Drawing And Painting Tips - The Layout Sketch

December 6, 2018

A layout sketch is the process of faintly outlining the key elements of an image on to paper (or canvas). The aim should be to get each component the correct size and in the right position before moving forward. However, this first stage is where most amateur artworks go wrong!

In a portrait for example, the layout sketch would merely ensure that the outline of the eyes (nose, mouth, etc) are the precise shape, correct size, accurately aligned and the right distance apart. The layout sketch requires no further detail, but get this wrong, and your artwork will be doomed to failure, no matter how good your painting or drawing technique is.

It is possible with a great deal of practise and care, to complete a layout sketch by eye alone, but is that how professional artists work? No they don’t! Christmas Art Contest is money and professional artists use techniques and tools to get precise layout work done quickly.

Here are the most common tools and techniques for working from a photograph.


The simplest tool is use of a pencil as a ruler and protractor. For example, when drawing a face, the pencil can be used to measure the relative size of an eye, the distance between the ear lobe and the corner of an eye, or the angle of the nose. This works best when copying from a large photograph, and reproducing an image at the same size.

The technique is simple: lay the pencil flat on the photograph. Place the point of the pencil where you want to measure from, and grasp the other end of the pencil at the exact point you wish to measure to. Without changing your grip, move the pencil to the paper and make a mark on the paper at the tip and point of your grasp.

Similarly, angles can be duplicated by laying the pencil on the photograph, say a roof line in a landscape, and carefully moving the pencil to the paper while retaining that angle. An easier method is to place you reference photo over your paper, so that the pencil can be rolled from one surface to the other without altering its angle significantly.

A slightly easier method is to use a ruler, and take absolute measurements. If you need to re-scale an image, the use of a ruler is preferable. For example, when scaling up to twice the size, you simply double the measurement (etc). But, this technique has become outdated.

Alternatively, it is possible to buy dividers that achieve the same measuring effect. Some even have a limited re-scaling function.

Most people now have access to a PC with peripherals, so it is easier to scan and re-print a photograph at the same size you want to draw or painting, rather than re-scale as you go.

The use of a pencil (or anything else) as a ruler is best employed for checking minor detail dimensions and angles.

Grid method

Another slightly outdated but effective method of laying-out is the grid. Briefly, you need to draw a grid over the reference image, and a grid on your paper. The layout is achieved by separately copying the contents of each box of the grid. In effect, your layout will comprise lots of tiny drawings that all fit together to make the whole.

Using a grid limits the potential for error, and the smaller your grid boxes, the more accurate your copy will be. If your grid is say 1cm squares, then your layout lines can never be inaccurate by more than 1cm (unless your grid is inaccurate, or you draw something in the wrong square), but the chances are your sketch will be pretty close to millimetre perfect.

You can use grids of different sizes for the reference photograph and the artwork. In this way, re-scaling (if you need to) is easy. For example, to double the size of your drawing, use a 1cm grid on the photo, and a 2cm grid on the drawing paper. However, for the system to work, both parts must have the same number of grid boxes.