Alberti’s Veil

Article by Darren Rousar.

hieronymus-rodler-1531Hieronymus Rodler’s version of Alberti’s Veil (1531).

A single point of view is required for all forms of drawing what you see.1 One way of assuring that is by closing one eye. But closing one eye alone will not give you a consistent single point of view. You also need to position yourself in the same place throughout the process of working on the drawing or painting. One of the first to recommend this was Leon Alberti, in reference to what is now known as Alberti’s Veil.

It is like this: a veil loosely woven of fine thread . . . divided up by thicker threads into as many parallel square sections as you like, and stretched on a frame. I set this up between the eye and object to be represented, so that the visual pyramid passes through the loose weave of the veil. This intersection of the veil has many advantages, first of all because it always presents the same surface unchanged, for once you have fixed the position of the outlines, you can immediately find the apex of the pyramid you started with, which is extremely difficult to do without the intersection.2

Alberti (1435)

As you can tell from his description, Alberti’s veil is a grid, of which I am sure you are familiar. His mention of the ‘apex of the pyramid you started with’ may be less clear.

eyepiecesOn the left, Robert Fludd’s sighting grid (1617). On the right, John Bates’ sighting grid (1634).
Notice the eye pieces in these two diagrams.

The Cone of Vision

A single point of view is not only a requirement for drawing from life, it is also one when doing a perspective drawing. Artists consider their eye’s position to be the apex of a fictitious cone or pyramid. The cone then extends out from that apex towards the scene in view (and also towards the picture plane).

So, when you move the apex (your eye) even to a slight degree the result is seeing a different scene. Alberti’s veil helps mitigate that problem because once you’ve begun drawing the outlines of your scene, it’s a simple matter to maintain the proper viewing position by comparing how the outline in your drawing matches that shown through the grid over the scene.

Artists after Alberti took his veil a step further by adding an eyepiece to the apparatus. This made it almost impossible to be out of the proper viewing position.

What is a Grid?

Though what defines a grid might seem obvious, that may not be the case in every person’s mind. In fact, I can show you a grid that almost defies definition. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

For now, let’s consider that a grid is a predetermined space that is subdivided into a series of smaller spaces. Those divisions are often regular, though they need not be. They are usually separated by some form of lines, either literal string over a physical scene, or as painted or drawn on a canvas or paper.

As far as definitions go, that’s it.

durer-figure-gridTwo examples of Albrecht Dürer’s figure drawing grid.


Notice what’s not in the definition above. There is no mention of size, either of the encompassing space or the smaller divisions. There is also no mention of shape. In other words, neither size nor shape matters. You can have a grid using any size divisions, using any size shapes, using any shapes. And none of those parameters need be regular.

However, what does matter is that the divisions within the pair of grids be identical.

good-bad-gridMismatched grids.

The two grids shown above are fine, unless they are meant to be used together. If your source image is behind the grid on the left, and your drawing is on the right, your drawing will end up being distorted.

In order to avoid the problem you need to be absolutely certain that your drawing grid precisely matches your source grid. Again, size does not matter – but the shapes of the division do.

Using a Grid

Fairly well understood is that using a grid is simply a matter of copying what exists in one division of your scene over to the identically-placed division in your artwork. You then go onto the next division, and so on. This procedure is equally true regardless of whether you’re reducing the scene, enlarging it, or doing it in exact size.3

The result will likely be fairly accurate, but there’s an additional step that may make all the difference.

That step is getting rid of the grid.

Getting Rid of the Grid

Long-time readers of this site will know that R. H. Ives Gammell, the twentieth-century’s main proponent of Sight-Size, was vehemently against piecemeal-seeing. Gridding almost guarantees that you’re engaging in that error.

Why? Because you’re drawing what you see through artificial shapes and you’re doing so shape-by-shape. The process makes it almost impossible to see the big-look.

Getting rid of the grid solves the piecemeal problem and helps you to keep the big-look in mind as you draw.

bosse-artist-gridAbraham Bosse, a portrait artist using a grid (1737).

There are two parts to this:

  1. While you’re drawing what you see within each of the grid’s shapes, be mindful of what you see peripherally within the surrounding shapes. If an edge within the scene carries through multiple sections of the grid, draw it as such.
  2. After you have all the main shapes drawn in, physically remove the grid from the scene and erase or paint out the grid in your artwork. Now it’s time to use your naked eye!

The Grid and Sight-Size

Although grids are usually used to either reduce or enlarge a subject, the practice of Sight-Size may have begun as an adaptation to the gridding process. Both entail drawing what you see from a fixed vantage point. And to that end, both make use of linear standards. The lines of the grid give you numerous fixed standards, and many who work Sight-Size make use of a plumb line.

But don’t misunderstand. Using a grid is not necessarily Sight-Size unless you’re also following the rules of Sight-Size. Remember, Sight-Size is an arrangement of the artist, subject and artwork that allows the artist to see their subject and artwork one-to-one, whether a grid is involved or not. In fact it’s rare to use a grid at all when in Sight-Size.

That said, some have.

manciniAntonio Mancini (1852-1930).

Notice the features of Mancini’s grid:

  • It is in life-size, Sight-Size.
  • It uses irregular shapes.
  • It uses irregular shape sizes.
  • The grid over the scene and the grid on the canvas are identical.

1 Closing one eye is not always necessary when copying from the flat.
2 Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting and On Sculpture: The Latin Texts of De Pittura and De Statua, trans. Cecil Grayson (London: Phaidon, 1972) 55; 67-69.
3 To see how Sight-Size is done in other size relationships and without a grid, take a look at the article, Equal To, Larger Than, Smaller Than.

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