Updated date:

How to Use the Rule of Thirds in Painting Composition

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

How Do You Create a Good Composition for Design and Paintings?

One of the main goals in compositions is to grab the viewer’s interest, take his or her eyes to the focal point, and then keep them moving around the picture.

This can be achieved with the use of color, lines, and value shifts, but the most important thing is to place the painting’s elements in the right spots, usually avoiding having your subject in dead center with nothing around.

The rule of thirds is a guide to help you compose a picture that looks balanced and interesting.

While I would not recommend using it as the only guidance for composition, it can surely be of big help creating an interesting scene.
Combine it with other classic compositional structures to enhance the visual interest.

The rule of thirds is a guide to help you compose a picture that looks balanced and interesting.

The rule of thirds is a guide to help you compose a picture that looks balanced and interesting.

The Rule of Thirds: Great Tool for Photography and Painting Composition

The rule of thirds has been used to create appealing art compositions by the greatest master painters with remarkable results.

Among the most common places where the rule of thirds is taught are professional photography courses.

Since the upcoming of the digital era, the rule of third has been applied also in all kinds of graphic design and web design.

You just need to open any web page or a magazine and look at the graphics and photos, and you’ll be able to notice how the focal point of the picture is strategically placed according to this rule.

The rule of thirds is about creating a sense of balance in the composition.

Rule of thirds lines and sweet spots.

Rule of thirds lines and sweet spots.

What Is the Rule of Thirds?

It's a guide to help you compose a picture that looks balanced and interesting.

Here is how you do it:

  • Start by drawing equally spaced lines, two horizontally and two vertically.
  • The lines split the picture surface into thirds.
  • The intersections of the lines mark the sweet spots, where you can place the points of interest of the composition.

Planning your composition, position the elements of your painting in reference to the lines of the grid and the focus points, to guide the viewers’ eyes to what you want them to notice.

With focal points that are not in the center of the picture and the space divided into thirds, instead than in half, you can avoid a picture that looks too static. Also, the rule of thirds allows you to create movement and a sense of complexity without making it too busy.

Note how in this painting by Lorenzo Delleani the house is on a soft spot, and the lines of thirds were used as a guide for the horizon and other lines on the landscape.

Note how in this painting by Lorenzo Delleani the house is on a soft spot, and the lines of thirds were used as a guide for the horizon and other lines on the landscape.

Drawing a Composition Following the Rule

When you start drawing your composition, start by drawing the lines that divide the picture’s surface into thirds, then plan the composition, either referring to a real subject or from your imagination.

For example, drawing a landscape, you can place a house on a soft spot, and use the lines of thirds to draw the horizon and the other lines on the landscape, like trees, roads, clouds, etc.

Use lines and color to create a focal point, but also generate interest in various parts of the painting.

Example of the use of the rule of thirds along with other compositional structures.

Example of the use of the rule of thirds along with other compositional structures.

Its Use in Landscape Paintings

When you look at a landscape and try to find a good viewpoint and crop to represent in a painting, it helps a lot to use a viewfinder.

When you are standing in the open, it can be quite overwhelming to focus on only a part of your surroundings and choose what to include in the picture and what is better left out.

The use of a viewfinder can simplify this process a lot. You can purchase a viewfinder at an art store, or you can build your own using a mat. Here is a link to an example of viewfinder that also has value filters; I saw a friend using it, very useful tool.

You can add strings to the viewfinder and split the view into thirds, so it will be easy to pick a good composition for your painting.

You can use your digital camera set it so you see the lines of thirds on the monitor and view the scene through that, moving around to pick the best views.

Apply the Rule When you Take Your Reference Photos

When you are taking reference photos, make your life easier by applying the rule of third to each shot.

Seeing a well-composed reference photo will make your painting composition easier to plan, and usually much more successful.

Many times when I'm having troubles with a painting and something is not right, but I can't tell what it is, it's most probably a badly planned composition.

Good composition a good value structure are the two elements that go hand-in-hand to make a good painting. If you plan those well before starting your painting, the whole creative process will be easier.

The Announciation by Leonardo Da Vinci - Leonardo was known for using the Golden Rule. The rule of thirds gives very similar results to the classic formila based on Fibonacci numbers.

The Announciation by Leonardo Da Vinci - Leonardo was known for using the Golden Rule. The rule of thirds gives very similar results to the classic formila based on Fibonacci numbers.

Breaking the Rule

As every good rule, the rule of thirds is bound to be broken by free artistic instinct and different approaches to the painting’s composition, mood, and emphasis.

You may find that for some artwork it works better to have a central focus or no particular focus at all.

The artist’s inspiration and judgment take the lead on the creative process and if a rule is too limiting, it’s okay to disregard it. Breaking rules can be very rewarding when you end up with a work of art that makes you proud.

