Aiming for Accuracy

Strong drawings often play a pivotal role in representational art?they provide a framework that can make or break the final work. But even if you?re still developing your drawing skills, a good likeness is within your reach. There are some easy and reliable tools for improving the accuracy of your drawings, and getting familiar with these will help to give your paintings the strong foundation they need.

To begin, you could simply make your drawings from direct observation of your three-dimensional subject, but that won?t always be practical or possible. When that happens, a viable option is to photograph the subject and then create an enlarged drawing of that photo on tracing paper. The use of tracing paper allows you to refine and correct the image as required without dirtying your painting surface, plus it gives you the freedom to place the image anywhere in your composition or combine it with other images.

By itself, however, drawing from a photo won?t make your drawings any more accurate. But that doesn?t mean that drawing freehand is your only option. To make the best enlarged drawing possible, try a few helpful tools:

The Pantograph
Both accurate and inexpensive, the pantograph is an instrument (typically made of wood) that can be set to enlarge an image at ratios from 2-to-1 to 10-to-1, and it?s available from most mail-order houses and larger art supply stores. To use it, clamp the pantograph to your drawing board, tape your photo to the board underneath the pantograph?s scriber, and tape your tracing paper underneath its pencil. As you carefully move the scriber over the photo, the pencil moves in coordination and creates an enlarged image of the photo?s major outlines. I?ve found I get better control by using both hands to guide the scriber, as the weight of the pencil is sufficient to draw a faint line, which I can later darken, without additional pressure.

This tracing is, in effect, your map of the subject—an incomplete one, to be sure, but still very accurate. You?ll often find the need to fill in some gaps in the lines, and the pantograph doesn?t allow for shading, so in addition to the main outlines and principal details of the subject, I always trace the edges of the shadows as well. Then, since the resulting drawing can be a bit confusing, you can indicate which areas of the enlarged figure are to be darkened by writing the letter “D” in those areas, with “M” and “L” in the medium and light areas, or any similar method that works for you.

The tracing can be checked and adjusted as necessary, or you can simply discard it and start over without wasting your good supports if you don?t like the results. After the tracing is complete, rub the back of another piece of tracing paper with a 6B pencil or compressed charcoal and then use that as carbon paper to transfer your drawing to the final paper or canvas. Then complete the base drawing by paying attention to tones and contours and the more delicate edges. The pantograph can be an awkward instrument, and it takes some practice to use proficiently, but it?s one of the most accurate devices available.

The Grid
The grid—simple and cost-free—is probably the oldest technique you can use for accurately enlarging and transferring an image; masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer sometimes used grids to transfer their own small sketches to a larger canvas.

With this method I suggest getting an extra copy of your photo so that you can draw grid lines directly on it. (Or draw a grid on a piece of tracing paper taped over the photo.) Next draw an enlarged grid of the same number of squares on a piece of tracing paper. If, for example, you want your final drawing to be three times the size of the photo, then triple the size of the squares—from 1/2 to 1-1/2 inches, let?s say.

Now you can begin duplicating. For each square on the photograph, copy the outlines and contours of its contents by hand into the corresponding square of your tracing paper, carefully replicating where the outline meets the sides of the square. Continuing in this way, you?ll soon have a complete, enlarged outline of your subject that you can correct as needed and then transfer (without the grid!) to your surface with the same carbon-copy technique described earlier.

Proportional Dividers
Both the pantograph and the grid procedures will give you an accurate outline drawing of your subject, but your tracing will rarely be perfect. Sometimes the overall proportion and location of objects, such as the eyes in a portrait, will appear slightly off. If this is the case, you can use a ruler and some arithmetic to make corrections, but you?ll find it much easier to use a set of proportional dividers.

The proportional dividers are similar in form to a pair of scissors but with points at all four ends and an adjustable joint, as you can see in the illustration at right. By adjusting the joint you can set the device at any transfer ratio from 1-to-1 to 10-to-1. For example, if you use the points on the narrower end to measure the width of an eye, the wider ends of the dividers automatically spread to a distance exactly proportional to the width of that eye. If the eye in your reference photo was half an inch wide and the dividers are set at 3-to-1, you can then use them to check whether your enlarged eye is indeed 1 ? inches wide. If not, simply correct the tracing.

The quality of proportional dividers will vary, and some of the more irregular ratios can be a problem with the inexpensive plastic ones. But good dividers can be set at any ratio within their limits, they can be easily obtained from mail-order houses, and they?re all very easy to use.

The Opaque Projector
Another useful tool is the opaque projector, which comes in a wide variety of styles and prices. Placed directly on top of a 5×5-inch photo or other flat subject, it projects the image onto a vertical canvas or screen. You can also project it directly onto a piece of tracing paper taped to a white board and then trace the outlines of the subject onto the paper. As with the other methods, once you have the drawing on the tracing paper you can transfer it to any surface you like.

The tracing paper step is especially useful here because it would take a lot of fiddling to direct the projected image to exactly the right spot on your canvas. And I find that projected images almost always require correction. They?ll be exact reproductions of the original photo only if the lens of the projector is exactly parallel to the surface on which you?re tracing, and only if you trace correctly. It?s not easy to bring the lens and the paper into an exact parallel arrangement, and the projected image is usually dim and soft-edged. So after tracing the image try using the proportional dividers and the photo itself to check and correct the key elements of the drawing. If necessary, you can even lay a piece of tracing paper on the photo, make a photo-sized tracing, and then project that outline drawing onto another piece of tracing paper.

You?ll want to try out various methods to see what works best for you, and you may find that different tools are appropriate to different subjects. While these techniques are ideal for realism, they can also be useful for more experimental purposes like distorting, fusing, or even reimagining your subjects. In any case, if you?re trying to capture an image in your drawings, your tools are not limited to the hand and the eye; put a whole range of techniques at your disposal and you?ll see the improvement.

You should be able to find a variety of these products—pantographs, proportional dividers and opaque projectors—at large art supply stores and mail-order businesses, or even from retailers of drafting equipment for engineers and architects. Check with your local art materials dealer if you have difficulty. To help with your search, here are just a few of the products? manufacturers and distributors.

Alvin & Co. Inc., P.O. Box 188, Windsor CT 06095; 800/444-ALVIN; pantographs, proportional dividers, drafting and fine-art equipment.

Trident, 7395 Pioneer Road, West Palm Beach FL 33413; 800/TRIDENT; pantographs and other art, drafting and engineering supplies.

Artograph Inc., 2832 Vicksburg Lane N., Minneapolis MN 55447; 888/975-9555; vertical and horizontal opaque projectors and other graphic design and fine-art products.

Staedtler Inc., P.O. Box 2196, Chatsworth CA 91311; 818/882-6000; projection equipment and supplies, drawing and design products.

A signature member of the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor West and the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Society, Catherine Anderson lives in Glen Ellen, California. Her painting Harbor Fog was chosen to be included in The Best of Flower Painting 2 (to be published by North Light Books).Visit her Web site at

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