005: How to Draw Portraits from Reference to Scale in Perfect Proportion with the Grid Technique

005: How to Draw Portraits from Reference to Scale in Perfect Proportion

Have you ever struggled to draw somebody’s portrait, referencing it from a photograph you have?  For years I struggled with this, telling myself that I didn’t have the skill to draw peoples faces.  And then, I was enlightened to the Grid Technique.

One of the main problems with drawing is if you’re working at a different scale to the reference photo you have.  You’ve got a standard A4 print out but your canvas is A1 size – 8 times bigger than your reference.  You have to do all the scaling yourself and that’s a difficult skill to fine tune even with hundreds of hours of practise.

When I was trying to improve my drawing skills in college my teacher showed our study group a technique which changed everything for me.  10 years on, I still use the same technique every time I draw a subject from a reference photograph.

It’s called the Grid Technique and the principle is pretty simple.  Create a geometric grid on your reference photograph and then replicate that grid on your canvas.  By doing this you no longer approach the drawing as one massive task.  Instead you break up the drawing into much smaller manageable areas to draw, with a grid system that helps you sense check the scale and proportions.

I’m going to show you how easy this is to do.  All you’ll need is a brightly coloured fine-liner pen, a sharp pencil and a ruler for accuracy.  Depending on what scale you’re working at you may benefit from larger sizes of ruler.  In college when I created large A1 portraits from A4 reference photographs I would use a 1 metre ruler for the best accuracy.  The worst thing is trying to complete an accurate line when your ruler doesn’t reach from one side of the canvas to the other!

Stage 1

Using the ruler, line up one corner of your reference photograph to it’s diagonal partner and draw a visible line with the coloured pen.

You may decide to use a pencil instead of a coloured high-liner, however, with the colour and tones on your photograph you may find this hard to see.

Note: Accuracy is of the utmost importance with every line you’re going to draw using this technique.

Stage 2

Now line up the next two corners so that you create an X shape on the reference photograph.

Note: Again take care with your accuracy.

Stage 3

You now need to find the centre points on your reference photograph.

Simply fold your photograph in half horizontally and vertically to find the central points.

Stage 4

Using your ruler to line up the two central horizontal points and two central vertical points mark up two visible lines with your pencil. Both of these lines should run directly through the X shape you created in steps 1 and 2.

Stage 5

You’ll notice the reference can be divided into quadrants. Quadrant 1 is highlighted pink in the diagram below.

To create smaller sections to work with you will need to repeat the steps to split each quadrant of your photograph.

Stage 6

Starting with Quadrant 1, use your ruler to accurately line up the diagonal corners and then mark the line up with your coloured pen.

Note: Remember to keep your pencil sharp for the best accuracy.

Stage 7

Repeating step 3, you need to find the central points for Quadrant 1.  Faintly draw lines between these central points.

Note: You may find it easier to use a shorter ruler as you start to take these smaller measurements.  1 metre rulers can be harder to manoeuvre in smaller workspaces.

Stage 8

Now repeat these steps for Quadrants 2, 3 and 4 until your reference photograph looks just like the image below.

Stage 9

Depending on the scale you’re going to be working at with your canvas you may want to divide the image up into smaller sections.

I definitely recommend this for larger and more detailed pieces of art.

If you divide the 32 grid section again as I’ve illustrated, you will get a 128 section grid. Apply this again to reach the very complex 512 section grid. Both are illustrated below.

Stage 10.A

When you’re happy with your grid, you will need to replicate it exactly on your canvas using your pencil to create faint lines. This is why pin-point accuracy is important as both grids must be identical.

Since your reference photograph and canvas are the same proportions, replicating the grid just requires replicating the same method at a larger scale.

Stage 10.B

IMPORTANT: When finding the central points on your canvas; this is easier if you you’re planning to scan your picture in to digitise it as you can simply fold your canvas across horizontally and vertically like you did your reference photograph to find the centre.

However, if you’re working at larger scales and planning to keep it an original drawing then use the ruler to manually measure out your canvas, find the central points and finely mark them with the pencil.

Once set up, just reference between your photograph and your canvas working each section as you go.

Depending on how you draw, you may just want to get the outlines or line work completed first. Others may choose to literally complete each section as they go.

Whatever you choose, the Grid Technique is a great way at helping you map out and draw from reference to scale in perfect proportion.

The first time you use the Grid Technique it might take you a little while to follow through the steps reading as you go. However, once you have some practise it should take you about 10 minutes to set up a canvas ready for drawing.

Remember not to rush it though if you want perfection. Accuracy is the key to succeeding with the Grid Technique.