Art Lessons with Lianne

Grid Method

One of the most important elements in realism is proportions! If just one line is out, it can throw the entire painting. A good example of this is in my Queen Elizabeth portrait. Although I love how this painting turned out, a line is slightly wrong somewhere on her left eye and it has impacted quite heavily on the likeness. 

Side Note: Don't berate yourself or get frustrated when you make these mistakes. It's all part of the learning journey and is the best way to improve!.

Her Majesty The Queen.jpg

When starting out, an easy way to get the right proportions is to use the grid method. Is it cheating? No, I don’t personally believe so. A grid will help you to draw faster and more accurately, while improving your observation skills along the way… but you still have to come up with the concept yourself. Not to mention making the right decisions with regards to values, colour and stroke. Many famous artists trace photographs or use the grid method to create their drawings.

So how does it work?

The grid method is simple. You place a grid over your reference photo and canvas, then use that grid to assist with the placement of your lines. 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.

Step 1. Place a grid over your reference photo.


You can do this using an App called ‘artist grid tool’ or ‘drawing grid’ these apps will allow you to choose how many lines you want and the opacity of those lines. If you are a technophobe you can physically draw the grid on a printed version of the reference photo. Below is the reference photo which I used to paint 'Shakespear's Study', along with a 4x6 grid over the top placed using artist grid tool. I viewed this from my tablet that is secured next to my easel. (If you're eagle eyed you'll notice I went freehand and switched out the strange object in the bottom left for keys and a pair of dice.)






Step 2. Place a grid with the same dimensions on your canvas.


If you placed a 4x6 grid on your reference photo, then place a 4x6 grid on your canvas. The more lines you choose the more grid squares you will have and the more reference points you will have to work from. An 8x8 grid will result in very accurate proportions, a 3x3 grid will still give you a guideline but allow you to be looser. See below for example 


Little Girl Brazil

Larger Grid squares means more freedom of expression


Daniel Craig Portrait

very small Grid squares means more accuracy but less freedom

I start by measuring the length and width of the canvas and calculating how big my grid squares need to be. I then place a mark where the lines need to go. Make sure you take your time to do this accurately. Even if you are out by just 1cm it can ruin your proportions and create distortion in your painting. Once you’ve marked out the spacing you then need to use a ruler to join them and complete your grid… it will look like this.


Some people like to number their squares for reference A1, B5, F9... I don't personally do this. I use a hard coloured pencil to draw my lines but it doesn’t really matter what you use as long as it doesn’t interfere with your painting. When painting with oils I don’t use pencil any softer than HB as the carbon bleeds into the paint.


Step 3. Draw what you see


Draw the shapes, lines, and values that you see in each square on the photo to the corresponding square on the drawing surface. Try not to think of the subject you are drawing as this will introduce your own bias and you will start judging where you think lines SHOULD be rather than where they actually are... try to just see the shapes within each square. Pay special attention to the positive and negative shapes.


You’ll see many artists online using the grid technique to meticulously copy the reference photo square by square. There’s nothing wrong with this but I feel it takes away from the artists ability to express themselves. I like to use the grid as a guide for the proportions and then allow myself to be more expressive with what is happening outside of those dimensions.


Tip: it really helps your perception of the squares you are working from are the same size as the ones on your canvas. I work from a tablet which means I can zoom in until the square I am working on is the same size as the one on my canvas

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