The Grid Method for Artists

Grid to help paint Amy Winehouse portrait

The first thing I’d like to say is that there is a fair bit to be said for not using the grid method, and increasingly I'd advise students to try not rely on the grid, which for me for many years became something of a crutch. It's like going to the gym to keep in shape, if you stop doing it, even for a short time, you'll soon find those weights that were a breeze to lift a few months ago seem tethered to the ground and immovable. Similarly, if you're not always exercising your hand, eye and mind in drawing, you won't progress, and might even start losing the skills you once had. I should say it's not just all about lots of practice, which of course is crucial, but deliberate practice combined with learning tried and tested drawing techniques, which for my own interest and practice I've been studying, and now I'm actually starting to teach. Thus do bear that in mind. With all that said sometimes the grid method can be very handy, and even master painters from the past used it. I think the norm for them was to create lots of drawing studies, and sometimes even a mock up, or cartoon, of a composition on paper first, and then when they'd used all their hard-won skills and creativity to achieve this, they might use the grid method, or other transfer technique, to make sure everything was placed as it should be on their epic canvas; And to do this without having to struggle to draw everything from scratch all over again, which wouldn't see quite fair or efficient. 

So with all that said, what exactly is The Grid Method? Well in a nutshell it involves drawing a grid over your reference photo, and then drawing a grid of equal ratio on your canvas. Then it’s simply a matter of carefully looking to see where the lines and contours of your reference photo intersect the squares of the photo grid, and then endeavouring to draw these on your canvas grid in the corresponding squares. If this concept still feels a bit fuzzy after reading this, then no harm to pop over onto YouTube and search Grid Method for artists, or drawing or painting, and watch a few minutes of the videos that come up.

As for the practical steps, there are two ways I’d recommend you go about preparing your photo with a grid. The first would be to use a digital image on your tablet or phone, and then download an app to help overlay a grid on your image. There are lots out but I recently found one called “Artgrid by Jackson's" that is pretty easy and intuitive to use. Another I've used is "Copy It” which has some nice features but isn't the most user friendly to begin with. After you get the grid onto your image you can either export the image and print it, or work directly from your tablet. I wouldn't try work from a phone as I think it's too small, but then again maybe my eyes are not what the used to be. There are lots of other apps for gridding up as well, so feel free to find one that works for you. If you are more used to a desktop computer though, you could look at using photoshop or some of photo editing software to overlay a grid.

The next option is to print out your photo and then tape this down to some cardboard slightly larger than the photo. And then overlay a transparent acetate plastic sheet down over the photo and again secure this with tape so it can’t move. Then you can simply draw the grid on the plastic sheet with a marker, which can later be removed when the drawing stage of the painting process is complete.

Before you do either of these however, it’s worth mentioning the importance of matching up the ratio or your photo reference with the ratio of your canvas. This can get a little complicated, but to avoid this I’ve provided a recommended list of photo sizes matched to canvases sizes which should make things easy for you.

If you follow these recommended sizes then it’s as simple as marking off one inch intervals on the plastic sheet over your photo, and two inch intervals on your canvas. And then joining the lines up with a marker for the plastic sheet and preferably a light coloured pencil for the canvas, and you’re ready to go.

PS. A little update as of 7th May, 2024 that might just be of interesting to you. In the last few days I've just begun a new little project involving a new Blog and sister Newsletter for artists and art students with lots of free info. Really all about me sharing what I've learned from other artists, books, videos etc in an email newsletter. More info below if you fancy thinking about signing up! 

Calling this project the The Art Nerdy Journey at least for now, and really looking to see if I can build this into something so appreciate any interesting you might have. Links below!

The Art Nerdy Journey - Blog

Art Nerdy Journey - Newsletter