DIY Light Box - for Tracing Outlines

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

A key tip to photo-realistic detail on your artworks is to start by tracing the basic outlines and shapes in your photo.

This is no secret, the basics of getting started have been used by artists for centuries, and in today's world we have so many resources at our fingertips to make life easier! We may as well use them!

Unfortunately buying art equipment can be pricey - heading down to the art shop with shallow pockets is a recipe for disappointment in my experience - being a full time university student makes life cheap and cheerful!

I didn't have an extra/spare $200+ laying around, especially when I've been using the old window method for free - it wasn't something I NEED but it's something I WANT. And whenever it's something I want, I just can't justify sacrificing a week's worth of food for it.



So I gathered up things I had laying around in the garage and house -

A list of what is needed:

  • a picture frame, the bigger the better to allow for a large tracing area, preferably with plastic PVC rather than glass (to prevent breaking when you handle and transport it around) these are cheap at local department stores and cheap dollar stores, usually between $5-$15

  • Some old wooden shelves or planks of wood, you can buy planks of wood and have them cut to size at a hardware store. The size to cut them to is the same size as the dimensions of your picture frame (height and width) to make a rectangular box

  • some wood nails which you may find in the tool shed, or cheap at a local hardware store

  • PVA craft/wood glue which you might have in your art and craft kit, can buy at any art and craft store, hardware store, and often cheap dollar stores

  • a tenon saw (to cut the shelves to size) which you may have in the tool shed, you can pick these up for around $15 usually at local hardware stores. If you're not confident in cutting wood with a saw, I wouldn't recommend trying it alone for your first time (it's quite dangerous and risky, your local hardware store such as Bunnings or Mitre 10 where they sell wood usually cut it to size for you at no extra cost, I've done this loads of times, the staff have been lovely in my experience.

  • Some quilt batting fabric which I had handed down by my late Grandma Joan (love you Grandma). This will be installed in the frame behind the pvc plastic or glass sheet, so make sure it's big enough to cover your frame (my frame is 40cm wide x 50cm long)

  • the quilt batting fabric could be swapped easily for white paper, white wrapping paper, or white sheet fabric (if you have any old sheets laying around). We want translucent ( allowing light, but not detailed shapes, to pass through; semi-transparent), not opaque material ( not able to be seen through; not transparent).

  • A LED strip light, the reason I choose LEDs is that they don't heat up and become hot like other lights do, so this means you'll be more comfortable using the light box (your hands and writsts won't become warm and irritated), and also as a fire hazard precaution. I always like to prevent the chance of the home catching on fire! My LED strip light cost $19 from bunnings, they had loads of options there. When you read further down in this article I have uploaded a photograph of the specific light I bought from Bunnings, in case you want to buy the same one.

  • What I aimed for with the LED lamp was the maximum lumens, this one is 400 lumens, not battery-operated, runs from mains power (personal preference, I don't like the hassle of how batteries erode and become flat, they don't last a long time, needing to buy more batteries is expensive however using a battery operated one might be good if you're going out camping or to places without mains power, off the grid) and I also liked the flat housing the lamp sits in, so it can easily lay there on the tiled floor and direct the light upwards and outwards through the entire box. LEDs also don't get replaced like regular light bulbs, so once it eventually breaks or dies, it'll just mean buying a new one, however I don't predict I'll need to do this for a few years and it's not something that will be turned on all the time, a tracing session is usually around 5 minutes)



Building the Box


Step One:

Saw/cut the pieces of your wood shelves or wood planks to have the box match the dimensions of your picture frame.


Alternatively, have this done by the staff members at your local hardware store - if you head to the wood section (Bunnings, Mitre 10, Home Timber & Hardware, just to name a few) they'll help you out. I like cutting it myself for the fact that I don't need to drive somewhere and ask someone to do it, my personal preference always tends to be about self-sufficiency. But it's okay to ask for help if you haven't done this type of thing before, I enjoyed Woodwork class in high school and then did a trade for 8 years post-school where I was around tools every day. I wouldn't expect every person to be as familiar as I am with it, however another option might be someone in your family if they are handy with tools.


Step Two:

You also want to cut at least one small semi-circle or shape on the bottom edge of your box (where it meets the floor) to run a cable under, so that the box and floor don't 'squish' the cable and damage it over time. See picture below.

In my case, the shelves already had these semi-circular shapes cut into them, so I was able to skip this step.


Step Three:

Glue and nail them together (the nails hold it so you don't need to use any clamps while the glue dries) See picture below.

The glue takes around 24 hours to dry completely, however you can gently use the box in the mean time while the nails hold it together if you are brave and careful with it



Step Four (Optional):

Add some MDF board triangles and screw them down to strengthen the box. This keeps the box perfectly-square and prevents it from skewing as you manouvre it around.


MDF board is cheap to buy at local hardware stores, and to cut the pieces I used a tennon saw.

To ensure they are perfectly square, use the square corners already on the MDF board (if you know that they are perfectly square), or trace from the corner of a piece of printer-paper, a book, or a table.


See picture below.


Use a drill to drive the screws in. A pilot hole can also asisst them going in perfectly straight, for the pilot hole use the smallest drill-bit in your set.


Remember this is an optional step; however, it improves the structural integrity and longevity of the Light Box.


Step Five:

Install the white quilt batting fabric, or paper into the frame behind the plastic PVC sheet or glass sheet See picture below.

This is basically like replacing a picture in the picture-frame with white fabric or white paper, fairly simple procedure, however you don't want to install the back dust-cover

There should be some little metal tabs around the sides of the frame that hold it in



My Frame didn't have the tabs like most frames have, so I improvised by gluing (PVA craft glue) in some canvas pieces and a small screw in each corner to keep them secure.


These small wooden pieces come with most canvases when you buy them from art and craft stores. I always keep them because they come in handy for so many things!


Step Six:

Place the LED light inside the box on the floor, and run the cable under the box through the little semi-circle shape you cut out back in Step Two, and then run that cable over to the powerpoint, plug it in and switch it on. The picture below shows the exact light I bought from Bunnings, I chose it for its' brightness, battery-free operation, LED lights so no heat or fire safety hazard, and the fact that it already comes in its' own housing.





Step Seven:

Place the frame on top of the box, you can glue it down but this is not necessary, placing it down is sufficient for the functional purpose of the light box


Step Eight:

ENJOY using your new LIGHT BOX!


If you found any parts of this process confusing or difficult, please feel free to email me at tamsportraits@outlook.com

I'm always happy to lend any tips and advice!


Much Love

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