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How to Grid a Reference Image and Draw From It

July 12, 2009

I’ll be the first to admit it: gridding is tedious. It’s boring. It’s the last thing you want to do when you have a great idea for your next drawing. But it’s also one of the most important steps and the best way to get a good, accurate line drawing. The time spent gridding your reference is very much worth it. In fact, if you aren’t currently using the grid for your drawings, I suggest you try it. You will see an immediate improvement in the accuracy of your work!

The great thing about the grid is that it allows you to draw anything! You can apply this technique to any type of image, a car, a face, or a flower. The grid breaks a complicated image into small, manageable chunks. By drawing what you see in each individual square, and using the edges of the square to gauge distances, you get a more proportionate representation.

Some might argue that using a grid is somehow “cheating” and that a true artist shouldn’t need one, however the grid technique has been around for a good long time and many of the great master painters used it. Gridding is a tool used for drawing accurately from an image. It can help teach people to see things they would otherwise miss, but there is also great value in drawing from life. Using both of these techniques will be advantageous to your artwork.

Gridding by Hand

The first method of gridding you can do is by hand. This is the easiest and most accessible: all you need is a fine-tipped pen and a ruler. If you’re working from a copy, simply draw the grid right on top of the image. If you are working from an original, you will need to get some kind of acetate or other clear sheet to grid.

There is some math involved… It all depends on the size of your reference and the size that your drawing will be. Grid your paper into one inch squares. Now take the length of your reference drawing and divide it by the number of squares across the length of your paper. This is the size of the grid squares in your reference. For example, let’s say the length of your drawing will be 10 inches, and the length of your reference is 4 inches.

4 divided by 10=0.4

Now you mark the grid lines on your reference at 0.4 inches, and that should give you ten squares across the top. The tricky part is when your reference isn’t proportionate to your drawing. If your drawing is 8″x10″ and your reference is 4″x6,” you will need to trim some off the edges of your reference. An easy way to do this is to take the dimensions of your drawing and keep dividing them until the measurements will fit inside the reference.

8×10 divided by 2 = 4×5

This tells you that you need to trim an inch off the length of your reference to make it proportionate to your page. What you need to remember is that the squares in your grid should be perfectly square, and that there should be the same number of squares in the reference as in the drawing. If not, you’ve done something wrong!

Making your Grid Digitally

I find this to be a much easier and quicker way to grid, but of course it only works if you have access to a computer, the right software, and possibly a scanner if your image isn’t digital already.

You need some kind of software that allows you to have rulers that show inches. I use Corel Draw. Once you know the dimensions you need your reference to be, drag a guide lines from the rulers to create a box that size. Position your image inside of that box and re-size it as needed. I like this way better because it’s easier to move your grid around to find the best composition in the cases where part of the reference needs to be cropped.

Once you have your image positioned inside the correct sized box, use a line drawing tool to draw in the grid lines. At this point my reference is usually in gray-scale, so I use a mid-tone gray line that will stand out against the lights and the darks. Make sure the lines you use are quite fine. Remember that a wide line will cover up portions of the image that could be important. When you draw your picture on a bigger scale, the missing portions get bigger too.

Print your image and you’re ready to go!

Drawing from the Grid

Once your drawing paper and your reference is gridded, you can start the actual drawing! You can do this by drawing one square at a time, making sure things line up at the edges. You can also do this by drawing the major shapes, but doing it slowly, making sure that your lines pass through the grid at the right points. If I’m drawing the an eyelid, for example, I look at my grid square and mentally divide it in half, and half again if I need to. That way I can see if the eyelid crosses the grid-line at the middle of the square, or in one of its quarters.

When doing your basic line drawing, don’t just draw the nose, eyes and mouth. Look for the shadows around these features as well. Outlining the major shadow shapes will help you big time when it come to the shading. Also, very lightly define the highlights as well, so you know where to shade up to.

The main thing is to use your grid. You spent all that time working on it, make sure you look at it!


From → Drawing

  1. Hi Miranda……Nice blog, and good information. Will be back to read more. The only thing that I noticed, with your posts on how to draw etc. is that most of them do not have any visual information. Illustrations, or pictures showing what you are saying. I think most people like myself, learn easier when we have something that we can see. For instance, a few years ago, I would have no idea, what you are talking about in this post, about the grid method of drawing. Most ordinary people have never heard of or have seen or know what your mean. 🙂 Detail photo’s of what you are talking about would sure help.
    Cheers, Sharron

    • Hi Sharron! Thanks for the feedback, I really appreciate it! When I wrote this I considered adding images, but thought it might be better if I did two separate articles: a general guideline and a step by step tutorial. I can see how some things would be confusing without a visual, though. Thanks for reading!

  2. ronald permalink

    took me months to do gridding never did cme out right till i went to school and became an artist now i can draw with and with out a grid. my work is on its still hard to draw some angles so ya the grid helps

    • Hi Ronald! It can take practice to learn how to use the grid method effectively, but like you say, it’s a good way to learn how to draw. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Tank permalink

    how to know the inchs on the picture

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