Grid Drawing Methods

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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.

Vincent Van Gogh sketched here his plan for using his own grid drawing, in this letter to his brother Theo dated 5th August 1882.

- On this page:

- when grids are useful

- what is "aspect ratio"

- how to use grids of squares to transfer an image a format that is exactly the same size and aspect ratio

- how to use grids of squares to transfer to a different size but the same aspect ratio

- how to use European grids to easily grid up, down, sideways, and accomodate aspect ratio changes

- how to use grids to draw from life

What is Grid Drawing Good For?

You will find a lot of websites and books that will tell you how to use grids to copy a favorite photo or photocopied image onto a piece of paper or canvas that is exactly the same size.  In fact, that’s pretty easy to do, and in this regard it is almost just as easy and perhaps even faster, if the situation permits, to simply trace the outlines of what you want to get a quick copy.  But we are going to go further than that here.

For starters, there are cases where grid drawing accomplishes things that simple tracing cannot.  I discovered this at age eighteen when my then-new college roommate Kris aspired to our copying Calder’s brilliant painting of a sea horse on our bathroom wall (unfortunately, for copyright reasons I can't show you his wonderful work here!).  Kris did it by “gridding up”, or blowing it up in the same proportions; just as, if we had needed to, we could have copied the mural onto a postcard by “gridding down” (by the way, she and I still laugh today about how she wouldn’t trust me to paint the all-important edges in our project!). So grids make things bigger and smaller.

Then, a couple of decades later, as part of my decorative painting training here in France, I learned something else that you can do:  grid drawing transfers an image from one format in one set of proportions, to another format in different set of proportions.  For example, if you want to paint an image originally in a narrow space onto a wall that is a wide space - well, you can see the results below.  There will be some distortion, depending on how different the proportions will be (this is when we get into the subject of "aspect ratio"), but sometimes that’s what the client wants, right? 

In my trompe l'oeil painting (left) I used the vertical "portrait" format, ideal for the dining room panel it was intended for; but if I want to make it a horizontal "landscape" format (below) for a rectangular living room panel, there will be distortions - and just like my client, you have to decide whether or not you can live with them or if you just change the image.

Last, grid drawing is great for drawing (and painting) from life and sharpening your ability to see like an artist.  Nobody appreciated this more than Vincent Van Gogh, who wrote eagerly to his brother Theo when he discovered this, telling him all about the heavy wood-and-iron drawing grid he had made up to lug around with him in the field.  There are a couple of little tricks for making this work for you, which I’ll tell you about as well.

So let’s begin!

First Off:  What's Aspect Ratio?

Aspect ratio is, very simply, the ratio for a given proportional relationship between height and width.  This is familiar to us when looking at different film formats (see left) or computer or television screen sizes, such as the 4:3 or the 16:9 screen.  Mind, it is not the same thing as the dimensions or the size. You can have big or small 4:3 screens, you can have 4:3 screens that measure 40x30cm or ones that measure 120x90m.

Aspect ratio is expressed as X:Y ("x to y") while dimensions are expressed XxY ("x times y").  Therefore, a square's aspect ratio is always 1:1, while there are an infinity of different dimensions that are all squares:  you can have a square that is 2 x 2 inches, or 3 x 3 centimetres, or 895 x 895 see?  You still with me?

In the picture to the left, you'll see a number of different aspect ratios that you come across commonly every time you watch a film or video.

The notion of "aspect ratio" will come in handy in understanding the different things a drawing grid can do for you.  OK, now that definition is clear, let's move on.

1. Grid Drawing Copying with Squares
Size: Same
Aspect Ratio: Same

a) You start off with the image you want to copy, be it big or small.  You are going to trace a grid pattern over it, so if it is a valuable family photo, for example, you will want to do one of several things to make sure you don't ruin it:

- put it under a sheet of plexiglass or glass and draw your grid on the sheet, not the photo

- wrap it in plastic wrap and do your grid drawing on the plastic wrap

- slip it in a freezer bag (they come in various sizes) after you cut the zipper lock off and draw your grid on the bag

- if you must do your grid drawing directly on the image, do it very lightly, in pencil, so you can delicately erase after; unlike some recommendations out there, I don't suggest using an architect's pencil, which will engrave the lines too deeply on your precious image.

b) Next step.  Using a ruler, you are going to mark off dots at regular intervals along each side of the image (or on the surface protecting it).  You may have a ruler in inches and want to have your dots an inch apart.  Here in France I have mine in centimetres, so I decided to make my dots 2cm apart.  Then making sure you keep your ruler perpendicular to the edge of your paper, you rule the lines to create the grid.  Note that I'm doing everything in ink rather than pencil, so you can see what I'm up to.

c) Now you take the paper or whatever the surface is you want to transfer the image to, and you mark an identical row of dots, horizontally and vertically. And you connect them up to create a grid drawing with exactly as many boxes, of the same size as on your original image. 

e) Set the drawings side by side - it will make it easier for you to see what you're doing.

f) When you first start working with grids you will find it easier if you make what the French call a "cache". Make a photocopy of your blank grid, and with a pair of scissors, cut out one square.  You can then lay your "cache" on top of the original drawing to isolate just one square at a time. Here I have isolated the square of the extreme lower left of my gridded drawing by laying my "cache" over it.

g) This means I have broken the daunting task of copying the drawing down into that of just copying one simple square - the one in the lower left.

g) So now, copy exactly what you see in the box, in the corresponding box in the new grid drawing.  Here I have simply laid pieces of paper to isolate the one I'm copying in the lower left.  The top of the upside-down triangle starts halfway across the top of the square, so I'll angle it down from the same place in the new box.

g) And by continuing the same way, simply carefully copying box by box, I'll finish by completing a copy of the first grid drawing.  I've done mine in ink, but if you have done yours with light pencil, you should be able to carefully erase the lines of your grid from your final grid drawing.  Voilà!

