Making and Using a Viewfinder to Compose Better Paintings

viewfinder graphic
Use a viewfinder to crop out unwanted parts of an image to make a better composition.

A viewfinder is a handy tool often used by photographers and artists. In photography, this optical device is the apparatus on the camera that the photographer looks through to compose, and in many cases to sharpen the focus of, the photograph he/she wants to take. In oil painting a view finder is a tool used by a painter that performs a similar function. Artists use these devices as an aid to organize the scenery of their paintings. It can be moved up, down, left or right to isolate the most appealing aspects of the scenery present in the photograph. It does this by cropping out the unimportant parts resulting in a much stronger composition.


longhorn cow oil painting“Texas Longhorn in The Meadow”
Wildlife Art by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

>> More info


Making an Artist’s Viewfinder

artist viewfinderMaking a viewfinder requires little effort. There are two types: window and L-shape. Both types are simple to make and which one you choose depends on the canvas you plan to paint on. For standard size canvases you may want to choose the window viewfinder. Take a simple piece of paper, scrap mat board or cardboard and cut a rectangular window in the center to look through. The window opening should be proportionate to the prepared canvas in height and width. For example, a 16″ x 20″ or 24″ x 30″ canvas would require the viewfinder window to be 2″ x 2.5″ or 4″ x 5″.

Other proportions that might be useful are:

  • canvas size = 16″ x 24″ or 24″ x 36″, window cutout = 2″ x 3″ or 4″ x 6″.
  • canvas size = 9″ x 12″, 12″ x 16″ or 18″ x 24″, window cutout = 3″ x 4″ or 6″ x 8″.

After carefully measuring and cutting out the opening of the viewfinder, move it around slowly on the surface of your snap shot until the image that interests you appears in the opening. Once you have decided on the composition, tape the viewfinder in position on your photograph to hold it in place.

artist L shaped viewfinderThe L-shaped viewfinder is made from two L-shaped pieces of cardboard, mat board, or paper that when placed together create a frame around your area of focus. You then look through this frame to determine the scene you wish to paint. The L-shaped viewfinder is beneficial in helping to determine what size canvas is required for a particular scene if you do not plan on using a standard size canvas. The two L’s work together much like an aperture of a camera. You move them out and away from each other to enlarge the opening or move them closer together to shrink the inside opening. To make one of this type, you will need a ruler and pencil to draw two identical sized L shapes on a piece of paper, scrap mat board or cardboard. A good width is about two inches so they can easily crop out the unwanted areas of the scenery. The length of the arms of each L can be any size; 6″ to 8″ works best if you are going to use it on photographs.

Using an Artist’s Viewfinder

using an artist viewfinderUsing the viewfinder is a simple technique that has been around and used by artists for hundreds of years. What a viewfinder does is to frame and crop out unimportant areas of an image. This would be the background details that could muddle up a landscape and take away from the overall unity of the artwork making it a weak composition. The elements that are left make up an interest focal point that can be used to begin creating your painting from. This is achieved by filtering out the distractions from outside the field of view allowing you to focus only on the important elements you want to keep. How this is done is to take your image and slowly move the viewfinder around on it until you pinpoint a precise spot that makes an eye-catching center of interest. Once you have your composition picked out, attach the viewfinder to the picture using artist’s low-adhesive tape to hold it in place. This will permit you to make several drawings of the scene that is needed or even sketch it directly onto the canvas to get it ready for painting. Artist’s tape is easy to remove once your painting is finished.

A viewfinder is also beneficial for training your eye to distinguish a good composition, because this instrument will give the artist an idea of how an arrangement might potentially work as a viable composition. In time your “mind’s eye” will be able to ignore undesired extraneous elements present in the photo and will be able to visualize what a composition will be like without any help from one.

Lastly, both types of artist viewfinders can be used in either portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) position. This allows the artist to use the it as a drawing aid to determine which orientation works best for your painting. By holding the viewfinder in portrait mode, the top and bottom of the view will be emphasized; by holding it landscape, the width of the composition will be emphasized. This helps you focus on particular parts of the scene, enabling you to decide what will make the best composition, both in terms of emphasis and orientation.

Using a Grid to Enlarge and Transfer an Image to Canvas

There is a simple technique used by great artists everyday to create sensational works of art. The best part of it is, you don’t have to be skilled in drawing to achieve extraordinary results when using this method. In fact many of the world’s greatest oil painting artists don’t draw well at all, yet they use the grid enlarging technique to start their paintings which then go on to become wonderful works of art. Regardless of where you get your inspiration, be it from a photograph, drawing, or some other representation of an image you want to paint, the grid enlargement technique can help the artist transfer a smaller size image onto a larger canvas with exact detail or as much detail as the artist desires.

What exactly is grid enlarging?

grid enlarging techniqueGrid enlarging is the process of using a grid to precisely copy and enlarge a smaller image and transfer it onto a larger canvas. Artists use this technique on a regular basis to enlarge and transfer compositions they desire to paint to a canvas as part of prepping it for painting. What this entails is to draw a grid on your reference image and then drawing another grid on your canvas of equal or greater proportion. You then draw the picture onto your canvas concentrating on the contents of each square, one square at a time, until the image has been completed in its entirety. Just about everyone knows what a grid is, however just in case you don’t, a grid is a series of equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines that intersect to form a boxed pattern. What it basically accomplishes is to divide the original image into smaller blocks so that you can more easily see what goes where. Grid enlarging is a useful exercise in helping to improve your drawing and observational skills.