Knowing the rule gives you the power to make informed and smart decisions on how and why you choose to ignore it.

How to "Move" Your Subject and Apply the Rule of Thirds

Add Several Elements for a Strong Composition

To plan your painting well, you need to keep in mind all the elements that create a composition. The rule of third can be a starting point, but you'll get more interesting results if you integrate more structural elements and make the scene interesting.

Below are some compositional elements that are very important, no matter the subject of the painting. They can be skillfully used to capture and guide the viewers’ eye within the picture:

  • Shapes and how they are arranged
  • Relative value of those shapes (darkness and lightness)
  • Lines and their direction
  • Value contrast
  • Color temperature and intensity

Try to keep your subject interesting, avoiding predictable compositions with the focal point exactly on the sweet spot, the horizon on the line of thirds and nothing else.

Use the rule as guidance, but feel free to add as many interesting elements as you like.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Where did you learn about the rule of thirds?

Answer: I heard about the rule of thirds for the first time during a training at work, when I was a Functional Technologist Specialist, and the Department of Defense (my employer) was teaching us how to help youth create awesome videos. I remember them mentioning the rule of thirds like it was a given knowledge for anyone, and I was sitting there thinking "why have I never heard of it." That thought is what inspired me to write the article a few years later.

© 2012 Robie Benve

Comments

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 26, 2012:

Hi Dbro, learning the rule of thirds rule a few years back changed my whole perspective when I look at paintings and photos. It made me see things differently, and it is so useful when I'm planning a painting, not to mention when I'm taking or cropping photos!

I still haven't learned to break the rule successfully yet, maybe that will come with time, who knows, for now I'm happy with the help it provides me making decisions. Thanks a lot for your comment! :)

Dbro from Texas, USA on September 25, 2012:

Great hub, Robie! Such good information for artists and photographers. We are all desirous of maintaining our viewer's interest, and the rule of thirds and the "sweet spots" is instrumental in doing just that. I like your advice about breaking rules in art, too. It takes a bit of courage to do so, but the rewards can be great. You are absolutely right about the need to be informed and well versed in the rules before you can effectively break them. Thanks for this informative and inspirational hub!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 27, 2012:

How wonderful to willingly succeed in breaking a rule and get positive results. :) Thanks a lot for reading and your comment.

Vanderleelie on August 26, 2012:

A good description of a useful tool for structuring a composition. I like the fact that you've also mentioned how this rule may be broken with equally successful results. I could list many contemporary artists who do break the rule of thirds and achieve intriguing compositions. Voted up and shared.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 17, 2012:

Hi techygran, glad to hear my hub brought back some useful info from digital surplus world. I love when that happens to me. :) I

appreaciate your feedback and thanks a lot for sharing. :)

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on August 16, 2012:

Very interesting hub... I had heard of the Rule of Thirds ages ago but had forgotten it (our household Rule of Nerds that comes from trying to jam a surplus of digital and technical info into a pre-modern brain). I will keep this in mind for my next stint with the camera. Voted up, interesting, useful, and shared!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 30, 2012:

Hi Marcy, you are right, the rule of third works wonders with photography Thanks a lot. :)

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on July 28, 2012:

You are so talented! Thanks for sharing your expertise with us - and these tips will work for photography, too!

Jake Frost from London, United Kingdom on July 15, 2012:

Very good tips here, overall a great article. It's good to actually have rules

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 15, 2012:

It sure is a great rule, travel-O-grapher. The first time I heard about the rule of third it was at a photography training, and since then I was hooked. Thanks! :)

travel-O-grapher from Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 15, 2012:

Good article on the rule of thirds! it's a good rule for composition of any kind, be it photography or painting!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 14, 2012:

Hi wayseeker, the rule of thirds is a great guide to taking better photos, or to crop the ones you already have.

I love the help of this tool when cropping, it make a huge difference.

Thanks! :)

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 14, 2012:

Hi diyomarpandan, I've heard of the divine proportion and there are few other ratios too. It's interesting how different strategies can achieve pleasing compositions, and the amazing thing is that a mathematical formula can make sense of our instinct for beauty. Thanks for reading and your comment. :)

wayseeker from Colorado on July 14, 2012:

What a wonderful find! I'm so pleased that I dropped in on this one. As you know, I like to tinker with drawing and art from time to time. This is a concept I'd not heard of, but it reminds me of certain rules in the rhythm and texturing of chords in music that help one create compositions that are clean and intriguing.

I just checked my camera and noticed that I can pull up that frame there, too. Now I want to go take some pictures! (I'm horrible at photography, by the way, so maybe this will help!

This is quite a nice piece. Voted up, shared, etc.

diyomarpandan on July 14, 2012:

Enlightening! I think I've been doing this, but more out of intuition than actual technique. When I carefully compose my art, I also resort to what they call Divine Proportion.