Action Sketching: How to draw landscapes and buildings by using a grid

While it is easy to guess at what you see when drawing landscapes or architecture, you’ll create more realistic depictions when you use modern “sighting” tools, such as a notebook computer and grid app, combined with old fashion tools, such as a caliper, divider, or just your thumb.

Using sighting tools is very common among artists on all talent levels. What is here to help you today is the use of a computer tablet (or smartphone) outfitted as follows with a:

    • Camera
    • Drawing-grid app

The following picture I took in France from a parking lot overlooking a medieval village. When on location a few years ago, I drew the castle “by eye.” I wish I had thought of this technique at that time!

My goal was to draw the castle but because of distance, I could not easily see its details and guessed at proportions.  The box on the picture below marks my area of interest.

Drawing grid apps have several features, the most important of which:

    • Move and/or change size of the picture independently of the grid itself (very important!)
    • Easily change the size and shape of the grid (I like squares)
    • Change the size and color of the grid lines so you can see them on your photo
    • Lock the image in place so if you accidentally touch the screen (which is always an issue on a tablet), it won’t change
    • See the image without the app’s controls on it
    • Save your setup to your photo files

Example of Use

Here is how I should have tackled this scene had I had the right equipment.

Using your tablet (or smartphone), take a picture of the scene and bring it into a drawing grid app. Most of these apps let you take the picture from inside the app, so a two-step process is not needed.

Initially, your scene appears in its entirety, like shown below.

If needed, enlarge your image so the area of interest shows up. At this point, adjust the grid to a size that best helps you determine relationships between image elements.

I prefer square grids, so after grid size is set up, move your picture around until you find a logical presentation. For this example, I’m showing a lot of grid sections, but when I’m in the field, I use far less. The number of sections you use will depend on your drawing objectives, from highly detailed to more loosely interpreted.

When the display satisfies you, remove the grid app’s controls from sight.

I generally make preliminary sketches of complex compositions. Whether or not I use a grid, however, I always mark one set of cross centering lines (+) to help determine image relationships by quarter, rather than by the scene as a whole.

Many grid tutorials show sketchers slavishly reproducing each unit of the grid on paper, but when you get used to this method, you probably will not need that level of detail. Your final objectives determine the level of accuracy you need, and likewise, how many grid units you create for reference. (Google Search: How to Use Grids When Drawing.)

While in France, I sketched scenes like this using a simple caliper against cross centering lines to help plan relationships, resulting in a good depiction of what I saw. Using an actual grid, however, produces a more focused drawing.

Based on the photos shown here, my next article in this Action Sketching series will demonstrate ways to use a grid and caliper and why a preliminary sketch (or sketches) help you better see what you are looking at.

Drawing Grids on Tablet Computers

I own an iPad, so have access to numerous drawing grids provided through the Apple App Store. Prices range from free to $15, with many in the $10 range.

Demonstrated here was the “Drawing Grid by Brainga,” a $1 app. While it has a free trial period, you need to evaluate the “pro” version. When you click a feature that is locked, the app will prompt you to send your email in for a pass code. Do that! After the trial period, it will ask for payment. At $1, that’s very reasonable!

Note: Drawing grid apps also work on smartphones, although obviously, the image you see will be much smaller.



This article was written by Karen Little as part of an ongoing series of blogs on Action Sketching. Published on February 17, 2020.

Reproduction of this article is free to non-commercial websites (or other media) with permission and attributes to and the article’s author.

The photo used in this article was taken by Karen Little on a recent trip to France and it is copyright free for your use. All other material on Littleviews (with noted exceptions) is copyrighted on the date of publication.

Questions? Ask Karen Little at

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