Drawing and Copying Pictures Using a Grid

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Choosing a Picture and Grid Size

too-big and too-small grids
these grids are too large and too small for the image.

Using a grid is a popular way to ensure that your proportions and layout in a drawing are correct. It's particularly useful when accuracy is important. There are a few things to think about when preparing a grid drawing so that you can get the best results without making extra work for yourself.

When selecting a picture to copy, make sure it is large and clear. You might wish to photocopy or do a computer printout rather than drawing directly on a photograph. You need an image with clear lines and edges - a blurry image makes it difficult to find a line to follow.

Decide on your grid size. If the grid is too large, you'll have to do too much drawing in between each square. If the grid is too small, you'll find it difficult to erase, and it can get very confusing. There is no definite rule, as the size of your picture and the subject can be so varied - but something from one inch to half an inch will be about right. You don't have to divide your photo up mathematically - if the last squares are only half filled, that's fine.

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Drawing Your Grids

a gridded picture ready to draw
a gridded picture ready to draw.

Obviously, you won't want to work on your original photograph. You can photocopy or scan and print your picture. If using a computer, you can use your photo or paint program to add your grid before printing. Most programs will have a 'grids and rulers' option you can use as a guide. If you only have an original photograph and no access to a scanner, you can also use a sheet of plastic - clear photocopy sheets are the best, or a clear sleeve from a display book; even a sheet of glass or perspex from an old picture frame - and draw your lines on that instead of your photo.

Copy the grid onto your drawing paper, using a sharp, B pencil (medium hardness) and a light touch, so that you can erase it easily. Although you can use this process to scale a drawing up or down, it's much easier to get good results if you use the same sized grid.

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A Few Squares at a Time

a grid drawing in progress
grid drawing in progress.

When copying the picture, use spare sheets of paper to cover some of the image so you can focus on a few squares at a time. This is especially useful for large pictures which can become confusing. Place your drawing and the original picture close together, so you can look directly from one to the other.

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Following Shapes and Using Negative Space

the grid lines act as reference points
the grid lines act as reference points to help you draw your line in the right place.

Look for clear edges in your picture. With this example, you can clearly see the outline of the jug against the background. Notice where the shape crosses the gridline - this is the reference-point that you can use. Don't try to measure where it is on the grid, but rather judge its position (halfway up? one-third?) and find the same spot on your drawing grid. Follow the shape, looking for where the line next meets the grid.

The area shaded gray shows a NEGATIVE SPACE formed between the object and the grid. Observing these shapes can help you follow the shape of the line. Notice how the gray space looks fairly triangular, with a couple of chunks taken out - that makes it easy to copy.

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The Finished Grid Drawing

a completed grid drawing
a completed grid drawing, showing the main details of the picture.

The completed grid drawing will include all the major lines of the object - outline, important details, and clear shadow shapes. If you want to indicate the position of subtle details, such as a highlight, use a light dotted line. Now you can carefully erase your grid, patching up any erased parts of your drawing as you go - if you've drawn it lightly enough, this shouldn't be difficult. The grid in this example is much darker than I'd actually draw in practice. Then you can complete it as a line drawing, or add shading. If you need a very clean surface, you might want to trace your completed sketch onto a fresh sheet of paper.

This technique is useful for transferring a drawing to large sheets for pastel drawing or to canvas for painting. When enlarging a drawing, you need to be particularly careful of distortion; lack of detail in the original can be a problem.