Everything you need to know on how to make, and use, the grid method for all types of drawing.
My first point, in defence of all those artists who come to me worried... The grid method is not 'cheating'. The grid method is a way of drawing accurately that has been adopted and used for generations of artist's including some of the most important artist's of our history such as Albrecht Dürer, Chuck Close, Vincent Van Gogh and even Leonardo Da Vinci. The grid method is simply a technique and tool that helps an artist get from A to B. You can use it, or choose not to. It's up to you.
The main reasons why you'd use the grid method:
- To transfer a drawing or photograph onto another piece of paper. Perfect if you've sketched something and wish to transfer a clean copy onto appropriate paper or material such as wood which can't be used with a lightbox.
- To enlarge a drawing or photograph onto another piece of paper or surface. Have a design you want to turn into a mural but don't have a projector? Use the grid method. Its free and just as accurate!
- To refine your focus and draw something, either from life or a photo reference accurately. The grid method gives us the structure to draw one small area at a time and can be invaluable in teaching beginner artist's how to draw what they see, both in still life/life drawing/landscape AND photo references.
Here's what you need:
- a printout of your reference (A4 size is the best)
- a ruler
- clear acetate of a clear plastic folder or pocket that covers your reference
- a non transferable pen like a biro or permanent marker (otherwise it will smudge on the plastic or photo)
- a pencil (a hard pencil like a 4H is good but any HB will do)
- your paper/canvas/wall
How does the Grid Method work?
We're going to draw a grid of squares on our reference/clear plastic and then the same number of but larger sized squares on our paper/surface. If that's done correctly we can then draw the contents of the squares from the reference over onto the paper, with a high level of accuracy.
This works because the grid breaks the image down into smaller parts and allows our brain and eyes to only look at and work on a small refined area of the whole picture at one time. This makes it easier for us to see, and therefore draw, accurately.
Once we've drawn in all our squares we can then put them together and they should all line up to form a perfectly copied image. Like a jigsaw puzzle.
Preparing your reference ready for transferring
- Get your reference printed. It should be as high resolution as you can get. If your printer is sloppy, try getting a professional print of it. You won't regret it. I personally prefer an A4 print out as you can see a lot of detail and it's easy enough to print what I need at home. A5 can be too small and I need to get A3 images printed elsewhere. My free chart shows suggested grid measurements for those sizes anyway. Download it HERE. Your image should be cropped ready to transfer, hopefully with a 5mm+ white border.
- Secure your photo reference under your acetate or clear sheet with a paper clip or tape. This clear sheet should not move about otherwise the image will not transfer accurately. You could also draw your grid directly onto your reference however this ruins the image and can possibly cover up some fine detail under the lines which you may need. With acetate you can life that up and also reuse the grid for another reference for another time.
- Decide on a your grids square size. My chart provides some tried and tested grid measurement suggestions but basically the more squares in your grid the easier it is to make an accurate transfer. The less squares, the quicker this stage is. For an A4 size reference due for enlargement (and therefore I want to see as much detail as possible) I would like to use a grid consisting of 1cm squares. But I could also use as little as 3cm squares or even just quarter my reference for a very quick grid if I was just transferring an A4 image onto an A4 page. Experiment to see which you prefer.
- Start measuring out your vertical grid lines. Decide where you'd like your drawing's edge to begin and put a mark in the very top let corner to begin delineating this. You won't be transferring anything that appears outside the grid. From this first point you now measure 1cm (or whatever size your squares are) horizontally across the very top of your drawing's border and then make a second mark. This is the beginnings of your first square. Now measure across another square, leave a mark, then the next, then the next until you reach the right hand side of your paper. Make sure you carefully measure each square. If you do not the grid could warp. You will probably not get a perfect number of squares across your page. If you're left with half a square, ignore it. Take your boundary from the last whole square. This may mean your reference is slightly cropped.
