Grid method of drawing

How to use the grid method of drawing to improve your accuracy when drawing with the app Paper on iPad.

Last updated on
6 min read
On this page

A question I receive often is “how do you create such accurate line drawings in your Paper portraits.” The short answer is practice… about 1,460 hours of practice. The longer and more helpful answer is, there are several techniques I use to achieve life-like drawings — one of which I’m going to share with you now.

Why use the grid method?

If you’ve ever taken a basic drawing class there’s a good chance you were introduced to the grid method. Teachers use it as a way to strengthen observation skills and help overcome left brain roadblocks beginners often fight against. It may not be the ideal tool to use with Paper by FiftyThree, but for those who struggle with drawing it can build a solid foundation for you creations.

Drawing the grids

Drawing grids is boring and tedious work that can add a hours to prep time. A fact that I experienced when I first made the jump to drawing realistic portraits with Paper by FiftyThree. I’m not trying to scare you off from using this method, just be prepared to invest time into creating straight and evenly spaced lines.

a T-square, Walnut Pencil, and moleskine journal on a grid mat

To start you’ll need a ruler and a stylus1 to measure and draw straight on the iPad’s screen. Next you’ll want to determine the size of your grid. If you plan to use the entire iPad’s screen and cover the canvas, a grid in ½ or 1″ increments3 works out well.

Using a T-square can speed up the grid making process, just be careful not to press too hard on the ruler so it touches the screen while you draw. Doing so can interfere with the iPad’s touch sensors and you’ll struggle to register a mark.

If you don’t have a T-square you can use a ruler to help place a dot every inch (or whatever increment you deem appropriate). Next you’ll want to slide the ruler down parallel to where you drew the first row off dots and make another set.

three rows of dots in Paper with tool tray open

Switching to a straight-edge2 you’ll use the dots as guides to draw straight lines parallel to each other. Because iPad styli aren’t that precise, it can take some practice placing a line where you want.

drawing a line with Pencil and a T-square

drawing a line with Pencil and a straight-edge

ProTip: straight-edge placement

Place your straight-edge directly on top of the reference dots, then slide it to the left or right ¼″ depending on what hand you are. This extra space gives the fat rubber tip of your stylus room to move and fall exactly on the dots. If not, reposition it until it does.

Take your time drawing lines as accurate as and as light as possible, it’ll make your life easier later — trust me. Once you’ve drawn all the horizontal lines repeat the process for the vertical lines, intersecting them as you go.

Example of a finished grid drawn in pencil on Paper app

With the hardest grid complete you’ll do the same thing to your reference photograph. The size of the grids don’t have to match, just make sure they are proportional and share the same amount of lines.

Grid making shortcuts

In case you didn’t know, Paper by 53 has the ability to duplicate pages. If you took your time drawing a perfect grid you can use it as a template of sorts and copy it each time you need it.

To duplicate a page, pinch it to zoom out to journal view, and then press and hold on the + button until the Duplicate option appears.

Paper journal open with duplicate page active

You can cut the amount of time spent drawing grids on your reference photographs as well. You can use grid apps4 found in the App Store, use something like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator to overlay a precise grid, or draw it once on a sheet of transparent acetate to place on top of your photos without having to draw a grid each time.

screenshot grid apps for iOS App Store

Drawing with the grid

With the finished grids you’re ready to begin creating your line drawing. Pick a box to start with and focus on drawing the shapes and contour lines you see. Keep it light and use the pencil tool to mark the edges.

drawing with the grid

Using the Drawing Grid app to zoom in and view one box at a time.

ProTip: focus on one grid box at a time

If you’re having trouble focusing, cover up any neighboring boxes with a sheet of paper to reveal the box you’re working on.

You can certainly shade and paint each box as you go, but it’s pretty hard to keep everything looking harmonious — especially with the watercolor brush. Matching colors becomes difficult as you bounce around the grid, so I suggest working in grays if you plan to use this method to create a finished drawing.

Removing the grid

Here comes another drawback to the grid method. If you thought making grids was time intensive. Wait until you try and remove them from your drawing.

My preferred method of getting rid of the lines is by dabbing the eraser over them. Remember, the quicker you tap, the smaller the dot and more organic it will appear.

erasing the grid

Depending on the complexity of your subject, using your finger to Blend away lines can produce nice results. It works best on lines that don’t have a lot going on around them, just in case you smudge too much — less you have to redraw later.

Next steps

You may have to redraw lines depending on where the grids fell. Use a matching color and lightly pencil in any lines you partially erased. For those areas that have ghost lines you can cover-up or lighten them using hatch strokes and an appropriately colored pencil.

Completed line drawing with touch-ups and shading applied

Using this outline you can proceed to draw, ink, or paint on top of it. In my Drawing Skin and Faces guide I cover all the ways I use pencil and watercolor to achieve realistic results.

With practice you won’t need the grid anymore and can rely on simple freehand sketches instead. Take a look at my PaperFaces drawings from beginning to end if you want proof of what practice and determination can achieve.

Work in process screenshot

Work in process screenshot

Work in process screenshot

As always, hit me up on Twitter or in the comments below if you have a question or need further clarification on the process.


  1. I like to use FiftyThree’s Pencil for drawing lines with a ruler. The rubber tip is thinner than some other styli and has the added benefit of palm rejection to avoid leaving stray marks on the canvas.

  2. You could use a ruler as your straight-edge, but I find that something like a book is thicker and makes lining up the stylus easier. If you do use a ruler avoid the ones with a cork backing, it can interfere with multi-touch and make triggering touches with the stylus’ tip difficult.

  3. A full-size iPad’s screen is a little over 7.5″ x 5.5″, so working in 1/2″ increments divides up nicely with room to spare if you want to label the grid in the margins.

  4. Drawing Grid is a free iOS app that gets the job done if you can get past the awful and confusing UI. A couple others I found but didn’t test where Artists Grid Tool and CopyIt.

MadeMistakes.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees when linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. For full details read the complete disclosure policy.

About the author

Hi I’m Michael Rose. Just another boring, bearded, tattooed, time traveling designer from Buffalo New York. I maintain several open source projects and occassionally blog.

Glitched photo of Michael Rose with a long beard.

Interactions

8 comments

  1. Andy wrote on

    Thanks for a great post.

    I’ve been following Paper Faces for quite a while now. The skills you have developed over time are absolutely stunning. Thank you so much for sharing your drawings and for showing us how you do it. Great job!

    Best regards from Germany

  2. Morgan Craft wrote on

    I randomly stumbled onto your site from a Jekyll template design. And being a long time user of Studio 53 Paper app this was great to see. Especially since I’m like 1 of the 100’s of people that have requested grid-paper options on the paper apps customer-service system. But this is amazing, now I need to get a t-square as trying to just use a ruler is poop.

  3. Michael Rose wrote on

    Nice! I love Jekyll.

    Add me to the list of those wanting support for native grids in Paper. It would be even better if the grids were on their own layer and you can toggle them on/off.

    You might have better luck taking a piece of cardboard and cutting your own T-square. I had a lot of problems using metal and plastic ones I have laying around the house. They either slide around too much on the iPad’s glass screen or they register as a touch and won’t let you draw on the screen at the same time.

  4. Freddyt wrote on

    I would love to see an import option with this app… Still it’s a very nice app

Comments are closed.