Grid Systems in Visual Art

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Grid Systems in Visual Art


Evidence for Grids. Egyptian artists drew on a grid that allowed them to control the proportions of figures in two-dimensional relief sculpture and to line up the sides, back, and front of sculpture in the round. Grids are often preserved in unfinished relief sculpture or in paintings where a finished layer of paint has fallen off to reveal the underlying markings. These remains of grids have provided the data to study how Egyptian artists worked.

Guidelines and Grids. In the earliest examples from the Old Kingdom, Egyptian artists used a system of eight horizontal guidelines and one vertical line bisecting the figure through the ear rather than a complete grid. Grids marked eighteen horizontal units for each figure and also fourteen vertical lines spaced at the same distance as the horizontal ones. Thus, the grid formed a series of squares. Grids are first preserved from Dynasty 11 and continue for nearly two thousand years, into the Roman period.

Old Kingdom Guidelines. Old Kingdom guidelines allowed the artist to divide the figure in half and/or in thirds. A line at the lower border of the buttocks divided the figure in half. Lines at the elbow and knee divided the figure into thirds. Artists drew additional lines at the top of the head, at the junction of the hairline and forehead, at the point where the neck and shoulders meet, at the armpit, and at the calf. The baseline of the register marked the bottom of the figure’s foot. The proportions that were maintained made the distance from the bottom of the foot to the neck and shoulder line equal to eight-ninths of the figure’s height. The distance from the bottom of the foot to the armpit was four-fifths of the figure’s total height. This series of proportions gave figures their uniformity and most likely aided artists in drawing a figure on a large scale.

Grids in the Middle Kingdom. Grids of squares probably developed from guidelines and were certainly in use by the


The first known example of relief sculpture in the Egyptian style (circa 3000 b.c.e.) was the Narmer Palette, commemorating this king’s victory over ten enemies of Egypt. Though scholars disagree on the precise details, the narrative would have been clear to viewers contemporary with Narmer. The palette, which in Egypt was used to grind mineral pigments, also represented a turning point in artists’ experiments with carving in relief on stone. It is the earliest known example of mature Egyptian style that is preserved. It exhibits all of the major characteristics of the Egyptian relief style that artists used for the remainder of Egyptian history, for more than three thousand years.

The composition of the Narmer Palette, the manner that different figures and objects are arranged in the picture, utilized baselines and registers. Baselines are horizontal lines at set intervals across the entire area that is decorated. The baselines create a frame for the action in each register. They give each figure a place to stand. The sequence of actions in a narrative is also clear and logical. The obverse (front) of the palette shows Narmer defeating his enemy in the central register. His sandal bearer accompanies him as he strikes the enemy on the head with a mace. The god Horus, depicted as a falcon, symbolically restrains the enemy as the god perches on the flowers that represented Lower Egypt. In the bottom register, defeated enemies either fled Narmer or lied prone. On the reverse, a bull representing Narmer attacks a city in the bottom register. In the center, two registers servants restrain an animal that is part leopard and part snake. A third register depicts Narmer inspecting the enemy dead, who lie with their severed heads between their legs.

The figures of Narmer and the other individuals were carved in the typical Egyptian style. The way a person or object is portrayed in a work of art was distinctive in ancient Egypt. The Egyptian style integrated more than one perspective into one representation of a figure. The viewer “sees” a figure from more than one angle, all at the same time. The head was carved in profile, as if the viewer saw it from the side. Yet, the eye was carved frontally, as if the figure and viewer were face to face. The shoulders were also carved frontally, but the torso, legs, and feet were shown in profile. It is physically impossible to see this combination of body parts in reality. However, the artist’s aim was not to present visual reality but rather an idea of what a person is. Thus, Egyptian style is described as conceptual rather than visual.

The Narmer Palette also used a canon of proportions for the figures. The proportions of each figure were standardized so that every figure could be plotted on an imaginary grid. Actual grids are only known from Dynasty 11 and later. Yet, this figure has similar proportions. In a standing figure, such as Narmer found on the obverse, the grid would have contained eighteen equal units from the top of the head to the bottom of the foot. Particular body parts were then plotted on the grid in a regular way. Counting from the bottom of the representation, the knee fell on grid-line six, the lower buttocks on line nine, the small of the back on line eleven, the elbow on line twelve, and the junction of the neck and shoulders on line sixteen. The hairline was on line eighteen. The same ratio of body parts would have applied to Narmer’s standard bearer. The individual units would have been smaller in this case, since the overall figure is about one-quarter the size of Narmer. This standardized ratio of body parts gave uniformity to Egyptian representations of people. Seated representations used a grid of fourteen squares.

