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How To Use The Rule Of Thirds To Improve Your Art

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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?

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:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil, 1873
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil, 1873

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.
Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1873
  • 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.

 Claude Monet, The Studio Boat, 1874
Claude Monet, The Studio Boat, 1874

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.

 Vincent van Gogh, Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, 1888

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.

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632

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.

Summary

I hope this post shows you the importance of the rule of thirds and how you can use it to improve your overall compositions.

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

25 comments on “How To Use The Rule Of Thirds To Improve Your Art”

  1. 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.

    Reply
  2. 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!

    Reply
  3. 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.

    ~Laurie, California

    Reply
  4. Thank you for sharing
    so much understanding and analysis of this Van Gogh painting…. I look forward to your postings…

    Reply
  5. Much appreciated, you have given valuable information to help me understand the fundamentals of painting and how to begin to create my own.

    Reply
  6. 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.

    Reply
  7. 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.

    Reply
  8. 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.

    Reply

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