For many artists, light boxes are one of the most essential tools in their art toolkits. On the other hand, some artists see light boxes as cheating since they make tracing so incredibly easy. No matter where you fall on the debate, which we’ll talk about, there’s no doubt that light boxes can do amazing things.
Light boxes are used for tracing art onto a separate piece of paper. A light box is made out of a translucent surface and a light that shines behind it. When you place two pieces of paper on its surface, the light shining through lets you see the image on the back piece of paper so that you can trace it onto the one in front.
Let’s dive into more details about why you might want to use a light box for tracing your art, the debate around using one, and the best ones to buy.
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Using a Light Box to Clean Up Your Art
I don’t know about you, but my first sketches can be an absolute mess. I’m not one of those people that can have an idea for a drawing and flesh it out in one shot. Before I got a light box, I would get so frustrated that the drawing I worked so hard on was full of eraser marks, stray pencil lines, and indents.
With a light box, it is so quick and easy to turn your messy drawing into a clean and polished final piece. The key is to make your first sketch “light box ready.” Basically, do your first sketch with the light box in mind. Make your lines dark and easy to see so that there’s no confusion about which lines are the final lines when you’re tracing with the light box.
Pro tip: do your first messy sketch on some scrap or cheap drawing paper. Only pull out your nice drawing paper when you’re ready to do the transfer with the light box. This will save you a lot of money on expensive paper!
Using a Light Box to Transfer to Watercolor Paper
Thick pencil lines can ruin a great watercolor painting, especially if you’re planning on painting something light and washy. Without a light box, it can be really frustrating to finish a watercolor sketch and realize that your pencil lines are going to show through.
Start out by sketching out the design for your watercolor painting on a regular piece of cheap drawing paper. Once you’re happy with it, put your sketch underneath your watercolor paper on top of your light box. Using a hard pencil, very lightly trace your drawing onto your watercolor paper. Make sure that your lines are faint enough to be covered by your watercolor.
You can also skip the pencil tracing altogether by outlining your design in watercolor while it’s on top of the light box. Be very careful with this technique, as you don’t want your light box getting wet. If you’re using this technique, you’ll want to do it quickly and then continue with the rest of your watercoloring so that you don’t end up with any hard paint lines.
Using a Light Box to Make Multiple Copies of Your Work
Let’s say that you’re doing letter work for envelopes or want multiple copies of a drawing. It can be really challenging to make identical copies without tracing. A light box can be a lifesaver if you need a uniform set of artwork that all needs to look the same.
Using a Light Box to Trace Shapes
Circles, squares, triangles, stars; they all cause me problems. I can draw an eye that looks realistic, but I can’t draw a perfect square to save my life. A light box can help you draw perfect shapes every single time.
Using Canva, Microsoft Word, or any other design program, make sheets that have different sizes of shapes on them. Print out these sheets and keep them with you as you draw. Anytime you need to draw a certain shape, put the sheet on the light box under your drawing paper and you’ll have a perfect guide to draw the circle, square, triangle, or square that you need.
Using a Light Box to Trace Photos onto Drawing Paper
This is territory where most of the light box debate comes in, so we’ll dive into that in the next section. A light box is often used to turn a photo into a drawing. If you want to make a portrait of your dog, print out your favorite photo of your pooch, put it on the light box and trace away.
This method is extremely effective and quick. I’ve struggled for hours to replicate a photo only to put it on a light box and realize where I was going wrong with my lines and angles.
Are Light Boxes Cheating? Diving Into the Controversy Around Tracing
Some artists see tracing as a form of cheating, which means that light boxes are taboo. Often, these artists value freehand drawing and believe that tracing devalues the artistry of it. It can also be seen as a way of copying. If I trace someone else’s art, can I call it mine?
There’s no right answer to the controversy behind light boxes and tracing; that’s why it runs strong. Though, it’s important to remember that a light box is just a tool. In the same way that a keyboard can either be used to create new and novel stories or to plagiarize the stories of others, a light box that can either be used to create unique and beautiful art or to copy the art of others.
For me, art is personal and done for my own enjoyment. I’m not in a competition with other artists. If I want to trace a photo of my dog in order to get a better representation of him, that’s ok by me. Others may think that I would need to freehand the drawing in order for it to “count,” but that’s not what matters to me. While I do freehand draw a lot of my work, I’m ok with using a light box if it helps me enjoy my art more.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you! A light box can be a valuable tool, no matter how you use it.
Here are some great choices for your next light box. You’ll probably be surprised how inexpensive, but good these light boxes are.
Tikteck A4 Ultra-thin Portable LED Light Box
This is the light box I have
Granted, this Tikteck light box is the smallest light box on our list with the working surface coming in at 9”x11”. If you want a larger option that is still inexpensive, the others on the list can give you more size for just a bit more money.
LED Light Pad by Craftymint – Large Ultra Thin 19” Light Up Tracing Tablet
The Craftymint light box is a great choice if you want something a little bit larger. This lightbox measures 15”x11” working area. which can give you a lot of room for tracing on bigger pieces of paper. In addition to its size, I like how this light box is slim, has a ruler, comes with a 10 foot cord, and a clip to secure your paper.
A lot of raving reviews on Amazon have used this light box for diamond painting, which is basically a mix between cross stitch and paint by number. Many artists have used it for drawing as well with great success.
Huion LA3 Portable USB LED Tracing Light Box
This Huion light box is moving up the charts on the size scale with a 16”x12” working area. It comes with a ruler, adjustable light, slim design, and a clip to hold you paper in place. This is a great choice for a light box that’s starting to trend on the larger size.
CO-Z A2 LED Drawing Light Box Board
This CO-Z A2 light box is even bigger than the Craftymint, giving you 16.5”x23.2” of working space. If you need something extra large for your extra large projects, this is a high quality choice. This light box has an adjustable light, is extremely thin, and gets rave reviews from artists.
Light boxes can be great tools for making your art more quickly and with more cleanliness. While some may consider them to be a way of cheating, they are simply tools for you to use. It’s up to you how you use a light box to create and enjoy your art.
Diana has been an artist for over 26 years and has training in drawing, painting, digital drawing and graphic design. Diana’s latest obsession is digitally drawing with Procreate and creating t-shirt designs with Canva. Diana has experience selling her art across a number of platforms and loves helping other artists learn how to make money from their art as well.