Drawing from Photographs: Tips and Tricks

Posted by on Jul 5, 2013 in Painting | Comments

While most artists agree it’s best to work from the real thing whenever possible, sometimes circumstances dictate that we must draw from a photograph. Maybe it’s not convenient to sit in one spot and draw, as in a crowded subway station or looking at a glacier from the deck of a cruise ship. Or perhaps the moment you’re trying to capture is too fleeting– such as a dramatic sunset or a bird in flight. Sometimes only drawing from a photograph will work. Here are some useful tips to help you do just that.

One of the best ways to draw from a photograph is the grid method.

This involves drawing a rectangular or square grid on a print of the photo you want to reproduce (or in Photoshop on your computer), and drawing a grid on your drawing paper. In this way you are only copying small portions of the photo at a time, which makes it easier to keep your proportions correct. It’s also easy to scale up your photo to a much bigger drawing. Let’s try this with a photo of Emperor Constantine. I’m sure he won’t mind.

Step 1:

Start by drawing a grid on the photo using a pen or marker so you can see the lines. The smaller the dimensions of the grid, the more accurate the transfer will be. For this 6×8 photo I drew a line every 1 inch.


It’s important to make sure the dimensions of your paper scale accurately to the dimensions of your photo. If you have a 5×7 photo and you want to transfer it to a sheet of 9×16 paper, you are going to have to crop one or the other to make the proportions work.

Step 2:

Draw a grid on your paper using a 6H or 7H, which are very hard, light pencils that are easy to erase. If you are transferring onto a sheet of 8×10 drawing paper, you must crop your paper to 7.5×10 to match the dimensions of the photo. Using that ratio, draw a gridline every 1 1/4 inches, because 10/8 equals 1 1/4. (Don’t worry, this is the only math you’ll have to do!) If you use simple multiples of your original dimensions it’s even easier.

Step 2

Step 3:

Start copying the photo one grid square at a time, using your 6H pencil to lightly sketch in lines. Then a softer pencil, such as a 4B, to make the drawing darker.

Step 3

Step 4:

Work your way carefully through the drawing, methodically establishing the location of features and information before firming them up. If you find that it’s still hard to get the proportions of the details correct, subdivide your grids again, in both the photo and the drawing. The smaller your squares, the easier it is to pin down the location of information accurately.

Step 4

Step 5:

You can erase the grid lines as you go or once you are finished.

TIP: Keep a copy of your photo handy without any grid lines on it. In some instances the grid lines can obscure small but important details, such as the cleft in Constantine’s chin above.

The most important thing to remember about drawing from photographs is that even though the photo has already been taken, the composition is not yet entirely determined. You can still crop, edit or omit, and even rearrange if you so choose. Don’t let whatever arbitrary compositional choice you made when you took the picture dictate what your drawing will look like. You can still make editorial choices. Try cutting up a print of the photo and collaging or rearranging elements. You can even repeat elements or omit them entirely.

Have you drawn from a photo before? What were some of the challenges?


  1. payric Ramage says:

    So with the grid method if I use , lets say a 5X7 photo and I want to put it a cropped 5×7 paper, board or whatever, would the grid lines be the same on both. 1 inch, 1/2 in or whatever I choose to do for the grid?

  2. Paul Heaston says:

    Yup, if you’re using the same size photo and drawing surface, the grid will be the same dimensions :)

  3. Nancy Barra says:

    Have you used something transparent to draw your grid lines onto and then placed it on top of the photo or do you always draw them directly onto the photo?

    1. Paul Heaston says:

      If it’s convenient for you to do so and you can easily print more, you can draw your grid directly on the photo as I did. However, if you don’t wish to ruin the photo, a transparent sheet is a good idea!