Using a grid system to transfer a drawing to your canvas

Here’s a new oil painting I completed over the weekend:

Bellagio by Dan Johnson
“Bellagio” – oils on panel – 12×16″

This was painted from a photo I took on our honeymoon in Lake Como, Italy, last year. It’s also part of a monthly online workshop I’m taking part in on The Complete Artist (another online art community you might want to get involved in).

This month’s workshop involves painting a street scene with tall buildings on each side, which results in the kind of dramatic perspective you can see in the painting above.

Drawing a scene like this requires paying careful attention to the perspective of the horizon line and the angles of the buildings. For that reason, I found it useful to to use a grid system to transfer this drawing to my painting surface.

I won’t go into too much depth about how to use a grid system, but in a nutshell, it involves overlaying a grid on top of your reference photo, and then drawing the same grid on your painting surface and using that as a guide for your drawing.

This technique has been used by artists for centuries, and has also long been the subject of much controversy, as some artists consider it cheating.

Other drawing transfer techniques

So how should you go about drawing a scene onto your canvas, and what methods could be considered cheating?

There is a whole spectrum of techniques you could use to draw a scene onto your canvas.

At one end, some very skilled artists might not even need to draw on the canvas, diving straight into painting, measuring all angles and relationships by sight alone. This is a rare skill, so most of us will need to at least sketch in some guide lines to help us plan the painting.

For a very loose landscape, without any architecture or man-made structures, I might get away with not doing any measuring, just sketching in the main shapes, and even moving things about to make a pleasing composition.

The next step up from freehand drawing would be using the old measuring technique of holding a pencil or paintbrush at arms length and using your thumb to measure elements of your subject, and compare them with other elements, and to judge angles, and then to transfer those angles and measurements to your drawing.

This can be useful when painting from life, as a way to ensure you get your measurements right, but when painting from photos, I don’t usually bother with it, and tend to favour a grid system instead, for example with the rowing boat I painted recently, which I drew in pencil first, using a 3×3 grid.

Another method would be to do all your measurements using a proportional divider, which is a tool you can use to make measurements on your reference photo, and find the corresponding measurement at a larger size for your painting surface, keeping all measurements in proportion. This can be a cumbersome technique, but it’s also pretty good for keeping your measurements accurate. Mark Carder has a great video on Draw Mix Paint on how to use this technique.

The next step would be directly tracing your reference image, which you could do by printing it out at the size you want to paint it, covering the reverse side in graphite/soft pencil, and then placing it over your painting surface, and drawing over the outlines with a pen or something similar, so that the graphite gets transferred onto the painting surface.

A similar technique would be to project the image onto your canvas using a projector and simply drawing around the projected image.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, I suppose the most direct method would be to print the image directly onto your painting surface, and then paint on top of it. This would probably be more difficult to do, requiring a canvas printer, but it would also require the least amount of drawing skills.

So what constitutes cheating?

I guess it’s a matter of opinion. Some would consider even using a grid system to be cheating, while others might be fine with tracing or even printing the image onto the painting surface.

All of the methods mentioned above are just techniques, and if the aim is just to transfer the drawing exactly as it appears, then does it really matter how you do it? You could spend hours carefully measuring lines and angles, or you could save a lot of time by tracing the image. If the end result is the same and you’re just going to paint over the drawing anyway, then why not use the shortcut?

Of course using a technique like tracing removes any opportunity for artistic license, so you might want to try a less rigid method, like the grid system, or a combination of techniques, like using the grid system for certain elements, while drawing other elements freehand.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this. Do you use any of the methods I mentioned above, or another method I haven’t mentioned? What do you think is acceptable, and are there any methods that you would class as cheating? Let me know in the comments.

Grid system apps

If you do want to try the grid technique, you may be interested in an app I discovered recently – Jackson’s Art Grid – by Jackson’s Art (which happens to be where I buy most of my painting supplies.

The app lets you overlay a customisable grid on any photos from your iPad, making it super easy to copy the subject to your painting surface.

There are quite a few other grid system apps available too if you want to check them out. Let me know what you find.






  1. Stephanie Evans Avatar

    Love your work and your information. Thank you. Stephanie Evans

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