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Drawing with a grid

Scaling your drawing: The grid method

Artists might work from imagination or from reference pictures, sometimes mixing a bit of both. When working from a reference picture, you might need to scale your drawing so it fits on your canvas and you have a few options to do that:

  • You can use a projector
  • You can print a full size version of your picture and trace your drawing on the canvas with carbon paper
  • If working on paper, you can use a lightbox (Click here to see how you can build your own lightbox)
  • You can use the grid method
  • You can draw free hand

I tried all of these methods and the one that I like the best is the grid method : It is easier than a free hand drawing because I get some guidelines, and it feels more personal than tracing or using a projector.

drawing the grid with a ruler

How to scale your drawing and transfer it to your canvas: The grid method.

The first thing to do is to print your reference picture on paper, making sure that it has the same ratio width/length as your canvas. You don’t want to draw the grid on beautiful photo paper. Sometimes I will print a black and white version of my picture for the grid so I can focus only on the drawing and not be distracted by colors. Some software like Paint Shop Pro or Photoshop will allow you to print the picture with the grid already on it, you can modify the grid properties for each picture.

For landscapes with trees I will use fewer squares, precision is not that important

For landscapes with trees I will use fewer squares, precision is not that important.

You could also draw a grid on a piece of acetate and fix it with tape on top of your original picture.

You then need to choose the number of squares you want on the width and length of your reference picture and canvas. You don’t want too many squares as you will end up counting them and it might be confusing, but you want enough squares so you can precisely transfer your drawing.

Of course your reference picture and your canvas will need to have the same proportions and the same number of squares.

When drawing, pay attention to the areas when lines are crossing.

When drawing, pay attention to the areas when lines are crossing.

For drawings that don’t need lost of precision like landscapes with trees, I will use fewer squares than for a portrait drawing for example, it won’t really matter if a tree is a tiny bit more on the left, it will still look like my reference picture. If you have a large number of small squares, you can add numbers and letters on the sides.

I am usually drawing the grid on the canvas with a very light graphite line, so it will be easy to remove and on the reference picture with either graphite or marker so I can see it better.

You can remove graphite marks on canvas with soap and a stiff brush

You can remove graphite marks on canvas with soap and a stiff brush, with mineral spirits and a soft cloth or with a kneaded eraser.

Mr Clean magic eraser to remove graphite on canvas

You can also try Mr Clean magic eraser for stubborn marks. Mary Radtke gave me that trick on Facebook and it works like a charm:) Thanks Mary!

It is also safe for the canvas as there is no chemical in Mr Clean Magic Eraser, The main ingredient is melamine foam and the texture of the foam gives the eraser its properties.

Once your grids are drawn on the reference picture and the canvas, start to transfer your drawing, paying extra attention to the areas were your grid and the lines of your picture are crossing, Are the lines meeting halfway through the square, at 1/3, 1/4?  Look at positive and negative spaces.

you can transfer your drawings on canvas with the grid method

Imagined Reality, acrylic on canvas.

A grid is very useful when transferring complex drawings like this fish painting I worked on recently.

Using a grid method to draw patterns.

You can also use a grid to draw patterns on your paintings. I am very interested in my work in mixing drawn and painted parts in the same painting. Some of the patterns I am drawing are very geometrical and in that case I will often work from a grid.

When I want a precise look, I will draw the grid with a ruler, when I want a more organic look, I will hand draw the grid.

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Speedball Sketching Project Set

This calligraphy pen and nib set gives you the tools needed to create beautiful works of art. Ideal for drawing, crosshatching, lithography, and fine details. Includes two plastic pen holders and six nibs.

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

What is your favorite way of transferring or scaling your reference picture onto your canvas?