Action Sketching: Using a simple, single-line grid to develop scenic relationships

The right proportions matter more in your finished sketch than your drawing or painting skills. Bad proportions are easily recognizable and when present, are possibly the main reason why people avoid drawing. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The two types of guides I use to achieve proportional relationships are a grid app on a computer (tablet, phone, or desktop) or a proportional divider. Whether in the field or working at home, neither interferes with your drawing style, loose or tight. There only purpose is to provide relational guidance.

As an example of this technique, below is the finished sketch I began in “Action Sketching: How to draw landscapes and buildings by using a grid.”

Final product using a "single-line grid" to create scenic relationships

To summarize that article, a grid app creates a transparent grid to place on top of a photo.

Example of using a grid app over a photo

Each unit in the grid frames a small portion of the subject. Because there is less information in a grid unit than in the entire subject, reproducing a grid unit, unit-by-unit, results in a highly accurate drawing.

. . . but managing a multitude of grid units is a lot of work and is not much fun!

Single Line Technique:

A simplified version of using a grid to help sketch proportional relationships uses a grid app or a proportional divider in relationship with a single straight line.

To create a single reference line on your sketch paper, mark where you want your main subject to appear from its base to its top.

Preliminary sketch by Karen Little demonstrating how to use a simple grid

Develop a preliminary sketch as follows:

  • Draw a “height” line that shows the top and bottom boundary of your main subject
  • Divide the line into quarters using light tick marks, shown here as red dots.

(Note: Quarters are appropriate for most sketchbooks. Depending on subject and size, however, you might want to divide line into a greater number of equal units.)

  • Using the length between the quarters as a “ruler” from tick to tick, place tick marks as needed to the left or right of those on the line, making a lightly marked grid unit.
  • Roughly draft your subject relative to your tick marks.

Preliminary sketch by Karen Little demonstrating how to use a simple grid

Just a few tick marks in strategic areas should give you enough information from which to establish proportional relationships in your preliminary sketch.

Keep your preliminary pencil lines light so they don’t interfere with your final composition. If they are too dark, dab them with a kneaded eraser. (Note that I boosted the line contrast in my example here so you can see them.)

You only need a few guidelines to handle proportions. After that, your eye, skill, and technique determines how your final sketch appears.

Other Proportional Marking Tools:

If you don’t feel comfortable using a grid app when on location, use a proportional divider to achieve the same thing. This works similarly to the artist’s “thumb” method but conveys more information.

When holding the proportional divider directly out in front of you, fit the points from one end to represent the size of the subject.

The points on the opposite side measure the related size that should appear on your paper. Use the single line method to proceed, rather than attempt to measure every small detail.

Another useful tool is a drawing caliper. In this tutorial, the distance between line quarters is used to mark related tick marks. You only need to set the distance between a caliper’s points once, then use its points to repeatedly mark new areas.

Picture of a proportional divider and artist's drawing caliper



This article was written by Karen Little as part of an ongoing series of blogs on Action Sketching. Published on March 1, 2020.

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

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