2. Grid Drawing Enlarging with Squares
Size: Different
Aspect Ratio: Same

a) We start again with the same drawing.  This time, though, we want to make it bigger.  Let's say twice as big.

b) In the same manner we are going to draw a grid on the image we want to copy, or on whatever is protecting it, here marking out lines and creating boxes 2cm square.

c) However, this time when we mark out the dots to make our grid that we will be copying the image into, we're going to put 4cm instead of 2cm between the dots.  Therefore, I will have boxes twice as big as in the original.

d) I work exactly the same way, covering up the rest of the grid to concentrate on one square at a time, copying the small box into the corresponding large box.

e) When I finish I'll have a grid drawing that's identical, but this time exactly twice as big as the original.

If I want my image to be smaller than the original, I need only make the squares in the second grid smaller - instead of an inch, half an inch wide; instead of two centimeters, only one centimeter wide.

3. Grid Drawing the Van Gogh Way
Size: Different
Aspect Ratio: Different

Now for fun, I'm going to teach you about a different way of doing grids, that corresponds more to what Vincent Van Gogh had in his drawing grid illustrated at the top of this page.

Most drawing manuals and websites out there talk about the square-by-square method we just have covered.  I learned a different method first from the tempestuous old Spanish master artist who taught me decorative painting technique; it takes a little while to get the hang of it - dealing with triangles and rectangles at the same time instead of just simple squares can get confusing - but it can be useful on detail.  I subsequently found this is the method used by many master artists, at least in France.

a) You start with your original image, protecting it if you need to.

b) You draw two diagonals from corner to corner of your image.  If your image is not a perfect square or rectangle, or even if it is a shape like a circle, draw a square or rectangle around it to make your diagonals.

c) Now you draw vertical and horizontal lines dividing the image in quarters, so that everything intersects in the middle.  Are you starting to see the resemblance to Vincent Van Gogh's grid, of which you get a glimpse in his sketch at the top of this page?

d) Do the same thing to create your second grid that you will transfer into.  Here I have decided I want a new aspect ratio, with my final drawing to be a little wider and not quite as high, to fit it neatly into the place I have in mind for it in a book.

e) You may already have segmented enough to be able to get to work copying the drawing.  This time, if you want to use a "cache", you will make it triangular. But I see that part of the drawing I am copying has more detail than in other parts.  I'd like to develop the segmenting so I can really get those details accurate.

f) So I do the same routine in that smaller rectangle in just that part of the drawing - diagonals, vertical, horizontal - to create 8 new smaller triangles within that rectangle, along with 4 new smaller rectangles.  It will be easier to get my details accurate in the copy, because I will be dealing with smaller pieces of the drawing.  If I want even more detail, I just choose one of the smaller rectangles and do it yet again.

g) And here is my drawing in a slightly different aspect ratio. 

Nevertheless, the further you push the aspect ratio difference, the futher the distortion goes, such as when you are trying to make a "portrait" format go "landscape" or vice versa.  In that case, you have to crop off part of the original image to get it closer to the aspect ratio of the final format you want, to limit the distortion.

There is nevertheless a use for distortion taken this far:  the interesting world of anamorphosis drawing!

4. Grid Drawing Copying with Diagonals
Size: Different
Aspect Ratio: Same

a) With this next method, you are trying to enlarge or reduce an image while keeping the same aspect ratio. 

Position your image in the upper left corner of the paper you are copying onto, with the image's diagonal aligned with the paper's diagonal, as in the picture to the left.

b) Your job is to draw that diagonal from one corner to the other of your paper... such a manner that it would also cut across the diagonal of the image.  Mark where you want your copy to extend to on the paper.

c) Now drop a vertical down from where you marked the paper at the size you want.  Where it intersects the diagonal, draw a horizontal.

d) Divide your new rectangle up into the same number of squares as in the original, and you're good to go.

5. Grid Drawing From Life

We're looking at the drawing of Alberti's drawing grid again (right) so that we can talk about using drawing grids to draw from life.

Whether the grid is a design of squares as in Alberti's version, or whether in the design of rectangles and triangles as in Van Gogh's version at the top of this page, we are still talking about the same process described on this page.

The one thing that is different is that the position of your eye will matter.


That's because we have binocular vision - two eyeballs working together, in other words.  If you want to see what I mean, then hold up your finger and close an eye to look at it.  Now close that eye and look from the other one.  See how it jumps from one side to the other?  That is just what we don't want to happen when you are trying to capture something on paper by looking through a drawing grid.

Hence the importance of that little thing the big red arrow is pointing at:  the viewfinder.  You need to ensure that when you look through the grid that your head and especially your eye is always in the same position - otherwise, your drawing will go pear-shaped, literally.

The old masters used a little pointy thing as in Durer's illustration below that we already saw in the introduction to this subject.  Aside from the risk to your eye, there is a little trick that I use that avoids this problem.

When you are ready to draw your subject, sight it through your grid.

As you do so, find some convenient place where a grid intersection falls on an easy-to-recognize and very precise point on the subject.  Every time you look at your subject through the grid, you're going to always close the same eye, and re-align that same intersection and same point on your subject.

Now you go to work, just as you did on paper, except this will be Real Life.  What you see in the square in front of you, you copy into the square on your paper or canvas.

You will find that Vincent van Gogh was right - compared to getting it right by sight, especially when your eye is not used to sighting, you will get the outlines down "like lightning"!

Go from "Grid Drawing Methods" to "The Vincent Van Gogh Drawing Grid"

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