What is Tracing Paper?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Tracing paper is a type of paper that can be used to transfer an image to another surface, as well as part of an established system whereby artists improve an image, an oft-used overlay, and a surface for sketches and finished artwork. Architects are among those who do finished drawings on tracing paper, and they also use tracings from their large, often full-size, épure drawings that focus on particular building elements. The recommended media for this paper are generally listed as pencil, pen, and markers, but Mies van der Rohe also used charcoal.

Tracing paper may be used to create origami.
Tracing paper may be used to create origami.

Weight. Paper is described in several ways: by point sizes that measure the thickness of a single sheet in thousandths of an inch, and by basis weight, a measurement in pounds of the weight of 500 sheets of the standard size of the paper, whatever that may be. Because the size of different types of paper is not consistent, comparing basis weights is complicated. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) paper industry standard is considered the most consistent way to compare paper weights. The ISO measures weight in grams per square meter (gsm). With this measurement system, it is much easier to see what tracing paper means:

Tracing paper is similar to copy paper, but is more lightweight.
Tracing paper is similar to copy paper, but is more lightweight.
10–35 gsm tissue paper
35–70 gsm lighter textweight
70–100 gsm medium textweight
100–120 gsm heavy textweight/light cardstock
120-150 gsm regular cardstock
150-200 gsm heavy cardstock
>200 gsm super heavy cardstock

Sometimes the division between tissue paper and textweight paper is given as 40 gsm, rather than 35 gsm. This puts the lightest tracing paper, which is 40 gsm or 41 gsm, depending on the manufacturer, at the very border of tissue paper and textweight paper, while heavyweight tracing paper, at 112 gsm, is on the border of medium and heavy textweight. Some such papers are referred to as “parchment” or “vellum,” which means that they have been prepared with a surface texture, or finish in some usages, similar to that of writing or drawing sheets prepared from animal skin.

Sizes. This type of paper is available by the sheet and by the roll. Rolls vary in length, but the following widths are available: 12 inches (305 mm), 18 inches (457 mm), 24 inches 610 mm), and 36 inches (914 mm). Some of the common US sizes for tracing paper pads are:

  • 8½ × 11 inches (216 × 279 mm)
  • 9 × 12 inches (228 × 305 mm)
  • 11 × 14 inches (279 × 366 mm)
  • 12 × 18 inches (305 × 457 mm)
  • 14 × 17 inches (366 × 432 mm)
  • 18 × 24 inches (457 × 610 mm)
  • 19 × 24 inches (483 × 610 mm)

Common ISO standard paper sizes such as A2 (420 x 594 mm), A3 (1297 x 420 mm), and A4 (210 x 297 mm) are also available.

Other Uses. Tracing paper can be used to make pinhole cameras and create patterns for doll clothes. It can also be colored and used for collage, paper sculpture including origami, and weaving.

Architects are among those who draft finished drawings on tracing paper.
Architects are among those who draft finished drawings on tracing paper.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


Many people also use tracing paper for sewing and embroidery. Fabric tracing paper is a little different in that it's used for marking out patterns rather than copying something below it, but still, an integral tool for seamstresses, especially if you're making clothes.

If anybody out there still uses the old paper patterns that you could buy from stores like Wal-Mart, then you know what I'm talking about -- those were made of tracing paper.


Many times people use tracing paper to teach handwriting as well.

Although some handwriting tracing papers are the semi-opaque kind, others, especially the printable tracing papers, are just regular paper with the letters done in dotted lines rather than solid lines, so that the child can follow along that way.

I personally learned cursive via classic tracing paper, so I think it's the best way, but I could be biased...


Do you think it would be a good idea to invest in tracing paper rolls for an art class?

I'm teaching a class on drawing, and thought it might be a good idea to buy a roll of tracing paper rather than the tracing paper sheets -- it seemed more cost effective, especially as I plan on having the students use a lot of tracing paper for their art.

Has anybody reading this taught a class where you used a lot of tracing paper for drawing, and did you use sheets or a roll?

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