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Grids, Scaling Up, Tracing: Cheating?

Durer_2There’s an exercise in a few OCA art courses that holds within it all sorts of possibilities, but is often treated in a cursory manner.
Students are asked to transfer a simple line drawing to a larger sheet using a grid. You know the drill, I’m sure. A grid is laid over a source drawing and then a larger grid with the same arrangement of squares is drawn on a large sheet of paper. The content of each square is then transferred across. The result ought to be a fairly accurate transcription of the source. I use the technique myself, though I ‘grid-up’ black and white photographs in Photoshop before the transfer. The images are more complex, but the principle is the same.
Techniques for transferring images from one place to another have always been exploited. Tracing, for example, has always had a place in art. The mythic ‘birth of drawing’ tells the story of a Greek girl tracing the outline of her true love before he goes to war, creating a presence that indicates an absence.
There is scholarly discussion about whether Vermeer used a Camera Obscura to layout his exquisite paintings. Opinion is split (see here for more information) but it’s certainly possible. Dürer made a woodcut of an elaborate device for plotting a three-dimensional form onto a two-dimensional surface.
Scaling up using a grid is a technique that would have been familiar to fresco painters, muralists and so on, and it allows for impressive works to be made. When working close to a large wall or ceiling, it’s impossible and/or inconvenient to keep stepping back to see if the perspective or scale is right, for instance. A drawing, gridded up and transferred correctly, makes life a lot easier.
The advent of photography made a difference to how pictures were made and/or composed. Artist became liberated from slavish representation and started to play more with abstraction and the surface quality of paintings, collages and drawings. But some artists integrated photography into their practice. Matisse, for instance, took reference shots of his paintings as they evolved.
Nowadays it’s common for laptops and projectors to be used for transferring small drawings onto large surfaces. I’ve used both overhead and digital projectors to create work, making part of the job relatively easy. There is an interesting probem, though. You get in the way of yourself by throwing an annoying shadow onto the image. I once tried drawing the shadow I cast as I was drawing. The drawing arm kept extending.
So, are these techniques cheating? Surely any drawing made freehand while looking at the subject are more valid / true / honest? Perhaps, but I think you’d need to define those terms. By using techniques that help us transfer what we see (and linear perspective might once have been seen as a ‘cheat’, too), allows a degree of freedom. The focus of the artist can, for example, be on mark-making rather than simple accuracy. Even the simple technique of transferring using a grid produces wildly different results, depending on the ability of the artist.
Cheats also offer the possibility of making superhuman works like the portraits made made by Chuck Close. It’s easy to forget that for the vast majority of art history, pictures were made by groups of people, with the master directing activity and adding finishing touches. Would that count as cheating?
I contend that pretty much any shortcut or cheat is worth trying, but it won’t ever be a substitute for pushing ideas around, freehand, on a piece of paper. Visual experimentation ought to be important to any artist. I’ve advocated the importance of getting on with it on this blog a few times, but I don’t think it can be said enough. Anything that helps us work through ideas can help. Collage, photocopying, photography, tracing, and projections can all offer ways of re-thinking imagery and ought to be used freely. Art isn’t sport. The rules, such as they are, are made to be tested and stretched.
A caveat: Notwithstanding all that I’ve just written, in an academic context certain rules do apply. Plagiarism is forbidden and painting or drawing over other people’s work in order to make something that looks ‘right’ is not on. But borrowing a composition or tracing a detail might be a way of learning about how something was solved. Using a grid to transfer your own compositional sketch from an A6 thumbnail to A3 might save you a lot of time and heartache.

Posted by author: Bryan
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8 thoughts on “Grids, Scaling Up, Tracing: Cheating?

  • I will frequently scale up my preliminary drawing on to canvas by drawing a grid. This helps hugely if the composition is complicated. If I had a projector then I would definitely use it because it is another aid to speed up a sometimes laborious task so I can get on with the painting.
    Another trick I use is when I have a small drawing I am happy with but want to make multiple colour studies. Instead of drawing it again, I scan the drawing, play with the exposure on my laptop so that the drawing is only faintly visible as a guide. I then print multiple copies on to card for mixed media/ paint colour studies.

    • That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Using these sorts of techniques can get you somewhere quickly. It’s important to not lose sight of the purpose of the ‘cheats’ though. Using grids for transferring images of people / animals can be tricky. I don’t know why, but I suspect that it’s a combination of photographs creating flat versions of the world coupled with our hardwired sensitivity to recognising people. Always worth mixing up the way things are done.

  • I must admit,using a grid was never something I really saw much use for as I thought it took away from the act and freedom of drawing somehow,but after seeing your work on Saturday at Bank Street and speaking to you about it,I have a whole knew appreciation for it. As a process, and a means to an end in itself, its completlely liberating, because it allows you to focus on the task at hand ie markmaking if thats what you’re specifically looking at for a project. I think its a great little trick!

  • Thanks for this post Bryan. I must admit I always feel uncomfortable about tracing and copying, but it’s means to an end isn’t it? I do think that copying from photographs often results in dead looking work and too many people do this, especially of people, in particular digital artists I know through a Facebook group (iPad painters and iPad artists).

    • I think it is important to note that upscaling your own drawings is very different to tracing or transferring a photograph.
      Sometimes getting it right on paper is easier than on canvas where the pencil or charcoal is more difficult to erase or correct. I found this easier with certain areas like portraits otherwise I always end up with wonky eyes, etc which I missed at a larger scale.

  • I think any judgement made regarding the method has to be based on the results. If it delivers, then it’s fine. If it doesn’t – and you’re right Jane about figures being carried across from photographs having a tendency to look flat – then it ought to be ditched. But these techniques ought not be thrown out in favour of some skewed notion of authenticity.

  • This is an absolute breath of fresh air. I see nothing wrong in using a grid, tracing, photocopying or using camera techniques, as long as it is used honestly for our own work. Edgar Degas used tracing, evidenced in the many clips of tracings found after his death. He also used early camera techniques which were on display in the Royal Academy exhibition, Degas and the Ballet. I don’t believe the work of Degas looked flat. The real work is in mark making, tone and colour. Not how one achieves the basic outline.

  • I don’t think anything is cheating, unless it is denied. However, I would be wary about using photos, grids etc for certain kinds of work. It can be a trap. If the image is ‘got’ easily and then mark- making is applied on top the whole result can look very slick and stylised. Surely the getting of the image creates the marks. They are not two separate things.

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