Friday, May 27, 2011

Art Elements: Rule of Thirds in Composition

I thought I would add a few of these lessons on the basics...I'm going to call them Art Elements.

In my experience I find that people, myself included at times, can easily get intimidated by art.  Now I'm very passionate about art but very practical. That's why my tutorials are step by step with pictures because I know what it's like trying to figure this whole "art" thing out. I'm always learning!

........anyhow enough of my rambling.  The picture on the left is Emerald Lake .  One of the amazing places I like to visit that is close by,( in Canadian terms).

This is a picture that my husband took, (I have trained him quite well) as a reference for painting. Composition wise, with a few changes it is terrific.  Now why does this work.....

Now there are lots of "rules" out there about composition. (the Golden mean, magic x, no 2 intervals should be the same, etc.) but I usually talk about the "Rule of Thirds".  I like to get the kids thinking about fractions.

Basically, when you look at your picture you want to imagine that it's divided into 3 equal parts both vertically and horizontally.

Now often students want to put the focal point of their picture in the center.

But for a viewer it is more appealing, dynamic, etc. if it's put in, what I'm going to call, a sweet spot.

The "sweet" spots are the intersections of your 3rds.

If it helps you can imagine that red square or rectangle, (depending on whether it's portrait or landscape orientated), and look at the corners of it.

So let's go back to our Emerald lake picture.  Here I've taken a sketch I did of it and let's divide it up.

Now looking at our "sweet" spots we are immediately drawn to 2 of them.  The mountain and then, (on the diagonal...the eye loves those diagonals) the lodge.  O.K. the lodge is a bit off the sweet spot but your eye is drawn down to it.

We also have that nice dark shadow opposite it which makes it work as well.

If I use the "magic X" rule this works here as well.  You divide your picture up with an X in the middle.  Your focal point needs to be anywhere on one of the arms of that x but not in the center.

Another thing that makes this composition work is the placement of line.  We have that nice mountain horizon line in the upper third of our picture. (again works with the "rule of thirds").  I talked further about Horizon Lines in this post.

We also have that nice bridge to follow with that bump of the lodge( lower third of the picture) and connecting them that wonderful dynamic diagonal tree line.

So what would I change.....not a lot but maybe work with a longer piece of wc paper so I show slightly more of the lake pushing the lodge closer to the sweet spot...but really this is pretty good as it stands. 

Let's try another..... here is a sketch of a picture my husband took of Montmarte in Paris.

I'm not showing the photo as a very weary looking traveller is in it.(me)

We divide up our sketch....the church is in that upper sweet spot again......

and we have some people near our lower sweet spot.

and hey we also have a nice shadow on the the actual picture the palm tree by the flag is reflecting a ton of sunlight and unfortunately I didn't capture it....when I attempt this painting I will add it.

Now both of the sketches I've shown were vertical but the "Rule of Thirds" works for horizontal composition as well.

When you look at this sketch I did in Maui imagine a red rectangle in the center.....what's going on in the sweet spots?

Hope this helps and I didn't just confuse things.


  1. This has got me thinking about a writing activity to go with it, along with the diagonals lessons. I love these lessons-for an art loser like me, I feel quite empowered.

  2. Hi Gail, Please post some more of these "Art Elements" Lessons! This is very basic yet is so important the way that you have broken it down into points that are easy to understand and explain. I am a new teacher, yet a long-time artist and I often struggle with the simple explanation for design and art rules. Thank you very much for your generous sharing on this blog. I have benefited much from your lessons and step by step explanations. (I am sure it takes you a lot of time)

  3. Thanks!!! Ditto to what Janice said. Your clear concise posting is so helpful:)

  4. What a fantastic way to teach all this! Well done, Gail!

    I intuitively knew but now I can actually explain more of it to someone.

  5. Gail,
    I just now found your site via Pinterest...I LOVE IT!! I look forward to using many of your techniques and lessons within my 2nd grade classroom and personally. THANK YOU!