How to Use the Rule of Thirds in Painting Composition

Updated on April 17, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is a self-taught 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. | Source

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. | Source

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. | Source

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. | Source

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.

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. | Source

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.

Rule of Thirds Explained in 39 Seconds

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.


Questions & Answers

  • Where did you learn about the rule of thirds?

    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

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      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 profile image

      Dbro 

      6 years ago from Texas, USA

      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 profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

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

    • profile image

      Vanderleelie 

      6 years ago

      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 profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      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. :)

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 

      6 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      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 profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

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

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      6 years ago from Planet Earth

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

    • JakeFrost profile image

      Jake Frost 

      6 years ago from London, United Kingdom

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

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      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 profile image

      travel-O-grapher 

      6 years ago from Dhaka, Bangladesh

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

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      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 profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      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 profile image

      wayseeker 

      6 years ago from Colorado

      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 profile image

      diyomarpandan 

      6 years ago

      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.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, feltmagnet.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://feltmagnet.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)