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Jul 21, 2017
By Brian @ Madaras Gallery
There it is in front of you... the perfect picture moment.
It could be a vivid sunset painted lushly across the sky. Perhaps it’s your child in a moment that you want to remember forever. Or maybe you just came across Bigfoot (again), and nobody believed you last time. Either way, it’s beautiful and needs to be captured for posterity. Fortunately, you have your camera handy. You snap away with confidence and eagerly check your photo.
But no! The picture is ugly and boring. The striking imagery you saw with your eyes is nowhere to be found. Even worse, your friends will never believe that isn’t just a guy in a gorilla suit.
Have you ever wondered why some photographs or paintings look flat, uninteresting, and unnatural? The culprit is not Bigfoot (this time). It’s likely the composition.
In our previous dog-blog, we discussed the basics of composition in painting (using dog art). How did the artist place the elements we see in the art? What effect does it have on the subject matter? And how does that manipulate the viewer?
Now let’s get more specific. Today we’re talking about the rule of thirds.
First of all, the rule of thirds is not an actual rule. It’s simply a concept in visual art that tries to quantify why some compositions are interesting while others are lackluster. The basic idea is that if your subject matter is placed centrally, it tends to be boring or unpleasing to the eye.
But why is this called the rule of thirds? Well, to illustrate how it works, we’re going to divide our canvas into thirds, horizontally and vertically.
We now have a grid that can be superimposed over our image. According to the rule of thirds, your picture will be more intriguing if you align your subject matter close to these lines.
Landscape painting and photography often make use of this technique. The rule recommends that you place the horizon along one of the horizontal lines. This usually creates a more interesting visual balance than putting it in the center.
In more practical terms, if you’d like to focus on a beautiful sky, the horizon should be near the lower line. You can see this above in Sunset at Dove Mountain. On the other hand, aligning the horizon on the upper line puts more focus towards the scene on the ground, like in Beach Walk.
And here’s an example of using the rule of thirds when you’re doing a portrait. In this case, it’s a horse named Angel. It’s typical to place the subject’s eyes along the upper line. In general, this will give them the appropriate amount of headroom and present a polished-looking image.
Another important aspect of the rule of thirds arises with any vertex where the lines cross. Many artists believe those four points are invaluable in creating a visually-pleasing composition. The key to this technique is framing the subject matter in the vicinity of these spots. Let’s examine First Light.
The bright mountain peak illuminated by the sunlight is exactly aligned with one of the intersection points. The peak didn’t need to be placed there, yet in doing so, it helps bring a strong composition to the image.
But creating cactus art is a thorny issue, so let’s go deeper. What if you have multiple points of interest (called focal points) in your image? If that’s the case, multiple vertices can come into play. In fact, here are a couple examples of that idea in use.
Prickly Pear Bloom is certainly visually striking. We talked about how color theory plays into that in a past discussion, but today, we’re studying the composition of the painting. Thanks in part to the colors, the two spots your eyes immediately go to are the yellow bloom and the brightest thorns. Both of those spots are located on diagonally opposing intersection points in our grid. It creates a dynamic, energetic visual.
Next, let’s look at Five Birds. While they aren’t posed exactly on the points, our feathery friends are all lingering near three of the vertices. It makes for a much more intriguing composition than if they were all sitting in the center.
Of course, it must be remembered that all “rules” in art can be broken. Depending on the artist’s intent, breaking the rule of thirds can be quite valuable. For example, sometimes placing the subject matter centrally can have a bold, provocative effect.
Pokey’s Excellent Breakfast
[the horns actually fall on the upper horizontal line]
In reality, there are no actual rules to art. Countless masterpieces have been painted or photographed that do not follow the rule of thirds. To call it a rule is a misnomer – an artist is not obligated to draw or imagine a grid on every image they create. It’s simply a set of guidelines to help understand why certain visual techniques have a particular effect.
Now, the next time you stumble across Bigfoot, all your friends will be impressed by your strong composition.
They still might not believe you though. I can’t help you with that.
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