The two-dimensional spectral decomposition of an image of sediment provides a direct statistical estimate, grid-by-number style, of the mean of all intermediate axes of all single particles within the image. We develop and test this new method which, unlike existing techniques, requires neither image processing algorithms for detection and measurement of individual grains, nor calibration. The only information required of the operator is the spatial resolution of the image. The method is tested with images of bed sediment from nine different sedimentary environments (five beaches, three rivers, and one continental shelf), across the range 0.1 mm to 150 mm, taken in air and underwater. Each population was photographed using a different camera and lighting conditions. We term it a “universal approximation” because it has produced accurate estimates for all populations we have tested it with, without calibration. We use three approaches (theory, computational experiments, and physical experiments) to both understand and explore the sensitivities and limits of this new method. Based on 443 samples, the root-mean-squared (RMS) error between size estimates from the new method and known mean grain size (obtained from point counts on the image) was found to be ±≈16%, with a 95% probability of estimates within ±31% of the true mean grain size (measured in a linear scale). The RMS error reduces to ≈11%, with a 95% probability of estimates within ±20% of the true mean grain size if point counts from a few images are used to correct bias for a specific population of sediment images. It thus appears it is transferable between sedimentary populations with different grain size, but factors such as particle shape and packing may introduce bias which may need to be calibrated for. For the first time, an attempt has been made to mathematically relate the spatial distribution of pixel intensity within the image of sediment to the grain size.