Is Drawing a Grid Cheating? Do Real Artists Use Grids?

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

Many artists struggle with drawing accurate proportions and even when they can, it takes too much time. A grid helps artists create more realistic drawings, but is drawing a grid cheating? 

Drawing with a grid is not cheating, it’s a practical tool used for copying a 2D image accurately. However, relying heavily on the grid method limits an artist from learning to draw with a free, fluid, and expressive style. 

In this article, I’ll explain how the grid method works with tips for using it effectively. It’s the method I have used to earn a living for the past 20+ years. So whether you’re a beginner or an experienced artist, the grid drawing method can help you take your skills to the next level.

Let’s crack on…

Disclaimer: When you buy something via my affiliate links, I sometimes earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend trusted sites.

What is the Grid Drawing Method?

Might as well start by clarifying what I mean by the grid method.

The grid drawing method involves placing a grid over a reference photo and a corresponding grid over the drawing paper. By breaking the image down into smaller, more manageable sections, artists can more easily reproduce the image with accurate proportions.

The grid serves as a guide, helping the artist to see and reproduce the image with greater accuracy.

That’s the principle, and it applies equally when adding a grid overlay to a digital image.

Why Do Some People Think Using a Grid is Cheating?

Some people believe that using a grid is cheating because it takes away the challenge of drawing from observation and makes the process of creating art more mechanical. There is also a perception that using a grid somehow diminishes an artist’s natural talent and creative abilities. 

I have a certain sympathy with this view and that’s because I have used grids to make my art for so long. It does require a rigid and technical approach and that will inevitably limit your artistic style. 

But here’s the rub. A grid will improve your accuracy if that is what you are trying to achieve, but it will not improve your composition, techniques, or the natural flow of your line. In short, if your drawing skills are badly lacking, using a grid will not help much.

The public, and some artists, think that a grid is a substitute for talent. That’s not strictly true. Lack of ability will still be apparent in the final drawing.

There is also a romantic myth that artists are a breed apart, it’s as if they can magically pluck the image from the ether and render the image onto paper or canvas. Innate ability handed down from the Gods.

“You’ve either got it, or you ain’t”

Therefore, using the same logic, someone who needs to use a grid can’t be a “real” artist. They are at best wannabes and at worst, frauds.

Quite where this fairytale nonsense comes from I’m not sure. In my opinion, drawing is hard work and years of practice based on a kernel of natural ability. It’s mostly a learned skill.

I learned to draw before I ever used a grid.

Baby elephant drinking from a bottle. A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
“Bottle Fed”. A Pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler.
Drawn Using the Grid Method

It’s got to be said that learning to draw by using a grid is bad practice. It’s far better to learn the basics before you apply shortcuts. Once you are confident enough with your drawing skills, you can use that knowledge to vastly improve your gridded drawings.

Do Professional Artists Use Grids?

Too right they do. Many artists try to hide their shortcuts and working methods in an attempt to maintain the mystique around their process. They feel the need to protect the “secret sauce” and keep the audience guessing. 

In reality, the grid method has been used for centuries. Many artists of the Renaissance, including old masters such as Albrecht Durer describe using grids as a drawing aid. If he can do it, I think the rest of us can relax.

Grids are practical tools, particularly when translating a reference photo onto drawing paper. They provide a useful framework to maintain correct proportions and help artists maintain consistency in their work.

If you have ever read David Hockney’s book “Secret Knowledge” he reveals all the tricks of the trade that the old masters got up to.

Be in no doubt, they used the technology that was available to them, including the Camera Obscura, and later on the  Camera Lucida, optical tracing devices.

Secret Knowledge by David Hockney

Secret Knowledge by David Hockney

Famous artists, like the late portrait artist Chuck Close, employed the grid technique to create his hyperrealistic, large-scale artworks Claims that professional artists don’t use the grid system are claptrap.

This might interest you: Is Hyperrealism Art or a Skill? What’s the Point?

Many artists use grids as a starting point and use them to draw the basic outline before going on to refine their work freehand once the structure is in place. This is my approach.

Many more decide to trace their work. Shocked? You shouldn’t be. Here are my tracing posts. Read them, You’ll find them interesting: 

I use grids to speed up my work, to a certain extent, and more importantly, it almost guarantees that my drawing succeeds. I don’t want to invest too much time judging proportions and having to start all over again when I get it wrong. 

I draw for a living and time is money. The bottom line is that artistic integrity is of secondary importance when you are trying to pay the bills. 

Need some inspiration? Read these:

I see gridding as a useful tool for my style of work. I discovered that the public love detailed pencil drawings. The best way to approach my drawings was by using a grid. 

