In praise of drawing, and is using the grid “cheating”?

Being able to accurately represent proportions and angles in an image (otherwise known as drawing) is a skill that many of us need to strengthen. Inaccurate drawing can ruin an otherwise good painting.

“Another Cesar Study” stages of the painting. 8×8″ oil on panel.

My own drawing skills disclaimer:

Probably about 95% of the time, I just dive on in and start “drawing” on canvas (as evidenced by the 3-stage work in progress picture seen above). I never trace over photos and only very occasionally will use a grid (with perhaps four squares over the whole canvas). In other words, I’m not coming from the perspective of someone who is reliant on drawing aids.

In some tutorials I’ve written in the past, I’ve introduced the grid as a way to help artists become more accurate in drawing. There is controversy about the grid. Some call it “cheating.” Others explain that because the Old Masters sometimes used the grid, it’s no big deal to use it all the time.

Is it “cheating”?

My view is that it’s not “cheating,” but it’s also not advisable to use it all the time.

I’m a big fan of Betty Edwards and her book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” She teaches the grid, and if the grid is good enough for her, then it’s good enough for me! However, she doesn’t only teach the grid in her book. The grid can become a crutch after a while if the student never moves past it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place.

For this reason, I’m going to be including the use of a grid in some (not all) of the chapters of this upcoming book about painting cats.

There’s nothing more frustrating than struggling with the drawing portion of a painting. I don’t want people to struggle, but at the same time, I don’t want to encourage dependence on drawing aids.

Start with a four-square grid over a toned canvas. Wait for the toning and grid to dry before moving to the next steps.

Many of the paintings in the book will be on square-shaped canvases. That way, a variety of sizes can be an option—from 6×6″ to 12×12″ (though 12×12″ might be getting a bit big).

Though using more than four grid squares may be advisable for a student who is just learning how to draw, a four-square grid is still going to be quite helpful in placements and proportions, while allowing the artist to do most of the “drawing” themselves. It’s far harder to treat the four-square grid as a permanent crutch since there is so much drawing that must be done freehand within one of those (rather large) four squares!

You can see in Betty Edwards’ website, on the “before and after” page, that a lot of the “after” drawings have some faint indication of a four-square grid. (At least evidenced in the batch of drawings showing up as I write this blog!)

Use the four grid squares as a guideline.

(If you don’t know what the grid method is, in a nutshell, it’s breaking an image up into smaller parts which makes it easier to get placements and proportions. You put grid squares over your reference image and place squares over your canvas and match up what is contained within each square.)

Above you can see that I’m starting to outline the cat’s eyes, and also marking the placement of the nose and mouth.

Adding more and more details

Carefully I start to add more outlines. I usually “draw” with thinned-down brown paint, but you can use pencil or charcoal. If you “draw” with paint, “erasing” is accomplished by wiping away errant lines with a paper towel or cloth dipped in thinner.

Searching for angles in the shapes and forms. I marked off a 1/4th placement on one edge of the canvas to help me understand where things lined up there.

During the earliest stages of drawing the outline, look for angles. Compare the placement of features and shapes by seeing where they line up with the grid lines, with other elements in the image, how far they are located from the edge of the canvas, and so forth. A little extra time and care given now can save a LOT of time later!

The outine is more or less drawn in!

If I wanted, I could wait for the outline to dry before painting more, or I could start painting right away.

Now I start to place light and dark values and colors.

Is this outlined sketch totally accurate? Probably not. But it will be a great help when I start laying on paint!

The problem with painting with opaque media (oils or acrylics) is that the original outlines will quickly be covered up. If I don’t have some sort of eye about what looks right and wrong, it would be very easy to allow some of the placements and outlines to go astray, at least a little bit.

Finished! “Soulful Kitten,” 6×6″ oil on canvas board.

In truth, the proportions of this kitten head are not “perfect” and if you compared it to the reference photo, the lines and proportions would not line up exactly. What I was aiming for was the overall reasonable depiction of a cute kitten.

Conclusion: The grid is helpful, but don’t become too dependent!

The grid can really help get shapes and proportions blocked in. However, after many layers of paint and multiple adjustments, the original outline is all lost. If an artist has no “eye” for what looks right, they can easily overlook some small flaws. That’s one of the reasons why being overly dependent on drawing aids is not a good thing. That “eye” which tells us when things look funny (and tells us what needs to be changed) may not be not fully developed when we never stretch our freehand drawing “muscles.”

In art school, I knew some students who didn’t have strong drawing skills (like, not at all). They relied on tracing over photos. A lot of times their drawings would have something “off” (just slightly) but because they had no freehand drawing skills, they couldn’t catch these smaller errors and correct them. In other words, tracing photos was not some foolproof way to get around learning how to draw.

Errors will still slip through the cracks and the person who always uses drawing aids won’t necessarily be looking for them. After all, the drawing aids they used are supposed to solve any problems or worries about accuracy! Except they may not.

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