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:
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.
(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. I go into more detail on compositions and how to use to effectively in painting.)
I hope this post shows you the importance of the rule of thirds and how you can use it to improve your overall compositions.
If you have any comments or questions, please share them in the comment section below.