Grid drawing is a technique that will help improve your accuracy without compromising the development of your freehand drawing in the long-term. It basically involves placing a grid over your reference photo and canvas, then using that grid to assist with the placement of your drawing.
The grid provides you with common reference points between the photo and your canvas. It also allows you to break the reference down into smaller and more manageable segments.
In this post, I walk you through the grid drawing process using a painting I recently completed named New Zealand Reflections as an example.
Grid Drawing Process
Step 1. Place a grid over your reference photo.
You can do this using editing software like Photoshop, or you can physically draw the grid on a printed version of the reference photo. I like to use a three-by-three grid, as I find it provides enough guidance without being overly tedious.
(Update: I created a simple tool that will apply a grid and grayscale to your reference photo. No confusing software required. Try it here.)
Below is the reference photo which I used to paint New Zealand Reflections, along with a grid over the top placed using Photoshop. I viewed this from my tablet that is secured next to my easel.
Step 2. Place a grid with the same dimensions on your canvas.
If you placed a three-by-three grid on your reference photo, then place a three-by-three grid on your canvas.
I start by measuring the length and width of the canvas and calculating where each line of the grid will need to go (if you are placing a three-by-three grid, then divide the length and width by three to get your key measurements).
I then place a mark where the lines need to go. Make sure they are evenly spaced across the sides.
Finally, once all the marks are in place, I complete the lines using a ruler or anything with a long, straight edge. You might need another person to help with this if you are painting on a large canvas (one person to hold the ruler in place and another to draw the lines).
I use a charcoal pencil to draw the grid, but the medium does not matter as long as it does not interfere with your finished artwork.
Tip: Make sure the grid is accurate! Your entire artwork will be based on the grid. If it is wrong, your drawing will be wrong. The dimensions of the canvas also need to be roughly the same as the dimensions of the reference photo for this to work properly.
Below is the grid on my canvas at the start of the painting (the lines are hard to see because the canvas is stained with raw umber):
Step 3. Use the grid to help with the placement of your drawing.
The grid on your canvas will correspond to the grid on the reference photo. That means you can use the grid to judge the relative distance and position of your subject.
For example, if you can see the horizon line is just above one of the grid lines in the reference photo, then you will know where to place the horizon line in your painting (it would go just above the corresponding grid line on the canvas).
The beauty of this technique is that, as you start to build out the drawing, you will have more reference points to judge and measure from. So if you draw the horizon line in your painting, then you will be able to use that horizon line to help position other elements of the drawing.
Start by placing in the most critical aspects of the drawing, such as the horizon line, major edges, shapes, and lines. Then add more detail as needed.
Tip: Many artists tend to use the grid drawing technique to meticulously copy the reference photo segment by segment. I do not like to take this approach—I think it takes the fun out of painting. I prefer to use the grid to merely assist with the initial drawing.
In New Zealand Reflections, I started with the horizon line, the edges of the water, the mountains in the distance, and the major trees.
Below are some of my observations to give you an idea of how I used the grid:
- The most distant part of the water is just above the half-way point in the painting. The grid helps me narrow down on this half-way point.
- The distant mountain starts in the top right-hand corner, then takes a bumpy ride down. I look for points where the top of the mountain cross the lines of the grid.
- The large rock in the foreground is positioned around the bottom left-hand intersection. I can use the grid to help determine the general size of the rock by taking note of how far into each segment the rock goes.
- The mist is most prominent around the left-hand side of the middle segment, just below the waterline.
With the initial drawing complete, I start painting in the general color shapes and establishing the foundation of the painting. I paint over the drawing and the grid eventually, so their usefulness is limited to the early stages of the painting.
Here is the finished painting for those interested:
Here are some of the key takeaways from this post:
- Grid drawing allows you to improve your accuracy without compromising your freehand drawing in the long-term.
- The idea is that the grid provides common reference points between the reference photo and your canvas. You can use this to judge the relative position of your subject.
- Start by drawing in the most critical reference points, then add more detail to the drawing as needed.
- Some artists like to use the grid drawing technique to meticulously copy the reference photo segment by segment. But I prefer to take a more general approach—I use it to help with the initial drawing but that is about it.
(If you want to learn more about color mixing and painting in general, I invite you to join my free email course, 7 Days to Better Paintings).