How to turn a tiny illustration into a poster-sized masterpiece

One of the most useful tricks I learned from my 8th grade Geography teacher had nothing to do with geography.

Toward the end of the year, running out of things to teach us before the Final Exam, he decided to show us a thing or two about cartography. The task? Taking a look at the globe, and then trying to draw an accurate map of Michigan, making use of the longitude and latitude lines.

Long story short: the great State of Michigan has never looked so deformed. Most of us tried to draw the picture first and then add the grid-lines in afterwards, which is precisely the wrong way to draw anything, especially a map.

See, probably nine-tenths of a person's artistic talent simply comes from having good spatial reasoning. A skilled artist can look at an empty page and take it all in, plotting out what they see in their head into the space they have to work with. The Average Joe, however, can't quite manage that. His lines never quite line up exactly and his proportions never come out quite right, because it's too much space for his mind to work with.

The trick, then, is to break down a picture into smaller, more manageable sections. If you can do that, drawing becomes easier. What's more, you can take a sketch that someone else drew, and make a copy at virtually any scale you want. Handy for map-making, of course. But, as our sharp teenage minds were quick to realize, it'd work just as well with Bugs Bunny or Spider-Man, or anything else you could think of.

So: Have you got a thumb-sized illustration that you think would make a kick-ass poster, or a cool cover for your notebook? Enlarging it on a copy machine is just going to make it pixilated and blurry. Paying a professional reproduction house to do it will cost you a fair bit of coin. Still, on the other hand, you have all the artistic skills of a drunken chimpanzee...

I hear yah, chum. But, with the right method, scaling up a drawing isn't really all that hard.

Here's all you'll need:

~ some free time (always handy)
~ a pencil (ditto)
~ a ruler or T-square
~ a pair of scissors
~ some masking tape
~ a piece of loose-leaf paper (or graph paper, if you've got it)
~ a poster-sized sheet of plain white paper
~ a clipping of whatever it is you want to draw
~ a really, really good eraser (you'll see why in a minute)

Now, here's what you do:

  • Step #1 - Find a small picture that you'd love to make bigger. Hand-drawn images are typically best. (An added bonus of this method is that the picture doesn't have to be perfect. A computer printout will work just as well as a glossy magazine clipping. Likewise, any extraneous junk in the background is no problem; since you'll be drawing this yourself, you can choose to put in or leave out whatever you want.)

  • Step #2 - Clip out the picture (if you haven't already), and tape it to the loose-leaf paper, using either the roll-up-and-stick-to-the-bottom method or by putting a bit of tape on each corner.
  • Step #3 - Take a moment and consider how large you want this picture to be, in relation to how large it currently is. In other words, figure out what scale you want to use. In my mind, the optimal scale for this is 1:4 (that is, 1cm in the original will be 4cm in the finished copy). That, of course, is only my opinion. It really all depends on what it is you're trying to do.
  • Step #4 - Using a ruler or T-square, carefully draw a uniform grid all across your picture, running off onto the loose-leaf where need be (if you used graph paper instead of loose-leaf, this is much easier).
  • Next, draw a scaled-up version of the same grid onto your poster-sized paper. DO THIS AS LIGHTLY AS POSSIBLE (you'll be erasing it later).

    You may also want to label the boxes with a basic coordinate system (e.g. write A, B, C... across the top and 1, 2, 3... down the side), so that you can keep track of where you're at.

  • Step #5 - This is where the magic happens; you're ready to get started.
  • Pick any spot on your picture that you think would be an easy place to begin. Note which square that spot is in ("Hmmm... row 7, column D..."). Locate the identical box on your new, enlarged grid.

    Now, ignoring everything else, try to take exactly what you see in that one box and re-draw it in the same box on your poster-sized paper. Very rarely will there be more than 3 or 4 lines to draw for any given box on the grid. Note the point where a line crosses into the box. Note the point where the line leaves the box. Note how the line curves as it passes through this tiny tract of space. Then, all you have to do is recreate that same line on a slightly larger scale.

    Once you're done with a box, follow one of the lines to the box adjacent to it, and then the next, and so on...

  • Step #6 - Keep at it. Put on a few of your favorite mix tapes and groove. Get up and stretch from time to time. Draw your lines lightly until you get the hang of it, and keep your eraser handy.
  • Step #7 - Once you've finished your masterpiece, get out your eraser and rub out all your guide-lines. I can't reiterate enough that A GOOD ERASER IS KEY here. One of those pencil-style erasers with the whisk-broom thingy on the end can be very handy for the tight spots, with a good rubbery block-eraser for the more open areas. Remember, rub in tiny circles, not in straight lines, or you might damage the paper.
  • Step #8 - Tack up or frame your creation, and call all your friends over to gloat about your newfound artistic prowess!

  • Note: Pictures I've drawn this way, and are hanging on the wall right behind me... Looney Tunes and cartoon characters of any sort, classic video game heroes (Mario, Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog), frames from vintage comic books (Go Spidey Go!), icons and logos of all shapes and sizes.

    Pictures I've wanted to try for a while, but haven't got around to yet... book covers from old novels, children's book illustrations (Curious George or Dr. Seuss would be tres cool), some postcards I have of Roy Lichtenstein paintings (ah, sweet irony), perhaps a full Penny Arcade comic strip (January 24th, 2000. Snickers commercial. Perhaps you remember the one I'm talking about.)

    Another way is to use a pantograph. This is a device that uses to concept of levers to recreate a drawing on a larger scale. I have tried both the method listed above and the pantograph, and my experience has been the pantograph is trickier to set up, but in the long run, it is easier to use and saves time. Incidentally, by adjusting the levers, a pantograph can also be used to turn a poster-sized masterpiece into a tiny illustration.

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