Squaring Up a Photograph for Painting

When painting from a photograph, in most instances, the photograph is much smaller than the canvas. This can make things tricky when it comes to painting various elements of the painting in proportion, not only each element within itself, but also in relation to the other elements.

If you don’t have a foolproof way to upscale your photograph onto your canvas correctly, you could also find that the image that you transfer turns out to be too big or too small for the canvas, and that can be disappointing to discover after hours of sketching and painting.


Begin by checking the ratio of your photograph to your canvas. Do you have a square canvas and a rectangular photograph? If the photo is the wrong size, crop it using pieces of paper to block out the areas that you don’t want to paint, or, if you don’t care to preserve the photo, feel free to chop off the edges that you don’t want.

Creating grids

The easiest way to create grids on your canvas and photo is to use squares only. Measure one side of the photograph (for instance, the top side), divide the length by 4 or 5 (or whatever number will result in an easily measurable unit, for example: My photo is 14cm long along the top, so I will divide that by 7 to get the easy length of 2cm to work with) and draw lines down your photo using the spacing that you calculated.

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Then, draw lines along your photo, using the same spacing, to create squares. If you don’t want to damage the photo at all, use a piece of transparent paper or glass to cover it, and draw the lines on that, instead.

Next, you need to draw a grid onto your canvas. Use charcoal to create the grid on your canvas. Divide the length of the side of the canvas (the equivalent side of the photo – so if you measured the top of the photo, now use the top of the canvas) by the same number that you divided the photo by. Draw the lines using the correct spacing that you calculate, both down and along the canvas.

Count the number of squares that you have on the photo and canvas. They should be the same. Don’t worry if you have extra half or quarter squares along one side of the photo and one side of the canvas, as long as they have the same ratios.

If the photo that you have chosen has a lot of detail that you want to concentrate on, then you may want to turn your squares into smaller triangles. This is very simple to do – just draw diagonal lines through the corners of the squares of both the photo and the canvas.

Giving your grids coordinates

It is not necessary, but is a good idea to number and letter your grids. Place numbers at the top of each column and letters on the left of each row. For beginner oil painters, this will help you greatly in getting your proportions correct.

Sketching and painting the photograph

Transfer the details of each block in the photo onto the corresponding block on your canvas. You will find it easy to get proportions and details correct with the blocks as your guidelines, and after the initial work of creating the grids, you should find that it takes less time than usual to get a more accurate representation of the photo.

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