This is an in progress photograph of my painting “Still Life with a Peach.” You can see the pencil grid in the unpainted areas. I don’t use tracing in my work because I find it boring and tedious. The grid makes the drawing process go faster. Click on “Paintings” in the menu to view the finished painting.

The technique of using a grid to draw will improve the accuracy of your drawings. Basically, it involves drawing a grid on the reference photograph, and on the canvas. It’s important that the photo and the canvas have the same proportions, and that both grids have the same number of quadrants. The grid allows you to focus on drawing one small section of the painting at a time. This will allow you to draw more efficiently. However, some artists struggle with using a grid because they think it’s cheating.

Is using a grid to draw cheating? No, a grid will help you to draw faster and more accurately, but you still have to come up with creative subject matter yourself. Many famous artists trace photographs or use the grid method to create their drawings. Also, there is strong evidence that the old masters used devices to improve the accuracy of their drawings.

Why Do People Think Using a Grid Is Cheating?

It’s odd that in other fields, any tool that makes the job easier or more accurate is implemented without a second thought. In fact, you would be considered incompetent if you didn’t take advantage of the tools that are available to you.

For example, would you hire a carpenter who refused to use a level because he thought it was cheating? Of course not. His work would turn out crooked and it would take him longer to complete the job.

Other creative fields make use of the technology and tools that are available to them. A professional drummer may listen to a click track to help him keep time more accurately when he’s playing live. Another example is an architect that uses a computer to produce architectural drawings faster and with more accuracy.

So why is it when it comes to art, drawing tools and techniques are thought of as a form of cheating?

I believe it comes from the mistaken belief that the artist is a magician that conjures up imagery by some kind of magical skill. The idea that there are practical techniques to make the job of drawing easier eludes most people.

Most People Never Learn to Draw

While everyone learns how to do basic math, spell, and read, very few people learn how to draw.

Drawing isn’t often taught in school. Most art classes supply drawing and painting supplies, but there’s very little instruction on how to draw accurately from life. So, most people go through life without learning basic drawing skills.

There’s also a common belief that you can judge an artist based upon their ability to faithfully capture reality. If that were the case, then the camera would have replaced the artist a long time ago. There’s more to art than duplicating reality.

Do Professional Artists Use Grids?

Yes, there are many professional artists who use grids to help them draw. Chuck Close is probably the most popular example. Other photorealists, such as Malcolm Morley, also use the grid technique.

Chuck Close created photorealistic portraits using a grid and an airbrush. While he used a grid, it wasn’t visible in the final painting. However, in his later work, the brushwork is very expressionistic and the grid is a prominent feature of the final painting.

If using a grid is cheating, then why are these paintings hanging in museums?

Furthermore, there are famous artists who trace photographs by projecting them onto the canvas. Gerhard Richter uses a projector to create his photorealistic paintings, and he’s one of the most successful artists of our time.

Using a Grid is Practical

Here’s another example of a still life painting where I use the grid to make the drawing go faster. I use a 5h pencil for drawing the grid, and a white watercolor pencil to draw the shapes. A wet rag works like an eraser on the white lines, and it leaves the grid lines intact. You may be interested in my post the best pencil for drawing on canvas.

Even though I can produce the same accuracy in a drawing without using a grid, I often use a grid because it’s efficient. This is especially true when working on larger paintings.

It can be difficult to judge the proportions of a shape when you are standing directly in front of a large canvas. In order to judge the proportions of the drawing by eye, you have to step back in order to view the entire canvas. Then, if you notice any errors, you spend more time erasing and correcting them. A lot of time is spent stepping back from the painting and looking for errors.

A grid allows you to break down a large canvas down into smaller segments. Then you can think of each square within the grid as a smaller canvas to work within. The grid ensures that the area you’re working on is placed in the correct section of the canvas. You can draw the shapes within that square without having to step back to view the entire canvas. You can determine the placement of the shapes by their relationship to the gridlines.

Using a grid will allow you to get more done in less time. This is important if you plan on making a living as a professional artist. Using efficient techniques will translate into a higher income. You will be able to get more paintings done in less time, which will also help you to improve at a faster rate.

If you still think that using a grid is cheating, then you may find it disappointing that many of the old masters that you admire used similar techniques, as I explain in the next two sections.

Secret Knowledge

In 2001, David Hockney published Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (link to Amazon). Hockney spent 2 years investigating the techniques that the old masters used to create such accurate work.

He concludes that many artists made use of lenses, camera obscuras, and other devices to improve the accuracy of their paintings. He lays out all of the evidence in his book.

For example, he noticed that there was a visible change in quality in how artists painted fabric. The fabrics in the earlier work didn’t look very realistic. But then there were artists who made a major leap in being able to render the folds in clothing in a much more realistic fashion.

It’s interesting that it took an artist to propose the idea that the masters used devices to help them achieve the accuracy of their work. As an artist, it’s obvious that creating that kind of accuracy doesn’t come out of thin air. There are specific tools and techniques that are necessary to produce work at that level.

These improvements in accuracy were all due to incorporating new tools and techniques.

The Camera Lucida

A camera lucida is a device that uses a prism to create an image that you can trace. Here’s a camera lucida on Amazon. It’s basically a prism that will allow you to see a transparent projection of the subject onto the paper.

