Several years ago (Could it be more than 20?), while looking through an art magazine, I came across an interesting studio tool. The piece of equipment was based on the Albrecht Dürer image above, and consisted of a wooden frame with table-top supports and a grid-work of strings across the middle.
Ostensibly, the Dürer Grid is a device which enables more accurate drawing through a comparison and measurement system similar to the process of "gridding-up." This transfer-grid method is used to translate a two-dimensional image from its source to a working surface by breaking up the original reference into more manageable sections from which to render. Usually, this technique is used to make an enlargement from a study or sketch, but can also be used to transfer a photograph, piece by piece, to the canvas.
John Singer Sargent: Mural sketch for Apollo
Kenyon Cox: Fabric study for mural
The practice of gridding-up is easy, and for two basic reasons: all squares are proportionately related, and the more points of reference, the easier it is to measure. The method begins with the placement of a grid overlaid on the source material, and a second, similar grid drawn on the canvas. This second grid must have the same number of rows and columns of squares as does the first, though the squares in the second grid can be larger, smaller, or the same size as those in the reference grid. Significant points of intersection between the image and the reference grid are then identified (eg. "the bridge of the nose crosses the line between rows 3 and 4, column 2, nearly ¼ of the way from the left-side corner"), and those points are transfered to the grid on the canvas. When these points on the canvas are connected, there will be a fairly accurate outline drawing of the reference image, where proportion and placement are preserved even if the image has been altered in size.
This is a centuries-old practice, and we have all probably made use of this system at some point in our lives. As an exercise, the use of the transfer grid is so familiar, that it can be found nowadays in such mundane places as children's coloring books and roadside diner place mats!
Gridded photograph used by Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret for his painting
Horses at the Watering Trough, 1884
When I studied under Marvin Mattelson, he suggested to his students that we all make handheld grids to improve our rendering from the model. Like the Dürer Grid, these handheld grids are used in judging shapes and proportion in a three-dimensional source. However, without the benefit of a rigid support, these grids were a bit more tricky to employ.
Examples of grid viewers I made from matte board, foam core, and elastic or "jelly" thread (used for making beaded bracelets)
To obtain the best results from these measuring devices, it is important that the subject always be observed through the grid from the same viewpoint. Standing in a consistent spot at your easel, hold the grid in your hand at the fullest extension of your arm. Make sure the plane of the grid frame is parallel to the picture plane containing your subject: do not allow the grid to be skewed, or the relationship between the grid viewer and the gridlines on your canvas will be lost. Locate the points on the subject which define the larger dimension between height and width, and align those points with either the top and bottom or left and right inner sides of the grid frame (this depends on orientation- portrait or landscape). When these two extremes are plotted, a third point will be needed to establish more reliable measuring. If you are viewing a standing figure, for example, the top and bottom extremes will be the apex of the head and the point where the foot contacts the ground: the third point might be an elbow, shoulder, fingertip, etc. What is important is that the third point is reasonably stationary, and that it defines the farthest point distant from the main axis (in this example, the line from the tip of the head to the bottom of the foot). Slide the viewfinder perpendicular to the main axis until the third point aligns with an inner side of the grid frame. If you always return the frame to this position defined by the three points, you will have a reasonably consistent grid overlaid on your subject, and from there, measuring and comparing are much the same as in gridding-up from the two-dimensional subject.
Above, used by permission, is a page from the painting packet Marvin Mattelson has prepared for all of his classes and workshops. He has gone to great lengths to organize and simplify these lessons, and it was wonderful to receive a new packet each semester (he was always looking for ways to make improvements!).
There is a lot more to drawing than measuring, however you need to be able to have everything in the right place. The grid can be used in many ways. Remember, you are gridding the figure, not the canvas. By gridding the figure you are teaching yourself to measure and compare, the two most essential aspects of drawing. The grid can help you to divide things and find center points. It is also very useful to see if the different parts of your drawing are aligned. It forces you to look more objectively. As you become more attuned, your reliance on the grid will decrease. Whether you use the grid to plot the location of every point on your drawing (as shown in panel #8) or simply use it to verify the correctness of your proportions, it can save you countless hours of frustration.-Marvin Mattelson
I have only experimented with the gird once in which I used it to plot every salient point on the figure. It was a slow, tedious process, and I really felt it interfered with the drawing process; there was no rhythm in the linework. However, I did use the grid often, when, after placing my drawing on the canvas, I realized that there was something wrong with the proportions. The grid was useful (and at times surprising) for revealing where I had gone wrong. As such, it is a wonderful tool, in the same way as a reducing lens or a mirror are useful in re-examining your work for errors from a new standpoint.
Grid viewers made by Kurt Anderson, a graduate of the Atelier Lack
¹Kurt Anderson, Realistic Oil Painting Techniques (Cincinnati, OH; North Light Books, 1995) p. 58.
Portrait Artist Marvin Mattelson