5 Easy Steps to Grid Enlarging

Step 1 — Select your reference photograph and use a viewfinder to isolate the section you want to paint. Next you will need to determine the proportions of your composition. To achieve the best results, it is important for the image and the canvas to be the same proportion. For example, a composition that measures 4″ x 5″ is the same proportion as a 16″ x 20″ or 24″ x 30″ canvas. If your canvas is 12″ x 16″ or 18″ x 24″, then you will need to crop your reference photo to a 3″ x 4″ or 6″ x 8″.

Smart tip: For detailed information about what a viewfinder is and how to use one, see article titled “Making and Using a Viewfinder to Compose Better Paintings“.

Step 2 — The most important to thing to keep in mind when drawing your grids is they must be a 1-to-1 ratio. It’s math 101. The size of your reference photo must always be equal in proportion to the size of the art canvas. If you fail to adhere to this principle your drawing will be distorted. Also the lines must be equally spaced vertically and horizontally, intersecting to create perfect squares.

Smart tip: After you have drawn your grids on both your reference photo and canvas, count the number of squares in each row and column on your canvas. It should be the same amount as the ones on your picture.

grid enlargingStep 3 — Use a pencil and ruler to carefully measure and mark along the outside edge of the photo. Put tick marks at every inch, half-inch or quarter inch depending on the size of your reference image and how much detail you need to transfer. Then carefully connect your marks by lightly drawing your grid directly onto the image.

Smart tip: Use a mechanical pencil to draw your grid. A mechanical pencil produces a very thin and precise line.

Be sure to draw the grid very lightly, so that you can easily erase it when you are finished. If you don’t want to draw on your photograph, you can tape a piece of clear acetate over your picture and then draw your grid on it using a very fine-point Sharpie marker.

grid drawing methodStep 4 — Begin your transfer by drawing everything you see in one block of the reference photograph into the corresponding block on your canvas. Focus only on one square at a time and ignore all the others until the one is completed and it is time to copy the next block to canvas. The reason you want to focus on only one block at a time is you end up drawing exactly what is actually there – what your eye sees, and not what you think is there or even what you think should to be there. Try as best you can to copy exactly all the details you see in that one little block on the photo to its corresponding block on your canvas. Be sure to include the shadows and highlights too. Continue this process one block at a time until all the blocks have been drawn onto your canvas. When you have finished that last block, you will have a very close rendering of your reference photo ready to paint.

grid drawingA good place to start drawing is with the top left square of your canvas. Then work your way across and down the canvas, row-by-row and column-by-column, until you have completed your detailed drawing. Pay careful attention to make sure you are in the correct square or your drawing will be off and you will have to erase some of your drawing and start over from the point where you went off grid. A good way to keep your blocks straight is by marking them numerically and alphabetically along the edges of the photo and canvas. In other words, the first block on your canvas that is located in the top left corner would be block A1, the next one to the right on the same row would be A2 and so forth. This will help keep you from getting lost especially within much larger paintings that have a lot of squares. Write the numbers and letters small and faint enough so that they can be easily erased.

Smart tip: Use a thin piece of sharpened charcoal instead of a pencil when transferring your drawing. The advantage of charcoal over pencil is that charcoal can be easily wiped off with your finger, kneaded eraser, paper towel or rag, whereas pencil lead requires more effort to erase. Spray with a fixative to keep your charcoal drawing from rubbing off when you finish your drawing.

Step 5 — When you have finished transferring the complete image to canvas, gently erase the grid lines to begin your oil painting.

Taking The Mystery Out of Mahl Sticks

The word “mahl stick” comes to us from the Dutch word maalstok which means “painter’s stick”. It’s a handy little tool that has been around for centuries used by artists. Many of the Old Masters regularly used them as they were putting paint to canvas on many of their masterpieces. We often see paintings from the 16th- through 19th-centuries depicting artists in their studios, at their easels, etc and the mahl stick is often there, included as part of the painter’s equipment.

artist painter stickArtists use this painter’s stick to steady their hand when attempting to paint minute details on their canvas art. Most oil painting artists paint with their canvases resting upright on an easel and sometimes its hard to get your hand into just the right position without resting it on your canvas. This is a problem if the surface is delicate or the paint is wet. You can’t just plop your hand in the middle of your work. To do so, would mean smudging or smearing your artwork. That’s when a mahl stick comes in handy.

painters mahl stickA mahl stick is simply a long round stick that is approximately three feet in length with a ball or knob on one end. Usually the knob end has a ball or wad of cotton on it that is surrounded by soft leather or chamois. The chamois will keep it from slipping on the surface and can easily be removed for cleaning or replaced when it gets soiled. You use the painter’s stick by resting the ball-end on the edge of the canvas, easel or dry spot of the painting. Then hold the other end up with your non-painting hand and steady your hand holding the brush on the stick while you paint. If you’re right handed, you would hold the mahl stick with your left hand and if you are left handed, you’d hold it with your right. It should be light enough so your hand that holds the stick will not get tired.


African art Camelthorn Trees“Camelthorn Trees of Africa”
Landscape painting by Teresa Bernard
24″ x 24″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


A mahl stick is something you can purchase online or from a local art supply store, or you can simply make one yourself. They can be made from any round piece of wood that you have on hand such as an old broom handle, half inch dowel or piece of bamboo. Whatever it is, it should be lightweight yet strong enough to resist bending under the weight of your hand. One end should be easy to grip. This can be achieved by wrapping it with some sports tape like the handle of a hockey stick or tennis racket. The other end of the painter’s stick needs to be bulky by adding a ball-shaped piece of wood or a rubber tip like what is used on the end of walking canes. You would then wrap it with a bit of cloth to prevent it from slipping or scratching the canvas. It can be tied on by using a piece of string.

I hope this article takes a little bit of the mystery out of mahl sticks and also provided a useful painting tip.