Good Things Come in Thirds (Art Rules to Live By)

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"Rule of Thirds" Cartoon by Karen Strum

Finding the perfect photo on which to base a painting is never easy. I troll my friend's Facebook photos, meander through stock photography, and dig deep into wildlife archives to find inspiration. For  the pastel painting “Mockingbird and Cypress Myrtle” I was fortunate enough to find the perfect reference photo in my friend Gary Soodak's personal collection of photography. I was able to create an endearing portrait of a mockingbird by using the Rule of Thirds and the Rule of Space to add depth, control eye flow, and impart a sense of wonder.

Gary's Mockingbird

Gary is a long time friend I met through Sailability, the non-profit where I volunteer promoting accessible sailing activities for children and adults of all abilities. So many of the people I meet through sailing are ardent nature lovers--reveling in the beach, water, trees and stars above us. Gary is one of these souls, quick to whip out his camera and capture the beauty around him.

Gary Soodak's Origianl Photo of a Mockingbird and Cypress Myrtle

Lately, it seems Gary has been “focusing” his camera on the heavens capturing constellations, planetary objects, and NASA launches. While the amateur astronomer in me loves this subject matter, what caught my eye was a recent photo he took of a mockingbird sitting atop cypress myrtle. His snapshot perfectly illustrated the Rule of Thirds and the Rules of Space, which are frequently employed by photographers even though the origins date back to classical and Renaissance paintings. After obtaining his permission, I begin on a new piece of artwork using his mockingbird as a reference and these two “rules” as guidelines for my painting.

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds states you'll achieve a more pleasing and dynamic arrangement by dividing your composition into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) and then placing key elements at the four power points that occur at the junction of these lines. For example, most people know to avoid placing the horizon directly in the center of a photograph. It creates more visual interest if the horizon is placed 1/3 of the way from the top or 1/3 of the way from the bottom. This works with horizontal elements as well as vertical. Artists use the Rule of Thirds mostly in landscapes, but it also works for other subject matters including still lifes, abstracts and even portraits.

The beauty of the Rule of Thirds is how it benefits asymmetric compositions. If the focal points in a painting are too centered and balanced, it becomes stagnant. If the key elements are offset using the Rule of Thirds, the asymmetry and counterbalance adds dynamism to the overall effect.

Gary used an innate understanding of The Rule of Thirds when he snapped his photo, but other artists  use viewfinders to determine the best layout. Standing in a natural landscape, it can be overwhelming to focus on only one part of the environment. A viewfinder helps the artist decide what to include and what to leave out. Some build their own viewfinder using a mat, while others purchase a commercial version at an art store. Most cameras and cell phones have a viewfinder grid built into them which make taking photos easy.

Once artists compose their layouts using the Rule of Thirds, they design other elements in the picture to lead the eye from one focal point to the next. With the mockingbird looking over his domain and the arrangement of the branches, the “eye flow” keeps the attention of the viewer and creates a balanced and yet complex image.

Breaking the Rules

After testing a principle such as the Rule of Thirds in a painting, artists such as myself may decide not to strictly follow it but rather to “tease” the principle to create stunning effects. If the Rule of Thirds is too restrictive, the artist must use his or her judgment as the deciding factor. Knowing the Rule of Thirds gives the artist the power to make intelligent decisions on how and why they choose to ignore it.

Negative Space

Negative space is of paramount importance when designing your layouts to adhere to the Rule of Thirds. It is the technique of using elements of low impact to contrast your subject in a picture. In my painting “Mockingbird with Cypress Myrtle” the negative space takes form as the gray sky behind the bird. Negative space isn’t always a flat color. I actually built up the layers of the sky in pastels using pink, blue and green before desaturating it with gray. This makes the gray more robust and gives it a fuller body so that it appears warm and complex.

Rule of Thirds Grid Placed Over Mockingbird and Cypress Myrtle
Many artists believe you need twice as much negative space as positive space. However, as you can see in “Mockingbird with Cypress Myrtle” I have broken the guideline and reversed the proportions with success. The negative space of the sky is used in conjunction with the rule of thirds to emphasize the top third of the painting containing the mockingbird. The negative space around the mockingbird defines it, drawing your eye. The gray sky provides "breathing room", giving the viewer's eyes a place to rest and preventing the painting from appearing cluttered with cypress myrtle.

The Rule of Space is also applied to this composition. The rule involves creating negative space that directly relates to the subject in some way. I used it three-fold. First, it can convey not only where the subject has been, but where it is going. In “Mockingbird with Cypress Myrtle” there is a fair amount of negative space in front of the bird and very little active space behind it. This gives the bird the allusion of surveying its domain for imminent departure. By placing space in front of the bird's gaze it added depth and intrigue. Viewers of the painting will naturally look into the open sky and wonder what the bird sees in the distance and what it might be thinking. Finally, the negative space of the sky is used to imply a sense of size and perspective. It grants a feeling of vastness and grandeur in the landscape while making the mockingbird appear smaller. Note how the bird is positioned on the vertical lines set forth in the Rule of Thirds, further making an effective use of negative space in this asymmetric composition.

Historically Speaking...

In 1797, the Rule of Thirds was first written down by an author quoting English Painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds gives a general description of balance, relating to it to the light and dark values used in artwork. His principle would later be transformed into the grid system artists use today.

Classic thinkers such as Plato, Pythagoras, and Kepler believed that geometry powers the underlying mechanics of the universe. Leonardo da Vinci had an obsession with proportions – creating large areas of his work around the exact proportions of the Golden Ratio, as did Florida favorite Salvador Dali.

There's a mathematical ratio often found in nature that goes by many names: the Golden Section, Golden Ratio, or Golden Mean. It is the ratio of 1 to 1.618. When artists use this spiral, it works similar to the grid used for the Rule of Thirds. The corresponding ratio of the Rule of Thirds is close, but not precise. Many of the early principles used in art, whether the golden rectangle or geometrical abstraction, can be seen in the Rule of Thirds.

“Good Things Come in Thirds” definitely has a positive connotation in the art world. The Rule of Thirds suggests that compositions divided into thirds are inherently more dynamic, have more depth, and offer more visual interest to the eye. By exploiting the artistic traits of negative space, the Rule of Thirds can effectively control movement, imply size and peak curiosity in the painting. “Mockingbird with Cypress Myrtle” is a prime example of these concepts in action. While I doubt Gary had these rules in mind when he snapped his wildlife photo, had he known I am sure the geometry concepts would have appealed to him due to his love of science and astronomy (after all, outerspace is basically just a lot of negative space).


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About the Author: Karen Strum is a Tampa Bay illustrator available for freelance projects. A unique cast of characters in her style can be designed for use in advertisements and materials for which you want something extra special. Karen's cartoons use retro imagery and vintage color palettes that add charm to every image she creates whether it is a comic, logo, diagram, book cover, or concept image. [Send an Email]


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