Friday, January 2, 2015

Drawing Grids

When an artist wants to paint a scene at "sight size," the painting or drawing corresponds exactly to the image that would appear on a sheet of glass placed perpendicular to the line of sight. 

If you were able hold your head steady enough and look through just one eye, you could view a scene through a window and trace the main lines directly on the glass. Then by transferring those lines onto a piece of paper, you would have a drawing that matches the observed scene perfectly.

Leon Battista Alberti, in his treatise “On Painting," shows a wooden frame set up vertically in front of a city scene. The frame has a grid of black threads stretched across it. The viewer's position is indicated by a vertical post with a loop at the top. This device has been called a "drawing grid," "perspective grid," “draughtsman’s net,” or "Alberti's veil."

All the points of the vista seen through that loop can be plotted on the grid. Those points can then be transferred to the paper on the table at right, which is inscribed with a similar grid. So if the steeple is at B3 in the grid frame, it can be plotted at B3 on the paper.

Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer improved the idea. The artist's viewing position is held steady by the vertical post, and he seems to be tracing lines on a piece of glass propped up in front of the seated model.

In 1525, Durer diagrams another setup. This time, instead of drawing on the frame, he is looking at the lady through the grid of black threads, and then transferring that image onto the corresponding gridded piece of paper laying flat on the table in front of him. 

A device like this would not be of much use for drawing a moving subject, or if the objective was to rearrange, caricature, or stylize. But if the goal is to capture a scene accurately, it takes a lot of the guesswork and error out of the process, and would be especially useful for foreshortened figures, oblique perspectives, and curving objects, such as cars. 

A drawing grid is a simple, direct, and straightforward way of capturing the main lines of a scene accurately as an initial step in the process. It's similar to the method of holding your pencil at arm's length and constructing a scene out of a set of segments and slopes. But the grid method is far more efficient and accurate than the "outstretched-arm-holding-a-pencil" routine because it yields a complete image right away, rather than a collection of measured segments and slopes that have to be assembled and corrected, piece by piece.

Read more:
Blog post: Deborah Mends Art


Scott said...

Have you ever posted about the camera lucida or the book Secret Knowledge by David Hockney? I would be interested to hear your take on the subject.

Newt said...

Neat! I was introduced to this device by the Peter Greenaway film "The Draughtsman's Contract", which features a portable version being used by a 17th century plein air landscape artist.

eD said...

Another App can be found here:

Concerning the camera lucida there is a Kickstarter project from the last year. These guys produced a new camera lucida with an enourmous success:

I also love Greenaway films. But mostly because of its fantastic film music composed by Michael Nyman.

Have a great New Year!
Dietmar (aka Ed)

Janet Oliver said...

Thanks for posting! I used to teach the Durer grid system, and I use it myself. On another note, has anyone seen the Penn Gillette documentary "Tim's Vermeer?" I have, and it's marvelous. Hockney is in it.

Keith Patton said...

Cool post James. I too am interested in your thoughts on the camera lucida.

I had heard that a camera lucida was found in Bouguereau's studio after he died.

Either way, I think it's believable, because those figures in his paintings are obviously drawn very accurately from observation and then classicized. They aren't just conceived from imagination nor are the the figures drawn from mannequins. And there's no way a child could hold those positions long enough to draw it accurately from observation without an aid.

Tom Hart said...

Frankly, I used to be resistant to the idea of devices such as these being widely used by some of the past masters. I've come to believe they were used more than I had thought, but less than some like Hockney might have us believe.

I have to think that a great such as Bouguereau (if indeed he did use a camera lucida) used it as an aid at most, and if he did own one, he may have acquired it only out of curiosity or to dabble with. To flip Keith's suggestion that such an aid would be required to draw a child, it seems to me that an aid (like a grid or c.l.) wouldn't be sufficient to capture a moving child (or animal, for that matter) and that, until photography, careful study and sketching would be necessary in order to do so.

Chris James said...

Bouguereau sketched the children of his models and various other people as the children went about their business, as well as referred to sculpture. From these sources he manufactured the figures for his pictures. This was not an uncommon practice in classical and academic painting.

Keith Patton said...

Tom Hart: " I've come to believe they were used more than I had thought, but less than some like Hockney might have us believe." Yes, my thoughts exactly.

I still believe that Bouguereau used the camera lucida in a lot of his work. We know Gerome used photos for many of his well known paintings, because we've discoverd the photos. So this wasn't uncommon in the late 19th century.

Of course Bouguereau was capable of painting what he observed without aids with incredible fidelity, as we can see from his studies from his student days and when he entered the Prix de Rome. But those are of posed models spending hours posing. I still think that the children in his paintings show he used either a camera lucida or even photography. A grid wouldn't have been quick enough to capture a fidgety child; but a camera lucida or photograph could be.

