Drawing Grids

- Alberti's idea of using windows to draw

- what's a picture plane?

- Albrecht Dürer and his "draughtsman's net"

- Alberti's idea of using windows to draw

- what's a picture plane?

- Albrecht Dürer and his "draughtsman's net"

A plate from Jean Dubreuil's 17the century manual, "Practical Perspective Necessary to All Painters"; here, an "artist's glass" is in use


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These are not just little tips and techniques, but a full course of learning how to see, think, and draw like an artist.

Grids make people uneasy.  The student, the seasoned artist too, most often looks over her shoulder before starting to stealthily draw the lines on their canvas for a grid.  Why?  Because it makes it so much faster and easier to draw an image properly that it feels like, well, cheating.

Allow me to set your mind at rest. There is absolutely no doubt that artists of a stature like da Vinci, Dürer, Vermeer and van Gogh employed drawing grids for their drawings and paintings, and if they could do it, well we can too, especially when you first start to learn how to draw. The important thing is to keep drawing grids in their place; they should be a tool, not a crutch. Don't forget to practice drawing without these tools, to develop your eyes' accuracy.

Let's take a brief look at where the idea of using drawing grids began; it is useful for understanding how they work.

A Room with a View

In the early 15th century the Florentine artist Bruneschelli conducted a famous experiment that demonstrated fundamental rules of perspective drawing; it wasn’t long before Renaissance artists in Florence and Italy at large were using perspective to striking effect in their paintings.   

Then, about twenty years later, artist and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti wrote the first modern treatise on painting, “On Painting”.  He took the position that it was the artist’s job to make his picture represent that world as if the person looking at his painting were in a room and looking out a window.

He described a simple method:  creating drawing grids across an actual window so the artist could copy the scene framed in the window to a canvas gridded in just the same way.

Alberti's drawing grid, or "veil".

For practical reasons it is most likely that it was for demonstration purposes only, but the concept is an important one for us:  the window corresponds to what is called the “picture plane”.

Let’s look at it another way.  In the Renaissance artists liked to describe how perspective works by using the metaphor of the archer and the arrow.  Just as an archer closes one eye and looks down the length of his arrow to aim at a determined target, the artist should imagine a line from his eye to the picture’s vanishing point.

Alberti imagined this visual ray and others as the artist looked up and down, which formed a cone of lines radiating from the artist’s eye.  The picture plane, as shown below in my drawing, is like a pane of glass intercepting these rays.

Want to test it?  All you have to do is go to a real window and look at a tree or building through the glass.  Shut one eye, and with your finger, you can easily outline the shape on the glass.  In so doing, you are drawing on Alberti’s picture plane.  But how easy would it be for you to copy that shape, in the right proportions, on a separate piece of paper?  And what if you wanted to make your drawing bigger or smaller than that window’s size?

True Grid

This is where drawing grids come in. 

Renaissance artists developed perspective drawing into a very sophisticated, mathematical art.  But by the early 16th century the best way of reproducing a scale image still remained that of tracing the outlines on a sheet of glass, as Alberti and da Vinci as well had written of: the “artist’s glass”, of which an example is shown at the top of this page.

Illustration from Dürer's "Treatise of Measurement" showing the method of producing a scale image by marking the outlines of the object on a sheet of glass - in other words, the "picture plane".

In 1506 the German artist Albrecht Dürer immersed himself in Italian Renaissance art theory and after traveling to Italy, wrote an extremely influential “Treatise of Measurement” that included some now-famous illustrations of perspective devices.

In this famous illustration we see Dürer's drawing grid, also known as "the draughtsman's net".

The gadget that interests us most is Dürer’s “draughtsman’s net”, based on da Vinci’s similar device, itself based on Alberti’s grid (also sometimes called “Alberti’s veil).  It consisted of a square wooden frame with a net of black threads forming a grid.  The artist’s viewpoint was fixed by use of an eyepiece set at a distance twice the height of the grid.  Then the artist looks through the frame and copies the outlines of what he sees onto a piece of paper with a similar grid marked on it. 

What This Means For You

Today, grids are still very much in use.  In France even today, while rare, it is still possible to find a pocket grid called an “oeil de vieux” (an “old man’s eye”) that landscapers can use to sketch out their ideas.

If you want to copy an image, gridding up the original and transferring it to your gridded paper or canvas will be faster, easier and just plain more accurate.  No, it’s not cheating!  If guys like Michelangelo and Raphael can do it, then it's ok for us to do it! 

You may want to take a look at my translation of Alberti's thoughts on the usefulness of grids.  It is also interesting to read what Van Gogh had to say about them.

Want to give it a try?  Take a look at the page on the various grid drawing methods, including a discussion of the problem of aspect ratio - in other words, keeping things from getting distorted as you make your picture bigger or smaller than the original.

Think you might like to buy a grid?  I have several available in my Art Store for purchase: the "Vincent Van Gogh" grid, the "Dürer" grid, and the French "oeil de vieux" ("old man's eye") pocket grid.

Go from "Drawing Grids" to "Grid Drawing Methods".

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