How to use the rule of thirds in art
Whether you're just learning how to draw and paint or are a pro composing a new piece, by following basic drawing and painting techniques and guidelines, such as the Golden Ratio, you'll be able to improve your art and design.
The rule of thirds – used frequently by photographers – states that if you divide any composition into thirds, vertically and horizontally, then place the key elements of your image either along these lines or at the junctions of them, you’ll achieve a more pleasing arrangement and more interesting and dynamic compositions.
The rule of thirds gives you a guide for placing focal points. If you design your focal points according to the intersections of any of the nine rectangles, your picture will have the counterbalance needed to make the composition more interesting and more compelling.
You can also design other elements in the picture to lead the eye from one of the focal points to the other, and use the corners to bring the viewer into the picture or keep the eyes moving back into picture again. This kind of eyeflow adds movement and life to any composition.
On this page, we'll look at how artists have used the rule of thirds to create dynamic compositions.
01. Origins of the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is a compositional guideline. Its origins go back to classical and Renaissance paintings, but it is mostly known as a compositional tool used by photographers. This painting by Valentin de Boulogne shows how the main characters are all placed on the upper dividing line, creating a dynamic arrangement of figures.
02. The rule of thirds in landscapes
The rule of thirds is mostly known as a tool for composing landscapes. In this painting by Pierre Henri de Valenciennes, the horizon is placed in the lower thirds, and the large mass of mountains and scenery is placed in the left section, to create a more dynamic scene.
03. The rule of thirds for asymmetric compositions
The main function of the rule of thirds is to help create asymmetric compositions. If the elements in a picture are centred and too balanced, it becomes boring. If the images are offset using the rule of thirds, the asymmetry and counterbalance of elements creates a much more dynamic picture.
04. Place focal points with the rule of thirds
Another great way to use rule of thirds is to help place focal points. In this portrait painting, the eyes fall on the upper horizontal line and leads to the second focal point in the ear. Other points of interest such as the warm triangle of light also fall on an intersection of guidelines.
05. Guide eyeflow with the rule of thirds
Eyeflow is another great use of the rule of thirds. In this painting by Rubens, the main focal point of the boar is placed at an intersection. Secondary points of interest fall on intersections as well and the action of the poses lead the eye from one focal point or intersection to another.
Next page: How to use the rule of thirds in your artworks (in three quick demonstrations)
By following the guidelines and intersections created by the rule of thirds, you can more easily create compositions that are asymmetric and much more dynamic.
Now we've seen the rule of thirds in action in other artists' paintings, it's time to show you how you can use the rule of thirds to create your own art. These three quick tutorials show you how the rule can be applied to a still life painting, an architectural drawing and a figure painting.
The rule of thirds in still life
Our first demonstration uses the rule of thirds to compose a still life painting.
01. Set the scene using the rule of thirds
Begin by arranging your objects so that the composition lines up with the guidelines and intersections created by the rule of thirds. The banana and shadow here follow the bottom guideline while the highlight on the mango falls on the upper-right intersection, creating a dynamic focal point.
02. Use intersecting guides
The next step is to create the drawing using the intersections as guides. Creating a value thumbnail now also means you can plan your dark value composition. Here, the lower and left thirds are dominated by darks while the bright highlight in the upper section creates a dynamic focal point.
03. Block in
Begin the painting by blocking in the dark shadows and adding more saturated colours into the shadows and transition tones. To make the composition more dynamic and asymmetric, straighten the drawing of the banana’s shadow. This gives it a stronger horizontal alignment with the bottom guideline.
04. Add colour
Next, add the half-tone shapes and more colour. Here the upper third is entirely a dark mid-tone that will help to frame the highlight focal point. Straighten the curve of the table surface so that it lines up with the upper guideline and creates a more asymmetric value composition.
05. Make final touches
To complete the painting, add light tones, highlights and finishing touches. The light on the table surface fills out the lower two-thirds of the composition. Thicker and brighter paint and technique variation are added at the highlight, which really draws the eye to the main focal point.
The next demonstration is an urban landscape painting that uses the rule of thirds to play with height in the architecture.
01. Align the reference image with the grid
Here we slightly 'break' the rule of thirds by using it in a vertical or portrait orientation. The reference photo here shows that we will have to align the central structure with the right vertical guideline to give more asymmetry and counterbalance in this composition.
02. Draw and design
Begin the painting with the drawing and design. In the drawing, move the centre object to the right so that it lines up with the right vertical guideline. Similarly, design the other elements in the bottom of the composition to line up with the lower guideline.
03. Lock in major elements
Next, block in the darks and add colour in the shadows. This step helps you to lock in the major elements of the composition such as the central focal point and the dark lower thirds section. This creates an interesting tension with the upper two-thirds of light.
Next, add half-tones and lights. This locks in the major elements of the design and composition. The tower focal point lines up nicely with the right guideline and the darks with the lower guideline. The colours in the sky also add colour and value contrast with the darks in the lower third of the picture.
05. Add final details
To complete the painting, add details in the dark foreground along with more colour and technique variation. This also creates more depth and movement. Clean up the shapes in the central tower structure and use the upper guideline to help you place the small details and horizontal beam shapes.
06. Use sub-divisions
This image shows how the rule of thirds is sub-divided in this painting. The top of the tower lines up with a guideline. The central elements line up nicely with a guideline. And many of the lower details, colours and small strokes line up with guidelines in the lower section.
This last example is an action-packed figure painting in watercolour, which uses an asymmetric composition based on the rule of thirds to emphasise the thrust of the image.
01. Line up the main action
Begin the drawing and shadow block-in by using the upper guideline to line up the main action of the pose. This sets up a dynamic, asymmetric composition. Line up the face with the right-vertical guideline to create a secondary focal point.
02. Create an asymmetric counterbalance
Next, block in the dark and light half-tones, add as much colour as possible and begin to soften the core shadow edges. Having the dark shadows and half-tones dominate the right thirds of the composition creates an asymmetric arrangement of value. This helps to counterbalance the main focal point.
03. Add highlights
Next, add the highlights. Since the highlights fall on the upper guideline, it helps reinforce the composition. Add highlights on the main focal point, too. To counterbalance the image, add intense red colour along the right-vertical guideline. Now you have a simple and dynamic arrangement of values and colour.
04. Make the final touches
To complete the painting, add more colour to the focal point hand, along with variation in technique to really draw the eye to the punching hand. For counterbalance, add saturated reds to the eyes in shadow. This gives the image a secondary focal point and a dynamic eye-flow to the composition.