- Scoot down to the bottom of your page and now make a mark where the very bottom left point of your drawing is going to start. This point should be perfectly parallel to your first point and together they form the left boundary of your grid. As before, measure and draw your points horizontally, now starting from the bottom far left to the bottom far right.
- Draw your lines. Using a non transferable pen in a very fine point (ballpoint pens are good) connect your vertical lines. Your reference should now have a number of vertical lines perfectly parallel to each other. If any are leaning or wonky CORRECT THEM NOW by checking your measurements. Accuracy is imperative!
- Next we'll mark the horizontal lines along the vertical edge. Starting from the top left mark (the very first mark we made), now measure downwards along the outer vertical and edge of your reference and mark your horizontal points down the left side. If you used 1cm measurements, this would mean of course you would use 1cm measurements again, to form your squares.
- Now mark the right hand border. Once you reach the bottom left corner of the left hand side, move over to the top right and find your top right boundary edge point. Then measure down your right hand vertical points from that corner to the very bottom right hand side.
- Now connect your horizontal lines. Each square should be completely square. If you find squares are wonky or leaning or rectangular- check your measurements and try again.
- You may also wish to draw in the boundary edge to give some clarity.
Digital grids are also possible. Simply measure out your lines in your digital software instead and keep your reference on the screen with the grid layered over the top.
Preparing your artwork's paper or surface ready for transferring
You can choose whether to duplicate, enlarge or even shrink your reference using the grid method next but for the purposes of this tutorial I am going to enlarge an A4 reference onto an A3 piece of paper. Once again, check out my chart which gives a number of suggested conversions for you because I know from experience how tricky it is to figure out how many squares you need to draw. As a basic guide though:
- If you want to duplicate your reference you onto a same sized paper you simply draw the exact same grid onto your paper or canvas.
- To shrink a reference, you would keep the same number of squares for your artwork but reduce the size of your squares. for instance, a reference with 10 x 15 squares at 2cm each could be reduced to an artwork of 10 x 15 squares at 1cm each.
- To enlarge, you enlarge our squares. Once again, you would need to keep the same number of squares, but just increase their size.
- Transferring images to walls and larger surfaces is possible by sticking to the rules above. A wall could have squares as big as 5-10cm! Use a plumbob (a weight tied to some string) to measure your lines.
- Take your surface and have a play with what size you'd need to enlarge your squares by to get your reference to fit sensibly. I'm using 2.5cm squares for my A4 reference to A3 drawing. I try to keep my conversions simple whole measurements like 1" or 3cm so that they're easy to measure out. Always test your measurements before committing.
- Next grab a very light pencil 4H is good, something that's not going to leave much of a mark.
- Then once again like with the reference mark the top left start point and start measuring across the top horizontal boundary your new enlarged squares.
- Go to the bottom, mark those out and now join your vertical lines. (Avoid pressing hard as this will all need to be erased during the drawing process).
- Return to the top left mark and again mark out your horizontal points along the left side, then the right, and the join your last lines
- You should now have an enlarged version of your grid on the new surface.
How to transfer your reference into a drawing
Now the fun part! You can start drawing.
Either start at the top left square and move across filling in the details as you go or grab a pencil and number each of your squares along the horizontal and then letter each square along the vertical to create grid references. You can now pick a square, count the grid reference and find the same square on your page. A great game I've seen is to label and then cut up a reference into its squares and then draw each square randomly. It doesn't really matter where you start with it as the grids keep you on track.
You simply draw the exact contents of the square using the grid lines to figure out where edges and lines start and finish. If a point leaves your grid in the top left corner of your grid square, that's where your line will leave the square on your drawings grid. If a square is completely black on your reference, the corresponding square on your drawing is equally as black.
Over time a brutally stark sketch can start to take on depth and form as you apply other traditional art making skills. For my portrait I used graphite but this technique can work with every kind of 2D media including oil painting, acrylic, watercolour and colour pencil.
After a while the lines vanish almost entirely allowing the artist to continue their artwork as if the grid was never there in the first place! Any remaining grids can be erased if desired.