The Camera Obscura

The camera obscura is a dark room or box with an opening in one end. Surprising, a lens isn’t necessary to create an image, the opening functions as a lens and it projects an image on the opposite wall. It’s the same principle that makes pinhole cameras possible. The difference is that a camera obscura creates an image large enough for the artist to trace the projected image.

I can understand why artists would have kept these techniques secret. This was before photography was invented and many artists made a living from painting portraits. If an artist discovered a technique that allowed them to work faster and more accurately, then that have been to their advantage.

Tim’s Vermeer

Another interesting documentary that makes a similar conclusion is Tim’s Vermeer (link to amazon). Tim Jenison is an inventor who became intrigued by Vermeer and set out to try and reproduce his techniques.

Jenison noticed the way that Vermeer captured the subtle colors on the interior wall. He points out that it’s difficult to judge a specific color when it’s surrounded by other similar colors. Vermeer captured the color of a wall with machine like precision. Jenison says it looks like something that came out of a video camera.

It was a similar realization that Hockney had, that this type of accuracy doesn’t happen through magic or by luck. It requires a precise technique.

Jenison uses a comparator to compare the area of the painting he’s working on, directly with the subject. It’s a tedious technique, but the results are impressive. I should also note that Jenison had no previous painting experience before he painted his Vermeer.

What is Cheating in Art?

The idea of cheating comes from the academic world where you’re expected to memorize facts, figures, and equations. Then you apply these facts to answer questions on an exam. It doesn’t matter if you know how to apply this knowledge to a real world circumstance. Nor does it matter if you have an understanding of what these facts represent, or how the equation works–you’re just expected to produce the correct answer.

You’re to produce these answers on your own, sitting at a desk, without any tools or reference books. No professional that I’ve met works this way in the real world.

Some would say that if you use a grid, you might as well trace the photograph. But I find that’s an interesting perspective because you could take that one step further and say that drawing from a photograph is cheating. That’s because a camera can freeze action in a way that’s impossible for the unaided eye. You can photograph a person and preserve all the folds and wrinkles in their clothing and then work from the photograph as long as you want.

You can use a camera to capture fleeting moments in nature. One of the most challenging aspects of painting outdoors is capturing the light before it changes. The camera solves this problem.

The camera translates a three dimensional world into a two dimensional image. That’s a major advantage in itself. A printed photograph also compresses the colors and the values into a range that fits more into the limited range of colors that’s achievable with paint.

So if you’re not going to “cheat” at art, then you’re limiting yourself to drawing from direct observation, without grids, and without looking at photographs.

Is It Cheating to Use Sighting Techniques When Drawing?

No, sighting techniques are a way to measure the proportions of objects and to gauge distances between objects. These techniques have been used throughout art history.

If you were to ask me to draw from direct observation, without using a photograph, you would notice that I may hold up a pencil to the subject matter. Then I hold the pencil up and compare it to my drawing.

What I’m doing is measuring the size of an object and comparing to the other objects. I can use my thumb to mark off a length on the pencil to measure the subject. Then I can compare that measurement to my drawing. With a few well placed marks on the paper, I can determine where the objects belong and how big I should draw them.

Another technique is to hold the pencil horizontally and compare it to an angle of a horizontal object. Is the edge of the object totally horizontal, or is it at a slight angle? Which way does it tilt? By how many degrees? These are the questions that I would ask myself when I’m drawing. I can also hold the pencil vertically to gauge the angle of vertical objects.

There are books on this subject if you want to learn how to draw more accurately. I write about some of them on my recommended art books page. The Keys to Drawing is one of my favorites as is The Artist’s Brain (both are links to Amazon).

How to Draw Without “Cheating”

If you were to force me to draw without using photographs, sighting techniques, or any other devices, I could still produce an accurate drawing.

One way that I would accomplish this is to use my imagination. Mentally, I can compare the size of one object to another. I can imagine a perfectly horizontal line, and compare it against the angle of an object that I’m observing. This is similar to using sighting techniques except it all takes place in my mind.

Would it be cheating to use my imagination to measure the proportions of the subject? Of course not, that’s just part of the drawing process. I’m not sure how you expect yourself to be able to produce an accurate drawing without using any of the established techniques.

Limiting Beliefs Are Holding You Back

You have to ask yourself where this belief that using a grid is cheating is coming from. Who is this authority in your mind that’s making these judgements about your drawing techniques?

You’ll find that these judgements are self imposed limitations that you’re placing on yourself. While you’re rigidly sticking to some arbitrary rules, artists like Chuck Close are using grids to create interesting work. Gerhard Richter uses a projector to trace his images to create photorealistic work. They’re both famous artists and their works are in the collections of major museums.

The point is that there’s more to art than tracing. If tracing was all that was necessary to create great artwork, then everybody could become a famous artist overnight.

Many artists invent their own color schemes and simplify subjects to make them more interesting. There’s also many forms of art where the subject matter is invented or abstract.


Now, there are circumstances in the art world where rules apply. Contests and exhibitions sometimes have limitations as to which mediums and subjects are acceptable. If the exhibition is limited to work that was created outdoors by direct observation, then you shouldn’t submit your work if it was completed in your studio by tracing a photograph. I suppose that would be “cheating.”

But when you create art for yourself, there are no rules or limitations, except for the ones you create for yourself.

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