Do you have to use "The Rule of Thirds" to make a good painting?
In talking to a couple of friends recently about composition, each of them (in separate conversations) said something like, "Oh, I know... The Rule of Thirds and all that...." And one added, "There are just too many rules. I want to break the rules!"
With the latter, I agree.
And no, composition is not all about The Rule of Thirds. It's about what works in a painting. It's a much more practical matter.
The Rule of Thirds is generally understood to mean that, if you divide your painting into equal thirds, both vertically and horizontally, the image that is your center of focus should fall along one of the intersections of the grid you've established.
In the painting above, though, notice that the tree that is the center of interest doesn't quite line up right. It's off to the right of the right vertical line, and the horizon pretty much bisects the middle of the painting, horizontally. Hmmm. Does that mean it doesn't work as a painting? Look at the original painting below to compare.
According the The Rule, this painting shouldn't work. But it works just fine. The Rule is used to teach people not to plop subjects into the middle of their paintings, which can be helpful. It kind-of-approximates the Golden Mean (more about that in another post one of these days), though its dimensions are not the same as that of the Golden Mean. But it isn't the only way — or necessarily the best way — to create a composition, and it can be a straitjacket.
If this painting were cropped to align nicely along one-third lines, one way of doing it might look something like this, below.
Notice how the center of the tree lines up nicely along the line on the right, and its base, and the horizon line, is centered around the bottom horizontal line now. The lines intersect as the tree begins to branch out. It fits The Rule. But is it as interesting a painting? Or does it kind of miss the point?
The intention of this painter (me) was to create a painting of an oak tree in a meadow at sunset. This composition takes out the "Sunset Meadow" part of it. So The Rule really doesn't work here. Not that the cropped version isn't interesting... it just kind of misses the point.
Now, let's say we wanted to line up the upper right lines of the grid through the center of the tree, in its upper part, and recropped the painting's image accordingly. The tree is, after all, the center of interest of the painting.
Now the upper left lines cross in the upper part of the tree — or, technically, square in the middle of the tree as a whole. If the tree is the center of interest, this is where the Rule of Thirds tells us we would need to line it up. But now it misses another part of the point of the painting — which is the sunset. It's not a bad composition — but it misses the intention of the painter (in this case, me).
And here's another example. (Note: although these are landscape paintings, it applies to every other genre as well.) The painting doesn't fit The Rule. Its horizon does line up roughly along the bottom third line. But painting is about the two trees, and the relationship between them (and the heavenly color of the dusk sky), and none of that lines up on an intersection of the grid. But the painting works!
So, what can you take away from this? Rules can be helpful, up to a point. But using them as absolutes can keep you from really seeing — and art is all about seeing. In this case, The Rule of Thirds is an artificial structure — and stricture — that just isn't necessarily the best thing to go by. It's good to learn what IS necessary to make a painting work — and the proof is in what works. If you stick to what actually works, no matter the "rules," you'll be okay. And you just might have more interesting paintings.
Let me amend that — you will have more interesting paintings. And here's to more of those!
Karen Lynn Ingalls
I am a working artist in Napa and Sonoma Counties, in northern California. I paint colorist landscapes of rural California, teach art classes, workshops, and private lessons, live in Calistoga, and have my art studio in Santa Rosa, California.