Advice & Guidance

Gridlocked with Jackie Whall

21st July 2020 Estimated reading time: 5 mins

Obtaining a likeness in a portrait requires accurate placing and sizing of the main features. One way to do this is gridding – drawing a grid on both the reference photo and artwork and then transferring details from each square on the photo to the corresponding square on the artwork. This is simple if the photo and the artwork are the same size; however, if you wish to enlarge the photo it can get rather tricky. I enjoy a maths challenge and have spent many hours working out the width/height ratio of my painting to match the photo’s dimensions and dividing this into equal numbers of squares. However, for those who aren’t so inclined, I’ve devised a simpler method.

Check the dimensions of your artwork

Firstly ensure your photo and painting surface have the same relative dimensions – a square photo will need cropping if you want to paint on a long, thin canvas. A simple way to do this is to use the diagonal. Mark the left and bottom boundaries of your support, place the photo in this bottom corner and mark diagonally from that corner, through the top corner of the photo to the top of your support. The top and right boundaries need to form a corner on this diagonal.

Take into account your surface

This is fine for painting on paper where the size of your finished artwork doesn’t have to be determined by your support. If you are using a box canvas or board, the relative dimensions of your painting are already set. Check the diagonals of the canvas with the photo and crop the photo accordingly. As I will be painting on natural linen and don’t want to cover my canvas with grid lines, I’m using tracing paper to grid onto and will transfer the resulting image to the canvas using TraceDown.

Cut paper to the length or width of your surface and reference photo

To divide the reference photo and the support into the same number of rows and columns, rather than scratch your head over the maths, take a couple of strips of paper and cut one to the length or width of your support and the other to the correspond with your photo. It doesn’t matter whether you choose length or width, just make sure it’s the same dimension for both. Then fold each strip of paper very accurately in half lengthways about three to four times; make sure you fold both pieces of paper the same number of times. You should now have two strips of paper, differing lengths but divided into the same number of folds – mark each crease so it’s easily seen. This is going to be our marker for the grid.

Mark out your grid lines

Use these strips to mark out your grid lines. Don’t worry if one of the sides doesn’t divide neatly into the folds on your strip – it will be the same for photo and support – just make sure you have the part block at the same side for both. I find it also helps to mark diagonals in the squares over the features – this gives greater accuracy to the portrait. I laminate my reference photo to protect it and I can grid using a china marker. Once I’ve got my image replicated, I can wipe off the grid lines and see my photo clearly. When trying to colour match, I can also pop a dash of paint onto the photo to see how close I am, then wipe it off. If I’m gridding directly onto my support, I use faint pencil marks for a drawing, or a water soluble pencil for a painting – bear in mind you’ll not want to see these lines when you’ve finished.

Start placing your image using the grid

Now simply start matching squares and filling with information. It’s helpful to look for an obvious crossing of image with grid lines not too far into the photo to start with – here I’ve started with part of Anna’s hairline which fits neatly into a square, three rows down and four columns across. Take care counting the first squares when you start. You don’t need masses of detail – draw basic outlines, define areas of shadow, anything that may be useful when you come to painting. The key is to get placement and size correct.

Assess the accuracy of your image

Assess to make sure your image looks sensible. Even with a grid it is possible to lose it a bit along the way. If something doesn’t look right, it’s often only a slight alteration to make it work. Add the diagonals if you haven’t already. Draw lines running from the bottom or tops of the eyes to check that they are level. Don’t worry if the drawing looks odd at this stage; this is not the finished piece but it contains all the information you need to complete your painting with confidence.
Next time Jackie will complete this portrait in oils.

    Jackie’s Top Tips

    for choosing a good photo

  1. Make sure the photo is a good representation of the person to be painted – your picture can only be as good as your reference material, unless it’s someone you know really well and you have a good memory!
  2. Look for a good contrast of lights and darks; modern, professionally taken photos are lovely but are often very bright with little shadow so don’t make good sources for a painting. On the other hand, make sure there are no awkward shadows falling across the face unless you are happy you can paint the dramatic effect they are making.
  3. If you’re new to portraits, choose a face that is looking straight on or slightly turned. Part profiles can be tricky.
  4. It’s easier to draw faces with closed smiles rather than a mouth with a row of teeth. I have no choice with my reference; Charlie and Anna are smiley people so I’m going to have to take care when it comes to painting.

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