Do you ever sit down to paint, spend hours working on one section, obsessing over it? You want to make sure it's perfect. You zone in, narrow your vision, and focus. But as soon as you step back and look at it you're disappointed. Frustrated that the proportions look all out of wack!

Wouldn't it be great if we knew every time we laid down a brushstroke that the proportions were correct? I would certainly love that!

Just because you're trying to keep you painting loose doesn't mean you have to sacrifice form and accuracy. You can have it all! Here are three methods I use in my studio to make sure I'm getting the right proportions in my paintings.

Crosshair Grid

Grids can be powerful tools for helping you learn things like perspective and anatomy. But if your goal is to keep your painting loose, then a full grid isn't the right approach. Instead, I opt for what I call a crosshair grid. It's simply a set of lines that intersect at the center of my painting. This simple grid will give you the reference point you need to know when you're getting off track and help you see how to correct it.

Negative and Postive Space

In basic terms, negative space is the area around your subject; postive space is essentially your subject. Provided your reference image is matched to your canvas (eg. square reference to square canvas), you can use these contrasting areas to help you achieve the right proportions in your paintings. By comparing the shapes of your negative space to your reference, you can get a sense of how the proportions of your subject should be handled in reference to the edges of the canvas. Likewise, by comparing the positive and negative space within the reference subject—for instance, the space between they eyes and nose of a dog—you can get a good feel for where both should be on the canvas.

Paint What You See, Not What You Think

A common mistake is to paint what's in our heads, or what we think we know about what a subject should look like. You must train yourself to see shapes in your reference, not things like dogs or horses. You want to look for the shapes that are present in the reference. And to do that, you need to spend the majority of your time looking at the reference itself. You'd be amazed at how much time I spend looking at the reference compared to actually painting. 

So, those are my three tips for getting perfect proportions while still painting loose. Give them a try and let me know about your experience!

If you found this useful and are interested in learning more about painting loose, check out my free PDF, 3 Must-Know Tips for Painters. I think you'll find it super helpful as you pursue  a looser approach to painting.