Photo of trees divided into thirds horizontally and vertically to illustrate rule of thirds

How the rule of thirds can help you make better compositions

Have you ever looked at a painting or drawing you were working on and thought it just didn’t look right? No matter how harmonious the color scheme or how much detail you put into your work, something just seems off?

The problem could be the composition.

What is composition?

Composition is the arrangement of elements in a pictorial space. If it’s a landscape, it could be the arrangement of trees, rocks, or other natural objects with a sky above. In a portrait, it’s the portrait subject and whatever may be in the background, if anything.

Even abstract paintings have a composition where lines, textures and fields of color are used to create form and depth.

The way we frame our subjects, whether they be representational or abstract, can make or break the success of our work.

There are many different ways to arrange a composition and how you do it depends on your subject and the idea or meaning you’d like to convey. There are also different “rules” or sets of guidelines you can explore while trying to arrange elements in your pictorial space.

This post will introduce you to the rule of thirds, a principle used in photography that’s just as useful in painting. It can help you frame your subject in a way that maximizes the use of positive and negative space, helps anchor your viewer’s gaze where you want it, and establish “visual tension” or even motion.

What is negative space and why do you need it?

Negative space, known in certain circles as white space, is simply the area around your subject or objects that is of lesser or no visual importance. But it is an important part of the structure of your composition. By not being important to look at, negative space reinforces the importance of the forms in the composition.

It also gives them a “medium” to exist in. Much the same way the binder in your paint gives pigment particles a medium to exist in.

Negative space also gives your viewer’s eyes a place to rest. If every inch of your canvas were filled up with forms vying for attention, it would not invite anyone to look at the painting for very long.

The viewer doesn’t want to spend time looking at a painting trying to figure out what they should look at. They want you to show what’s important for them to look at by bringing their attention to it.

So how do you use the rule of thirds to direct the viewer’s gaze?

Using the rule of thirds involves dividing up the pictorial space into thirds both vertically and horizontally so that it’s broken down into nine smaller areas.

The vertical and horizontal lines and their intersections can be used to place objects to create a hierarchy of visual importance and make a more dynamic composition.

It can be tempting to place the subject dead center. And there are times when that placement is appropriate. But more often than not, it makes for a static image that’s just not as interesting.

Even an abstract painting has form, even though it’s not representational. And that form still needs effective placement.

The forms in this abstract are created by letters and color gradation. Their placement, however, is just as important as that of portrait subjects and objects in a still life or landscape.

In the portrait below, consider the placement of the girl’s eyes, where most people would spend the most time looking.

Taking into account that the eyes are looking off to the left, and that her hair is blowing in that direction, it makes sense to put her face on the right hand side. If your portrait subject is looking off in one direction, that’s where you want to put the offset of space. That way, when the viewer has an impulse to follow her gaze, there’s distance there to cover and our eyes follow across the canvas.

The use of positive and negative space is just the starting point. Next you want to think about scale and motion.

Using scale and the rule of thirds to convey motion

Our brains are built to interpret information transmitted by our eyes and extrapolate motion and distance. It helps us navigate our environments and avoid running into things or being hit by moving objects.

So we expect to perceive motion in everything we look at, including still images.

Even if what we’re looking at is made up of objects that don’t move, we can use visual tension to stand in for motion. How can we accomplish that?

One way is by using scale and proximity of forms to suggest directional lines. These aren’t necessarily drawn lines, but perceived lines plotted by edges, corners, or other focal points of objects. Our minds actually do the job of drawing these lines when we see things that seem to line up.

These trees roughly align along thirds, but this composition also uses scale to promote a sense of direction. It’s important to be mindful of details or objects that line up and may prompt a viewer’s brain to draw that invisible line. You at least want to pay attention to where those lines may draw a viewer’s gaze so they don’t interfere with where you want people to look.

A time and place for the rule of thirds

The real intent behind the rule of thirds is not to be a hard and fast rule, but merely a tool to help you draw a viewer’s gaze to where in your painting you want it to be, and also to create a visual energy that draws attention. It’s by no means the only way to build a compelling image. But if you’re relatively new to painting or drawing and seem to be having composition issues, working with the rule of thirds for a while can be a big help.

Eventually, you will be so used to building a composition that you will make all these placement decisions intuitively and won’t have to put as much thought into it.

What about composition give you the most difficulty? Have you used a system to help you create better compositions? Leave a comment and let me know.