How To Transfer A Photograph To Your Canvas or Paper For Painting

You’ve just taken the most amazing photograph of a Tiger at the zoo and you would quite like to paint it. Now if only there were an easy way of drawing your photograph onto your canvas or paper, whilst getting everything in the right place, and that didn’t involve a lot of measurements and lots of tiny gridded squares. Luckily there is, and it’s a method I use all the time for tricky subjects like portraits or pet portraits:

preparing photograph for painting

Tiger Photograph courtesy of Steve Tracy


Aspect Ratio ( the height of your photograph, in relation to its width )

The only thing you need to keep in mind is the aspect ratio of both your photo and your canvas/paper. If your printed photograph is say 1500mm x 1000mm, that is a ratio of 3:2

  • 3 x 500mm = 1500mm  ( photo width )
  • 2 x 500mm = 1000mm ( photo height )

…then your canvas must also be the same 3:2 ratio.

The easiest way to achieve this is to manipulate your photograph on your computer before you start, either by cropping, resizing or adjusting the print size – You can get excellent FREE image manipulation software here at Be careful when resizing photos to change the aspect ratio though, as this can make them look out of proportion if overdone ( tall skinny tiger, or short fat tiger ).

In the example below, I have a 16 x 12 inch canvas, and I’ve printed out my reference photo at 10 x 7.5 inches. Note that the canvas and photo are NOT THE SAME SIZE, it doesn’t matter, because they are the same aspect ratio, this time they are both are 4:3


  • 4 x 2.5 inch = 10 inch ( photo width )
  • 3 x 2.5 inch = 7.5 inch ( photo height )


  • 4 x 4 inch = 16 inch ( canvas width )
  • 3 x 4 inch = 12 inch ( canvas height )


Stage 1)

Start by using a ruler to draw a line diagonally from corner to corner. Then do the same from the other corners, as below –

how to prepare your artists canvas


Stage 2)

Now measure half way across the bottom of the canvas and make a mark, do the same at the top, draw a line along these two points to divide the canvas into two halves.

drawing lines on canvas


Stage 3)

Follow the same principle for dividing the canvas into two, top and bottom.

easy way to grid your canvas for painting


Stage 4)

Draw diagonal lines through each of your new 1/4 canvas squares, as below.

how to grid a canvas for a painting


Stage 5)

Now line up the intersections of these new lines you just made, and draw a line vertically, top to bottom.

dissect a canvas with lines


Stage 6)

Follow the same principle to draw lines through the intersections horizontally, as below.

drawing lines on a art canvas for a painting


Stage 7)

Now divide the canvas further by drawing lines through the intersections that haven’t been lined though yet, as below.

how to grid up a canvas to paint on


Stage 8)

Draw lines through those same intersections the other way, as below.

art canvas grid to transfer photograph


Stage 9)

Now print out your reference photograph and divide it up by drawing lines on it in the same way that you just divided up your canvas, as below.

Note that this photo is not the same size as my canvas, in fact, no where near, but.. importantly… it’s the same aspect ratio 4:3.

how to grid a photograph for a painting


Stage 10)

Let the fun begin  – All you need do now is transpose what you see in each of the sections you’ve made on the photograph onto the corresponding sections you’ve made on your canvas, as I’ve begun to do below.

how to grid a canvas to transfer a photograph to it

Now of course, you could keep going with the principles above and continue to divide your photograph up even further, into even smaller sections. If your photograph is very complex, or you think there is still too much room for error, continue to divide each small triangle on both canvas and photograph further. This is the method I use for most of my wildlife, portrait and pet portrait paintings. I rarely use this method when painting landscapes as I seldom need,or want, my landscape paintings to resemble the photograph accurately.

Give it a go and let me know how you get on. If you have any problems get in touch.

See the finished tiger painting here.

Happy painting



I look forward to some great comments below, and if you enjoyed this post and found it useful, please share it, thanks.

10 thoughts on “How To Transfer A Photograph To Your Canvas or Paper For Painting”

  1. Great tip!
    I’ve only used squares before. It looks like the diagonal lines would be a huge help toward keeping each section aligned correctly.
    Also, I love how this method has a minimal need for measuring marks–which reduces the risk of several tiny errors in measurement marks compounding into noticeable distortion errors in the the final painting.
    Thank you!!! 

    I’m looking forward to trying this and I’ll let you know how is goes.

    1. Hi Stephanie, I’m glad you found this useful. This method is so much easier than gridding-up in the conventional way, and as you say, it avoids all the measuring and maths. Do let me know how you get on, happy painting. Chris

  2. I understand same aspect ratio grinding but struggle when gridding a reference picture of DIFFERENT aspect ratio. Is there a simple, readily understandable formula for those of us who aren’t mathematically inclined?

    1. Hi Hilary, the gridding method above only works if the aspect ratio is the same on the reference photo as the canvas/paper you intend using. So you have to crop, or reshape, any reference photo first to the same ratio as the canvas/paper. Chris

      1. Thanks – I understand that the method above only works for the same aspect ratio: my question was whether there is an understandable formula to apply where the aspect ratio is different, to calculate how to modify (crop) the reference photo/picture. I have seen formulae, but how to apply them (for me…) lacks clarity. It is not always possible to chose a canvas of the same aspect ratio, unfortunately.

        1. Hi Hillary,
          The only way I’m aware of is to crop your ref image to the same ratio as your intended canvas/paper. Say your canvas is 16×12 inch (a ration of 4:3), you crop your ref image to the same ration, in mm, cm, inches, pixels.. whichever you prefer. So an image of 8×6 inches, for example, would also be a 4:3 ratio ( 4x2inch = 8 by 3x2inch = 6 ).

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