I drew in public for years and very few onlookers ever accused me of cheating. How could they? I was drawing in front of them and hiding nothing.

This will interest you: How To Draw in Public: The Experience of an Artist

How to Draw A Grid and Draw Your Image

Let’s not overcomplicate this, drawing from a grid is a very simple process. I’ll point out a few things that can save you a lot of time and frustration.

To draw with a grid, follow these steps:

  1. Select a clear reference photo. A high-quality, high-contrast reference photo is going to make your life a lot easier.
  2. Make a few photocopies in different sizes and choose a comfortable size to draw. Have a spare in case you screw up.
  3. Use a set square to draw your first horizontal and vertical lines. Measure and draw your straight lines using the width of a ruler. They are It’s more accurate than marking dots every inch. Need smaller squares? Buy a slimmer ruler. 
  4. Draw heavy gridlines onto your Photocopy. You can use a Fineliner pen or even a Biro.
  5. Next step, draw very light gridlines onto your drawing paper to the same scale. Do not press down and indent the paper. Hold the pencil loosely from the top and glide it lightly along the ruler’s edge. If it goes wrong do it again.
  6. Draw the key outlines, square by square, and make a complete line drawing
  7. Add detail to the main focal point first. If it’s a portrait, draw the eyes. If you screw up, start again before you’ve gone too far. 
  8. Continue by drawing one grid square at a time. Draw the subject matter within each square by observing the bigger shapes and negative space. Continually make slight adjustments and mark where the image crosses the grid lines
  9. If the size of the squares is too big, you can subdivide individual squares into four by drawing diagonals to each corner. It’s more accurate
  10. Rub out the remaining grid lines with a kneadable eraser to reveal the final drawing.

Download Your Grids for Free. No Catch

It must be said, this hand-drawn grid method is tedious. It speeds up your drawing a little bit, but that’s slightly offset by having to draw an accurate grid.

It goes without saying that larger squares will be quicker to map. Skilled artists will work with a bigger grid. I like to use one-inch squares which is the width of my ruler.

Given the extra time and patience needed it’s no wonder so many commercial artists decide to trace their references and be done with it.

Note: You can’t afford to be slack with your grid. An accurate grid is imperative for an accurate drawing. When the grid on the copy doesn’t align with the grid on the paper, it results in a wonky drawing. 

How to Apply a Digital Grid Layer With Canva

It’s much more convenient, not to mention quicker and more accurate, to add a premade grid over a digital image in a photo editor and save the file for printing. 

The easiest way to add a grid, if you don’t have Adobe Photoshop or similar photo-editing software installed, is to use Canva.

Follow these steps:

  1. Go to Canva’s website: Navigate to and sign in to your account. If you don’t have an account, you can sign up for free.
  2. Create a custom canvas: Click on the “Create a design” button in the top right corner. Choose “Custom Size” at the bottom of the dropdown menu.
  3. Enter the width and height: Set the dimensions of your canvas. You can enter px, inches, cm, or mm. Click on “Create new design” to proceed. A blank canvas appears in the editor.
  4. Upload an image from your computer: On the left-hand side of the screen, click on “Uploads” (it’s a cloud with an upward arrow icon). Click on the “Upload files” button and select the file(s) you want to upload from your computer. They appear below the button.
  5. Add the uploaded image to your canvas: Drag and drop the image onto your canvas. You can adjust the size and position by clicking on the image and dragging the corners or sides.
  6. Add a Grid Element: On the left side of the screen open “Elements”. In the search bar enter “Grid lines.” Choose a free grid. I found one by BIGWHY Studio under the title “Geometric Grid line Seamless Pattern.” Drag the drop the grid to the image. There are more to choose from.
  7. Adjust the Grid: Click and hold to move the grid, and click and hold a corner node to enlarge or reduce the grid size.
  8. Download your file: Click on the “Share” button located at the top right corner of the screen. A window opens. Click “download” and select “PNG” or “PDF Standard” as the file format. Click on “Download” to save your design to your computer.

You can use your own grids if you wish. Add a grid file to “Uploads”, drag it over to the image, and adjust the size. It’s so easy.

It must be noted that I’ve just explained how to do this in Canva for free. The Canva Pro version gives you more options.

You can choose the “PDF Print” option and download a CMYK version for printing in color. You can also resize your images in the pro version, and have access to every feature.

It’s worth it if you use Canva a lot. Otherwise, you can always join for 30 days and cancel your subscription.

I’m not pushing it, I’m not an affiliate.

