The rule of thirds is an important composition technique which can be used to improve the balance and structure of your artworks.
It is a simple technique which you can use in all your paintings as a general guideline. However, please do not be bound by the technique. It is perfectly acceptable to break this ‘rule’ if it allows you to create a more intriguing painting. But generally, you will want to comply with this rule.
- What Is the Rule of Thirds?
- Examples of the Rule of Thirds
- When to Break the Rule of Thirds?
- Using Editing Software to Apply the Rule of Thirds
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
What Is the Rule of Thirds?
What it entails is cutting your reference into thirds both ways using two horizontal lines across and two vertical lines down. You will end up with nine sections.
Here is an example of these sections:
These sections provide a powerful insight into whether your composition is effective or if changes should be made.
There are two important ways you can use the rule of thirds to improve your artworks:
- First, you are provided with four intersections where the lines meet. These are highlighted in blue below. These are very important intersections as they are the generally preferred areas to place your focal point. This is because these areas are slightly off-center but also not on the edges of your painting. If you place your focal point in the center of your painting you run the risk of creating an unnatural composition. If you place your focal point on the edge of your painting, then you run the risk of directing the viewer out of your painting, rather than through it. Your painting would also not appear balanced.
- Second, you should try to ensure each section is unique to some extent. If you have two or more sections which appear very similar, then your composition may appear bland.
Examples of the Rule of Thirds
Here are some examples of the rule of thirds in action.
In the painting above by Claude Monet, the obvious focal point is the boat, which is situated slightly off-center. Note how the edge of the boat is sitting on three intersections. Also, note how all the sections are unique in some way.
In the painting above by Vincent van Gogh, the main focal point appears to be the boats on our left. Note how these boats are placed at the bottom-left intersection.
In relation to variance, the top segments appear fairly similar, however, observe how Vincent van Gogh uses directional brushwork to create some level of variance.
The painting above is a great example of the rule of thirds by Rembrandt (read more about the painting here).
All of the subjects in the painting appear to be situated around the intersections in the middle, however, there is not much going on directly in the center. Take note of where each of the intersections are and the importance of those areas in the painting.
When to Break the Rule of Thirds?
Rules are made to be broken and the rule of thirds is no exception.
The rule of thirds merely provides you with a guideline for improving your compositions. However, you can still create stunning artworks when breaking the rule of thirds.
For example, your focal point may not rest directly on one of the intersections, but it may just work better that way in terms of your overall composition. Or maybe you have two sections which have very little variance, but it is fine because you balanced it with the rest of your artwork.
The point is, do not be bound by the rule of thirds. Use it to compliment you and learn when to use and not to use it.
There are many famous paintings which break the rule of thirds and you would not even realize.
Using Editing Software to Apply the Rule of Thirds
If I am painting from a photo, then I will often use editing software (I strongly recommend Photoshop to apply the two horizontal and vertical lines to the reference photo.
I will then be able to analyze my reference photo in terms of the rule of thirds to see if my focal point is positioned appropriately and that there is sufficient variance throughout the composition (enough variance between segments).
I also sometimes do this with photos of my finished paintings if I sense something did not work out as I had planned.
You can also use these grid lines on your reference photo to help draw/paint with more accuracy. To do this, you can segment your paper/canvas into the same 9 sections and then aim to match those sections to your reference. I have also created a simple free tool that does this automatically for you.
I hope this post shows you the importance of the rule of thirds and how you can use it to improve your overall compositions.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.
Draw Paint Academy
25 comments on “How to Use the Rule of Thirds to Improve Your Art”
This is critical to creating a good painting. I get lost in my own work so this helps me to refocus. thanks
No problem Sandy 🙂
Thanks for the the clear and informative explanations really enjoy the presentation.
Does this rule applies for all subjects viz still life, portraits ?
Yes the rule can be applied to all subjects including still lifes and portraits.
Thank you Dan, this clears up my questions of why people use a grid. I had wondered why besides segmenting a photo. Appreciate it.
No problem Kathy glad it helped!
This is probably the best example of using the rule of thirds ever. The visuals are extremely helpful and make the concept easy to understand and apply. Thank you.
Thanks for the very kind words Kathleen!
i think this DID NOT HELP AT ALLLLLLLLL!!!!!!
I’m so happy I found you!
Thank you for sharing your talent! I am always wanting to improve my work an I’m so happy I found you!
Hi Nancy! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
Very helpful. Thank you
No problem Kim 🙂
I Love that you used Fishing Boats at the Beach at Les Saint Marie de-la-mer by Van Gogh. I have this picture hanging on the wall of my office which I look at often…usually while retouching photographs I’ve taken in Photoshop. Your explanation is broken down t be easy to understand. I also love the example you chos of Monet’s work. Thank you so much! You have a great eye and an amazing ability to teach.
well i think this is not very well I could say bad but it is a little to mutual and neutral for me
Thank you for sharing the information on thirds. I was unaware of the importance of the intersectional lines.
Really very interesting. Hope to have more of these. Thanks very much !!
Thank you for sharing
so much understanding and analysis of this Van Gogh painting…. I look forward to your postings…
Much appreciated, you have given valuable information to help me understand the fundamentals of painting and how to begin to create my own.
Thank you so much for the excellent explanation. I didn’t know that I need to do a grid. I enjoy your emails, always a good topic.
can i show show one of my paintings to see if i might correct it? I have a painting i thought was good but
I led the eye right out of the painting. I’d like to fix it.
Thank you sharing this important information ‘
I usually follow your valuable input in the field art learning. Salute
It is so beautiful and nice,and also thank you for sharing this beautiful painting.
Although I am not painter, I think that your explanation of both the Golden Ratio and the Rule of Thirds were easy to understand and will enhance my ability to appreciate the art that I see and thereby enrich my life.