When I was learning how to draw birds, I believed that a skilled artist would only draw freehand—that they would work strictly from observation, measure by eye, and produce an accurate depiction of the subject based on their drafting skills alone. No professional artist would ever use drawing tools like grids, proportional dividers, or an app—would they?
Unfortunately, I couldn’t make successful drawings on my own. I’d work for hours, feel like I’d done a pretty decent job, then come back and see how off it was. The proportions were so wonky—the bill was too big or too small or at a completely daft angle. Or some other body part looked as if it had been added by genetic engineering. I’d stare at my work and think, “What’s wrong with me? Was I on drugs? How could I have ever thought this was correct?”
After weeks of struggling, I began to try various drawing tools including grids, proportional dividers, and even an app. Many artists consider using these drawing tools as cheating but each one taught me valuable lessons and contributed to my skills in different ways.
Using a Grid
As I went on, day after dogged day, my frustration grew. Finally, I snapped. I superimposed my reference image on the simplest possible drawing tool: a grid, put a printed copy of the same grid under my paper (copy paper, the cheapest I could get) and tried again. And it helped! I could see angles and see the proportions in each square and with patience, I could produce a drawing that way. Tedious? Yes. But I kept it up, because progress.
What I learned from drawing with a grid
- The grid is the simplest, low-tech drawing tool possible. You can print one out or even draw directly on the page like I did on the sketch on the lower right, above.
- Compare every angle to either a completely horizontal or a completely vertical line. I realized that I was sometimes having difficulty discerning the direction of angles correctly. The grid lines resolved that problem for me.
- The grid reduced the image to a series of abstract shapes. I found that abstract shapes were easier to reproduce. Any fan of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain will understand this idea—the thinking brain doesn’t get in such a tizzy when faced with a simple shape but give it a whole bird to draw? Watch out.
- Getting the basic outline and contours down is more than half the battle. At least, it was for me. Once I got the proportions of the major parts taken care of, I could successfully draw or paint the rest from observation.
Using a Proportional Divider
Even though my drawings were improving from using the grid, I still felt frustrated. I’d watch online drawing classes and the teacher would say something like: “Imagine your subject in a box. See, the box is twice as high as it is tall…” And then they’d go on to measure the proportions by eye.
I would attempt to follow their instructions and fail. What’s wrong me? I’d think. Why can’t I do this? Am I defective?
Then I ran into a fellow artist friend and she told me about using a proportional divider. The concept of this drawing tool was very appealing. I wouldn’t have to estimate the proportions out of thin air. I could measure them.
I loved using the proportional divider. I felt empowered, and I mean that literally. I was still having trouble estimating angles so I got a little clear plastic ruler that had a protractor printed on it. And I measured every angle. Ok, not every angle but the big ones: the angles of the bill, the tail, the legs, those pesky feet. Tedious? You have no idea.
Creating the outline and interior contours for each drawing was a slog but once those were down, I had a solid block-in. Soon, I had a major breakthrough. My work went from mediocre to good to, well, really good. I submitted my work to a show and I got accepted for my dream exhibition. I was on fire.
What I learned from drawing with a proportional divider (and a protractor)
- Start with a block-in. I measured the angles of major parts to achieve an outline and I drew those as straight lines. Unwittingly, I was doing what Anthony Rider refers to as a block-in. A block-in reduces the complex subject into a simple abstract shape. In essence, it takes what I learned from drawing with a grid and amped it up to the whole image.
- Compare measurements across the image using imaginary vertical and horizontal lines. To use the proportional divider to place the eye, for example, I would hold the protractor against the reference image either vertically or horizontally and see where the edges of the eye intersected lines I had already drawn. I could then measure from something I had already drawn to get to something I was trying to add.
- Practice measuring my eye. As I carefully measured angle after angle with my trusty protractor, I found that I could see the angles more accurately without it. That allowed me to measure by eye and then check myself and grow in skill and accuracy. This also meant my confidence grew, too.
Using an App
After executing many drawings with the help of the proportional divider and the protractor, I gained enough skill to draw without them. I was able to produce successful drawing and paintings on my own, estimating angles and proportions by eye.
All was going well until I got deep into the work on my current book project. I had 41 birds to illustrate and a deadline to meet. I got through all the thumbnails and then the preliminary drawings. I took all the drawings to the author and he started giving me feedback. “You need to check the bill length on this one.” “The legs are too long.” “I think you got the body too thick.”
I tried making corrections using the proportional divider. My productivity slowed waaaaay down. And I began to freak out. I don’t have time for this. And then I discovered a high tech drawing tool: an app called Camera Lucida.
Camera Lucida is an app for a tablet or phone. In short, the subject image appears to be projected onto the page or canvas. By looking at the image on the tablet, you can trace it onto the page.
I set up my iPad, placed my paper on the table, and fiddled around until the composition looked good. I put my pencil on the page and peered at the screen. Slowly, carefully, I produced an outline of the bird and the major interior contours. My first lines were shaky and awkward so I started over. On the third try, I stepped back and took a look at what I’d done.
The outline was … perfect.
Instead of hours of measuring, sweating, erasing, clenching my jaw and scrunching my shoulders, I had exactly the outline I needed to produce the drawing. It was fast. It was easy. It was addictive.
My productivity went out the roof. Instead of laboring to get one drawing done in over a week’s time, I was able to produce two drawings in four days. And the next week, two more. I went from feeling underwater to having breathing room to spare. On top of that, I had another breakthrough! My style shifted as I fell in love with line work. And finally, I figured out how to draw cross-contour lines and produce crosshatching that didn’t leave me cringing.
What I learned from using Camera Lucida
- Understanding external morphology of the bird is essential to creating a successful outline. After years of study, I know the parts and plumage characteristics of birds very well. My ability to create good outlines using the app rests on knowing what to look for and which details to capture (and which to leave out).
- Trusting my intuition about shapes, volumes, and planes. Deep down, I know how objects move in space—we all do—but I had been afraid to trust my intuition. By speeding up one part of the process (the outline), the app freed me to explore and experiment with other aspects of the work. This extra time resulted in a huge breakthrough with cross-contour drawing.
- Daily practice with freehand drawing is essential. Like any muscle, my drawing skills will weaken if they’re not exercised. While I am grateful for the help the app gives me, I don’t want to use it for everything.
Are grids, proportional dividers and apps cheating?
The short answer: No.
I think of think of these as drawing tools for getting our work done and ways of learning. If using these tools gets you to what you want to accomplish as an artist, then Yay! Use them! (And as an aside, I know several professional artists who use tracing photographs via light tables, projectors, or apps for all their work including teaching.)
That said, I don’t want to be dependent on using a drawing tool to draw birds. This is a choice I’m making as an artist. I want the skill of drawing accurate images by sight, working freehand. These tools have all provided lessons that help me toward that goal.
Have you ever used one or more of these drawing tools? What was your experience? Let me know in the comments below!