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The Rule Of Thirds In Art: How To Increase The Impact Of Your Focal Area

Landscape oil painting: Via Montenegro Valley, by Barry John Raybould
Cat. No. 1413 Montenegro Valley, by Barry John Raybould, 20cm x 40cm, Oil on Canvas, 2021

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What is the Rule of Thirds In Art?

rule of thirds in art

The rule of thirds is a guideline for both artists and photographers. It says that if you divide your composition into thirds, either vertically or horizontally, and then place focal areas of your scene at the meeting points of them, you will get a more pleasing arrangement and layout for your compositions.

Details: The Rule of Thirds In Art

Composition is one of the most important things you need to plan in your painting whether you are painting landscapes, still lifes, or painting the figure and portrait. It determines the success or failure of your painting.

An important technique you should know about is the Rule of Thirds. Although this is often referred to as a rule, I prefer to call it a technique. This is because making it a rule is too rigid: there are ways of making good compositions without using this principle. However for beginners, the rule of thirds is a good guideline.

The rule of thirds relates to another principle called the “Golden Ratio”. This is a mathematical relationship of proportion that is often found in nature. This ratio has been used by artists and architects throughout the centuries, including the designers of the Parthenon in Athens, Salvador Dali, Le Corbusier, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Example Of The Rule Of Thirds

Here is one of my paintings of an old wooden house in a Chinese village called Xinchang, near Shanghai. I painted this during an event in which Chinese and American painters were invited to participate in a week-long plein air event with a final exhibition in an old historic building in the ancient village.

Note where the most saturated color is: the light on the blue door. This is an example of a focal area. Now to see the rule of thirds in action, let’s add a grid over the painting that is divided in to thirds.

example of the rule of thirds in art

You can see that the blue door lies on the line of the first third division in the painting. In this case it does not lie at the intersection of the gridlines, but along one of them. If you have a small focal area or focal point, you could put it at the intersection. A longer focal area such as this one falls along one of the lines.

The circle shows the intersection of the division of thirds. The HSB shows the saturation of the blue color: 76%, which is quite high. I am using the principle of contrast of saturation to highlight the focal area.

In this way, by using the rule of thirds in art you can make your paintings more interesting.

Using Apps To Apply The Rule Of Thirds In Art

There are several apps you can use on your phone to put a grid on top of a photograph to identify the positions where the third division points lie. If you search the app store for ‘photo grids’ you will find them. I use an app called Grid #. This one has worked quite well for me.

Origins Of The Rule Of Thirds In Art History

The origins of the rule of thirds go back to classical Greek Architecture to and Renaissance paintings. It is also commonly used as a compositional tool by photographers. If you examine many classical buildings and Renaissance paintings you will see how often the main characters are placed at the intersection of the third division lines. However, it is not always the case and be cautious not to be too dogmatic about this rule. There are often other, more important things to think about in composition such as rhythm and groupings that might override this rule. As always, the rule of thirds is just a technique in your toolbox, and not to be always followed religiously.

Relationship Of The Rule Of Thirds In Art To Other Principles Of Art

I suspect that this rule is more of a simple way to avoid putting your focal area, or center of interest, right in the center of the painting, rather than a prescription of exactly where to place it. It is never a good idea to put the most interesting part of the painting in the dead center of your painting.

Also, it probably works because a division of two thirds 0.66 approximates to the concept of a golden ratio which is a ratio of 0.62. The Golden Ratio is a pleasing division of space as it is based on natural mathematical laws.

Here is a video by Apple showing how to use an iPhone to view the rule of thirds grids.

For More Information

For more information on the principles of art, see the Guide to Composition. Also see the article on the Rule of Thirds in Wikipedia.

Thank You

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you are interested in a structured approach for learning how to paint, and want to learn more about my Visual Music & Poetry® model, take a look at my online painting classes.

Happy painting!

Barry John Raybould
Virtual Art Academy

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