How to Use the Rule of Thirds in Painting Composition

By Alina Bradford

Fried egg compositionBoring painting composition can easily be avoided by using the Rule of Thirds. This painting concept works with still life art, portraits, landscapes and even abstracts. It is easy to learn and can be used with or without any special tools, depending on your own personal artistic style.

What is the Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is when the canvas is split into nine areas or thirds horizontally and vertically. The main subject is placed into in lower left, the upper left, upper right, or lower right area of the canvas. The less important subjects should be placed in the other thirds to guide the eye around the canvas and back to the subject.

This isn’t to say that an artist must leave a gaping hole of nothingness in the middle of the painting. It just means that your main attractions shouldn’t camp dead center. You want to keep your viewer’s eye moving around the painting. If the subject is in the center of the painting composition the eye will stop there and move on to the next canvas, missing out on all of the other great stuff in your painting.

Take a look at the example at the left of the article. Here you can see how the photo’s composition follows the thirds concept. The girl in yellow is the main subject. She is placed in the lower right portion of the painting. The minor subjects (the slide, trees and other girl) are placed in the leftover thirds and end up creating a circle that leads the eye right back to the subject.

Using a Viewfinder for the Rule of Thirds

If you can’t visualize where your subject should be placed, you can use an artist’s viewfinder. You can buy viewfinders through artist supply stores, or you can make a viewfinder.


Try this to use a viewfinder with the Rule of Thirds:

  1. Tape two pieces of string onto the viewfinder, dissecting it into thirds vertically.
  2. Tape two pieces of string across it horizontally, once again dividing it into thirds.
  3. Hold the artist viewfinder out in front of you, framing your subject.
  4. Move the viewfinder around until your subject is at the corner of upper or lower right or left string square.

Using the Rule of Thirds can make your painting composition go from drab to interesting, simply by moving your subject out of the center of the canvas.

Here is a video demonstration:

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