How to Draw Accurately (Part 1): Mental Grid

When I first started urban sketching, it meant a lot to me to get my drawing right. So I would draw everything in pencil first, ink on top, then rub out the pencil when the ink was dry. The results tended to be a little stiff. Very stiff, in fact! Accuracy is important, and it still means a lot to me to get my drawing right…but I no longer take a pencil with me when I go out sketching. I simply don’t need one (and usually can’t put my hand on one when I do need a pencil). Urban sketching, and any type of sketching, is about getting into the flow of the experience. It’s certainly not (or should not be) about worrying a drawing with a pencil and rubber until any fluidity of line is a distant memory. In this article I will show you techniques for getting it right first time and drawing accurately without allowing your drawing to become laboured.

“But I don’t want to draw accurately,” say some of my students. “I want to draw expressively!” I hear this from time to time (only from adults, of course). How do they think people learnt to draw expressively? They became fluent sketchers first. They don’t have to worry about whether their line is right because it always is – leaving them free to do what they want with their line. Look closely though and you’ll see strong perspective, people of the right size and shape with solidity, and so on – in other words, mastery of line, leading to freedom of expression.

Now, I’m not talking about making a drawing that is photorealistic. I like a bit of wobble and sway in a line – I love it, in fact. I like a few construction lines peeking through, a few corrected lines and so on…as long as there is an overall solidity and confidence to the sketch.

But ignore learning to draw accurately and you will always struggle to make your sketch believable. There are some artists who have never worried about drawing accurately, and good luck to them and to you if you are in that category but those people are born with a confidence that is rare.

Drawing accurately won’t come to you overnight, but there are three techniques that confident sketchers use almost without thinking. Over the next few weeks, I will introduce each of these techniques using real-life examples, so that you can become used to the principle and will find each technique easier. Many of you will already draw with ease and confidence, but for those who haven’t quite arrived at that point, there will be something of use to take from these lessons.

The three techniques are:

1. Making a Mental Grid
2. Drawing in a Spiral
3. Using Negative Space

Making a Mental Grid

The Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh struggled with drawing accurately in his early years. Try though he might, his drawings were always slightly “off”. He knew that using a grid overlaid on his subject worked a treat, but how to do it in the open air? He put together a sort of giant iron frame, across which he strung wires in a horizontal and vertical sense, so that he could take it outdoors on a sketching field strip, look through it and see exactly where points in his scene ought to land on the paper. After a while he was able to dispense with the iron grid, as he became used to plotting where to put each point without it.
That’s what I do. I don’t need a big iron grid (thankfully): but if I am doing a complicated scene, then I grid things off in my mind as I draw. In fact, the more complicated the scene, the easier it is, as there will be more points to cross-reference as you go. (The converse is also the case – drawing a sphere is hard, because there are no features on it to cross-check whether you are in the right place.)

I am going to use the example of a street sign to explain how the mental grid system works. It’s a two-dimensional plane which makes for a gentle introduction to drawing with a grid – as luck would have it, some street signs actually come with a grid ready made. Signs made of square ceramic tiles have lines between them, providing an ideal grid for the artist to get all the elements of lettering and design in the right place.

After that we’ll go on to a street sign with no superimposed “grid” via ceramic tiles, but we’ll use the same principle.

Finally I will use a real-life, three-dimensional example, then suggest scenes you can use to practice.

Here’s a beautiful Portuguese sign that I am going to use as a model:

Photo of Portuguese sign, watercolour by Róisín Curé
Now, how do we use this sign to understand the grid method? Let’s jump in!

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