Though individual bodies all had similar proportions, the scale of figures varied widely even within one register. On the reverse of the palette, in the second register, Narmer was portrayed double the size of his sandal bearer and prime minister. The standard bearers are half the size of the sandal bearer and prime minister. The scale of any one person was based on their importance in society rather than their actual size. This method of depicting figures is called hieratic scale.

The Narmer Palette uses standard iconography for the king for the first time. On the obverse the king wears the cone-shaped White Crown of Upper Egypt, He also wears a bull’s tail and a false beard that were associated only with the king. On the reverse the king wears a similar costume, but this time with the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. Many commentators have associated the wearing of each crown on the palette with the unification of Egypt about 3000 b.c.e.

Narmer’s name appears in hieroglyphic writing at the top of both sides of the palette. It is also written in front of his face on the reverse. Hieroglyphic labels also identify the sandal bearer and the prime minister. These labels personalize these images, which otherwise could represent any king, prime minister, or sandal bearer. Hieroglyphic labels were a standard feature of Egyptian art.

The Narmer Palette was a turning point in Egyptian art. It marks not only the culmination of the tradition of carving stone palettes, but also the beginning of the typical Egyptian style in two-dimensional art.

Source: Cyril Aldred, Egyptian Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 33–36.

Middle Kingdom. Eighteen squares separated the hairline from the bottom of the foot in the Middle Kingdom grid. Various body parts also fell on regular grid lines. For example, the meeting point of the neck and shoulders was at horizontal sixteen, the elbow at horizontal nine, the knee at horizontal six, and the calf line at horizontal three. The shoulders of males were roughly six squares wide, similar in proportion to Old Kingdom figures. Females were more slender, with shoulders between four and five squares wide.

Grids in the New Kingdom. The proportions of figures changed in mid Dynasty 18, becoming more elongated. The small of the back rose from grid-line eleven to grid-line twelve, making the leg longer in proportion to the body. At the same time, the width of the shoulders was reduced from six squares to five squares. This reduction also made the figure more elongated and graceful in the New Kingdom than it was previously.

Late Period Grid. Egyptian artists of the first millennium b.c.e. used a grid with twenty-one horizontal lines rather than the eighteen used previously. Though the exact time when the transition to twenty-one squares was made is not known, artists of Dynasty 25 were surely using this square grid to lay out relief sculpture. The new grid squares were thus five-sixths of the old grid squares. In the new system the following correspondences were made.

Line twenty-one passed through the root of the nose and upper eyelid.

Line twenty passed through the mouth.

Line nineteen passed through the junction of the neck and shoulders.

Line thirteen passed through the small of the back.

Line eleven passed near the lower buttocks.

Line seven passed through the top of the knee.

Line zero (baseline) passed through the sole of the foot.

The result of these changes was a slight alteration in the proportions of the figure. The knees, small of the back, and buttocks are all lower in figures drawn on Late Period grids than in Middle and New Kingdom grids. Thus, the torso and upper leg appear longer in proportion to the body as a whole.

Why the Change? The meaning of this change is not clear. Erik Iverson has suggested that the grid changed to accommodate a new measuring system that used a shorter unit of measurement. Gay Robins has convincingly argued that the Late Period system used the same measuring system but regularized the grid to make calculations easier. In the early system the arm length was five grid squares. This distance was the hypothetical value of one cubit, which was divided into six palms. A five-square arm thus equaled grid squares of one and one-fifth palms wide and long. The new Late Period grid square used an arm length that was six squares long. In the Late Period grid system each square was equal in measurement to one palm. All calculations would be simpler using grid squares equivalent to one palm rather than equivalent to one and one-fifth palms. The grid was an ingenious and simple way to maintain proper proportions for figures, no matter how large or small they were reproduced.


Erik Iverson, “The Canonical Tradition,” in The Legacy of Egypt, edited by J. R. Harris (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 55–82.

Jaromir Malek, Egyptian Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1999).

Gay Robins, Proportion and Style in Ancient Egyptian Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).