Some may object and say he just referred to children as they moved and then constructed the drawing from imagination. I don't think so. One can certainly tell the difference between a well executed conceptualized drawing vs a well executed observed drawing, even when they're both done well. They have a very different look.

Bouguereau's drawing was observed from life and then classicized; not drawn from imagination via construction.

Annie C Curtis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annie C Curtis said...

We used grids for archaeological site plans, and also for photographs - a flint-knapping floor springs to mind.
You must remember that children were much more disciplined - many were working from an early age; others, of course, were not.

Chris James said...

A camera lucida would not have been useful for figures in motion either. It doesn't capture movement in stills like a photographic camera, as far as I'm aware. Nor would it be of much aid in reproducing the delicate flesh tones of children.

Here is a description of Bougeureau working with children, from someone who was there. When a child was being especially uncooperative, he took to the museum to study form:

Keith Patton said...

Chris, I didn't say figures in motion. I said figures (children) who could only hold a pose for a few minutes.

We know from first-hand accounts that a life-sized figure by Bouguereau took 8 days. We also know that a camera lucida was discovered in his studio after his death. And we also see that his quicker sketches, both from short poses and from imagination, look more idealized and less naturalistic.

Bouguereau wasn't drawing from imagination and constructing the figures like, say, Michelangelo. He was observing from nature and then idealizing what he observed.

That brings up the question, since we know it took roughly 8 days to do a life sized figure, how did he paint a child who couldn't pose anywhere near 8 days?

A grid wouldn't be quick enough, since a child certainly can pose for minutes, but certainly not days. A camera lucida can be useful and get a naturalistic basic sketch very quickly. The other option is a photograph.

The anecdote about observing children just for color notes makes sense, because Bouguereau's color isn't natural, but idealized and designed.

As far as getting the form from sculptures at the Louvre, I find that to be overstated. The poses and forms in Bouguereau's paintings are completely different than most any sculpture in the Louvre (or anywhere else for that matter). His drawing is also more naturalistic than any Renaissance or Greek sculpture. And if he was just borrowing a foot from one sculpture and an arm from another, then how did he manage this? Did the Louvre allow him to move 30 ton sculptures into a studio with the correct lighting, mixing and matching various sculptures under the correct light? The form is useless without the correct lighting on it.

It's much more realistic than he used either a camera lucida or photograph for the children in his paintings. There were also reference photos and a camera lucida discovered in his studio after his death.

Chris James said...


You're argument rests on an assumption that an artist is not capable of constructing naturalistic figures from his various sketches, notes, memory, knowledge and studies from life, that he needed a pose to be held for a certain amount of time. I know this is fully possible and have seen it done and done it myself. Classical and academic artists used all sorts of formulas and shortcuts to achieve their final image, such as using the same body type and anatomical features for all their figures. Days/months/years worth of studies of a few children would be enough from which to assemble a myriad of children in various positions and poses. Doesn't matter if the sketches are less naturalistic (many artists have a shorthand with which they execute their quicker sketches, for sake of efficiency) if his memory and knowledge are well honed. Many of his figures have the same body type according to their gender and age. The only thing different are the faces, and lo and behold it is also recorded that he put extra care into heads.

"That brings up the question, since we know it took roughly 8 days to do a life sized figure, how did he paint a child who couldn't pose anywhere near 8 days?"

Studies, notes, sketches, and memory. And 8 days for a life sized adult figure. The larger the figure, the longer it would take merely to layer paint on canvas.

His figures are not completely different from various sculptors. I see Bernini in his figures. Up until Bougeureau's time, sculpture became more naturalistic, and I'm sure the Louvre would have had some more naturalistic figures than what the Greeks and Renaissance sculptors produced. It wouldn't matter anyway because he could possibly apply his own knowledge of anatomy to alter his base references to his liking. Your comment about borrowing a sculpture makes no sense. He would have done his studies in the museum. His lighting (which follows an obvious systematic method in most of his pictures) could be manufactured easily by someone of his skill and experience. Artists do it and have done it for centuries. An artist of his caliber would likely possess an exceptional memory and/or mental databank of naturalistic imagery.

He probably did use a device some times. But the evidence we do have of his working manner doesn't speak to this when it comes to working with very young children, who aren't described as holding any poses at all. They are described as being in near constant motion. Good luck using a camera lucida to get down a useful amount of information. Photography is more likely. But I'll take written accounts and my own knowledge of what can be and has been done in painting over a camera lucida sitting in a studio.

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