I could ever sell them; it would bother me too much. I find it annoying when I read or hear people saying that “If I took the time to learn how to draw, I would never have time to paint.”


  9. Well said! I agree completely. I tell my students the very same thing. Another reason not to project or trace – If you specialize in miniature and small format painting like I do, it is physically impossible.


  10. When an artist has something to say, and knows how to say it with composition and visual symbols and other devices, the mechanical means of arriving at a finished work tend to lose their importance. I believe this is especially true as time passes and the works stand or fall on their merits. See Vermeer’s reported use of a camera obscura. I’m pretty convinced he did use one. So what if he did? He still went through the all-important design process.

    David, I had no idea you were the sole provider. Way to go!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amanda, I hope you know we’re on the same page here. My point is that many learning painters take your idea here as an excuse NOT to learn how to draw. Their resulting work reveals this weakness. They don’t know what they don’t know, so to speak. And their work is never as strong as it could be.

      IMO…whether Vermeer’s use of mechanical means to transfer and also SEE his subjects benefited his painting is questionable. Was his use of the camera obscura legitimate? Absolutely. I’m just not a huge fan of Vermeer, and so I can’t point to him as a great example.


  11. I always saw projecting in the same way as graphing. It can be good when first starting out to mark your landmarks, but it quickly gets in the way. I’ve been a lot happier with my art since I learned how to draw unaided. I think you really hit the nail on the head with what you say in part 2. Without exception, I prefer my paintings over the reference photos. I couldn’t quite articulate why. The reference photos are all beautiful, but when compared to the painting, they are lacking.

    Liked by 1 person

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