How to Trace an Accurate Grid Using a Lightbox

The idea is very simple and I have done this a few times in the past. 

  • Print out a selection of grids of different sizes and choose a suitable one
  • Secure the printout to your lightbox with low tack tape
  • Photocopy your photo reference, lay it on top, and tape it down
  • Draw the grid with a pen and ruler. This is quick and super accurate.
  • Replace the photocopy with your drawing paper and draw an identical grid in pencil

The light box method only works if your drawing paper is a thin enough gauge to let the light through. Nonetheless, it is a very accurate way of making a grid.

I know what you’re thinking. Why trace a grid when you can just trace the reference image? It’s a valid point and many artists will do just that. Personally, the only reason I used a grid was to draw in public without the fear of being accused of cheating.

How to Use a Grid to Scale Your Drawing

Scaling a drawing using a grid is a technique that helps you enlarge or reduce an image while maintaining its proportions.

Here’s how to scale a drawing step-by-step:

  • Decide how much larger or smaller you want your new drawing to be compared to the original. 
  • Draw the grid on the original reference copy. For detailed drawings, use smaller squares. Count the number of squares horizontally and vertically.
  • Calculate the size of the new squares based on the size of your paper or canvas. For example, if your original squares are 1” x 1” (25mm x 25mm), your new squares might be 2” x 2”. Count the number of squares, if it doesn’t fit, adjust the ratio until you find the right scale.
  • Draw the new grid onto the canvas or paper.
  • Copy the image as before, one square at a time

This method will be useful if you are drawing out a very large image, or using a computer screen as an image source. 

This post helps you to scale a drawing: How to Scale Up a Drawing in 4 Easy Ways and Save Time

Freehand Drawing vs The Grid Drawing Technique

A very competent and skilled freehand artist will not save any time using a grid, and what’s more, their drawings will be worse artistically. Stephen Bauman below is a superb freehand artist. You should check him out.

Stephen uses mechanical pencils. Read this to see what he uses: Best Mechanical Drawing Pencils For Artists in 2023

There are very few artists that reach this top level, but many more who fall just beneath that benchmark. They are very good technically, but too slow commercially. This group can benefit from using a grid as an aid.

This can help: How to Draw Faster: 14 Expert Tips For Sketching at Speed

Gridding is not without major drawbacks, there are limitations to mapping out a drawing methodically. Using a grid is similar to tracing in as much as it stifles the creative process. There is a very real danger that the results will lack life and movement.

Ironically a skilled craftsperson can compensate for those deficiencies and contrive the missing vigor. It’s a poorer substitute for freehand, but it can certainly improve the look and feel of the final drawing. In other words, it’s essential that you learn to draw by eye before you take any shortcuts.

Use these tips to improve your drawings: 14 Ways to Make Your Drawings Interesting

Slavishly copying a reference photo is a trap. It is easy to get obsessed with copying every detail and lose the bigger picture. Technically your drawing or painting can be a marvel but it can also fail miserably to stir the viewer, emotionally.

I battle with this conundrum all the time. I have a tendency to add more when artistically, less would be better. It’s a lack of confidence.

Onlookers see my work and think I know what I’m doing, but as we all know, art is often a series of corrected mistakes and we stop only when the corrections are worse than what was there in the first place.

Such is the life of a creative, forever reaching for that pot of gold.

This very popular drawing course by Brent Eviston is on Udemy.
He has over 73,000 students!

Is Drawing a Grid Cheating? Final Thoughts

Drawing with a grid is not cheating unless you deliberately set out to deceive the viewer. Very few people care that you used a grid and the few that do are purists or deluded by the romantic ideal of what a “real” artist should be. They don’t really matter.

Whenever I’m challenged, and I can be bothered, I simply tell my critic how I construct my drawings, from taking my initial photos, and visualizing what I could do with them, to composing the picture, mapping it out, and finally drawing the image. If that leaves them cold I explain how I print the original work, sell them to tourists and collectors and it funds my winter trips abroad.

They’re a lot less certain of their beliefs after hearing all that!

My Jaguar drawing was drawn using a grid

Jaguar drawing by Kevin Hayler. Drawn using the grid method
‘Leaps and Bounds’ Drawn by Kevin Hayler using a grid

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

Don’t leave just yet, you might miss something handy, like my guide!

Selling art made simple digital guide for starting a small art business

If You Want to Sell Your Art

Check this out!

Psst…it’s only $12.99!

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If you need more help with drawing, then I urge you to check out
Dorian Iten on Proko. His course is reasonably priced and inspiring

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Is drawing a grid cheating. Do real artists use grids.
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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