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How to Use the Grid Method for Line Drawing

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

The grid method is a drawing tool based on similar concepts as Alberti's Frame, Van Gogh's Perspective Frame, the Draughtsman's Net shown on Albrecht Dürer's woodcut, etc. Using a grid is incredibly helpful for creating large works, realistic drawings and paintings, and such pieces that need very accurate drawings.

Here is what you'll find in this blog post:

  • History

  • Why use the grid method

  • Drawing supply list

  • Grid Method tutorial videos

Does using the grid make you a “lowly“ artist?

This method is met with mixed opinions. Somehow, there are people who seem to think that true artists only draw freehand. My take is this: many architects could probably freehand their work, but they don't because it's not as accurate and time-efficient as using straight edges and similar tools. When we are served a delicious dish, do we think less of the cook if we are told later that he or she cooked it while referring to a recipe? Likely not. Why would accountants use calculators? It's because they need to reserve the time, energy and thinking towards the more difficult problems, which will benefit from fool-proofing their basic math.

The grid is an old concept

Draughtsman's Net, Albrecht Dürer
Draughtsman's Net, Albrecht Dürer

If you take time to research the use of a grid, you will find that since the Renaissance, artists have used drawing tools of a similar concept. Above is a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer showing the setup of a Draftsman’s Net. The realistic quality of Dürer’s work is said to have been unprecedented in his time, and seeing that he knew of such tools as the perspective frame, we can see part of why he got the results that he did. In his Notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci mentions drawing on thin glass to make it easy to verify the accuracy of his drawings. He would hold the glass over his drawings and spot the errors, helping to improve his iterations. Another drawing tool using a different mechanism is the camera lucida. These old tools helped artists to understand how form sits and shifts in space, allowing them to create better drawings and studies, which they used as references when they went on to their studios to finish the paintings over several years.

My point is, we now consider these artists the “Masters” of their craft. If they used versions of these drawing tools, why can’t it be good enough for us who are only just learning?

The grid is not a guarantee of success

The grid is a tool, the way an architect has a T-square, cooks have recipes, gardeners have shovels, teachers have visual aids, and so on. You still have to know the task, but tools help you get things done better and quicker. Besides, tools are not a guarantee of success: different people can use the same tool to different levels of results. It's still up to the artist to make the CORRECT observations from each square of the grid. I would bet that if a beginner used a grid and a professional didn't, the professional is still likely to get better results than the beginner, the use of a grid guarantees nothing.

Grid vs. Tracing

A similar thing can be said of tracing from a reference. The traced line drawing is no guarantee of a good painting, you can give a beginner and a pro the same tracing but we can be sure that the beginner still won’t be able to come close to what the pro will produce. That said, I discourage tracing for its reduced level of observation. I do trace when I make tonal range studies and to practice color mixing, but not for final pieces. When tracing, you’re almost blindly following the contours, leaving the decisions for later. With a grid however, you are getting to know the quality of the lines and shapes, identifying the parts as you go over each square, marking them in your mind as much as on paper.

Using reference photos

If you have to use photos for your main reference, it is best to take your own so you can keep the compositional opinions of the final piece purely yours. A good photo is a creative expression of the photographer, so whenever we paint a photo “as is”, to a good extent, we are copying the compositional work already done for us by the photographer. Taking your own photos is best, and if you’re painting for fun and not for science, you may very well benefit from composing your photo as you would like for it to appear on your painting.

As much as I can, I observe the plant with my own eyes, make notes of its features and parts, take measurements, and then I capture my own photos. That’s double emphasis on measurements! I can’t stress enough how important it is to measure the plant, especially if you intend to portray it life-size on paper.

Photos do NOT show you everything

A lot of the plants that I deem a priority to paint - endemic species, endangered, threatened and vulnerable plants - would be challenging for me to take home. Some of these plants have only been seen in real life by a few people. In these cases, taking my own photo is not possible, much less being able to interact with the plant; so understanding how to use a photo for reference is a very important skill.

I use photos maybe 75% of the time, and I can tell you it’s still some work taking the unnecessary details away and differentiating plant parts from each other. An example is when there are overlapping plant parts, the photo might make it look like one whole thing stuck together. I have painted from photos of plants taken in their natural environments and often, I have to look really good into the photo to figure out whose leaves are which, whether a twig belongs to the plant I’m painting or to its neighbor. I often joke that I have “staring contests” with my reference photos. But it is no joke that observation is perhaps 80% of what makes a painting come out good, so please, stare as hard as you need to.

Be an efficient painter

Personally, I enjoy painting more than drawing; but I cannot paint well over a bad drawing, so for efficiency, I use tools like this grid, along with items like proportional dividers* and swing arm protractors*. I have a physical version of a grid, which is an empty picture frame with a grid drawn on the plastic with a Sharpie. I place this frame in front of me, and through it, I observe fresh plant material. These tools enable me to draw faster and more accurately, allowing me to get more quickly to the harder work ahead, like the diligent botany research, mixing true-to-life colors, creating form, and capturing a beautiful tonal range.

Practice from life, do it often

As a final note, I need to share that I do draw from life as much and as often as I can, because I want to have the skills to document plants in the field. A grid helps in the studio but I won’t always be in the studio and I can’t always be carrying around my empty frame. Besides, observing from life offers its own epiphanies. It’s a good idea to cultivate your drawing skills alongside your painting skills. If you can draw well by eye, combining that with drawing tools will help in getting started with a piece much faster, easier and with reliable accuracy.

One of my favorite tools in drawing from life is a proportional divider. It's a useful way to scale up or scale down, not just still life subjects but even for landscapes and such. It's well worth learning how to use one as it's such a versatile tool. I've bought a couple of proportional dividers from the cheap to the expensive and handmade, but the Accurasee Proportional Divider* is the one I can confidently recommend. It's cheap but well-made; admittedly, I've bought this twice due to my first one getting damaged by my son, who had evidently chewed on one end absentmindedly; otherwise I'm pretty confident it would have lasted me longer.

*Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I may get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Your support helps me create more free content for you.

My Grid Tutorials

If you want to learn how to make a grid over your reference photo, I have made three YouTube videos showing how I go about it:

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