Have you ever stepped back from a painting or drawing you were working on and thought it just didn’t look right?

No matter how harmonious the color scheme or how much detail you put into your work, something just seems off?

It could be that your composition is meh.

What is composition?

Composition is the arrangement of elements in a pictorial space. If it’s a landscape, it could be the arrangement of trees, rocks, or other items on the ground with a sky above. In a portrait, it’s the portrait subjects and whatever may be in the background, if anything.

“Good composition is like a suspension bridge – each line adds strength and takes none away.” ~ Robert Henri

Even abstract paintings have a composition where forms, lines, textures and fields of color are used.

The way we frame our subjects, whether they be representational or abstract, can make or break the success of our work.

There are many different ways to arrange a composition and how you do it depends on your subject and the idea or meaning you’d like to convey. There are also different “rules” or sets of guidelines you can explore while trying to arrange elements in your pictorial space.

This post will introduce you to the rule of thirds, a principle used in photography that’s just as useful in painting. It can help you frame your subject in a way that maximizes the use of positive and negative space, helps anchor your viewer’s gaze where you want it, and establish “visual tension” or even motion.

What is negative space and why do you need it?

Negative space, also known as white space, is simply the area around your subject that is of lesser visual importance.

But it is an important part of the structure of your composition because it reinforces the importance of forms in your pictorial space.

It also gives them a “medium” to exist in. Much like how the binder in your paint gives pigment particles a medium.

portrait with negative space outlined

Negative space also gives your viewer’s eyes a place to rest. If every inch of your canvas were filled up with forms vying for attention, it would not invite anyone to look at the painting for very long.

Viewers don’t want to spend time looking at a painting trying to figure out what they should look at. They wants you to show what’s important for them to look at by bringing their attention to it.

So how do you use the rule of thirds to do that?

The rule of thirds helps you decide how to use positive and negative space

The rule of thirds is just a guideline that divides up the pictorial space into thirds in both dimensions so that it’s broken down into nine smaller areas.

The vertical and horizontal lines and their intersections can be used to place objects to create a hierarchy of visual importance and make a more dynamic composition.

It’s tempting to place the subject dead center. And there are times when that placement is appropriate. But more often than not, it makes for a static image that’s just not as interesting.

Even an abstract painting has form, even though it’s not representational. And that form still needs optimal placement to be most effective.

abstract painting with text, divided into thirds in both dimensions

The forms in this abstract are created by letters and color gradation. But their placement is just as important as that of portrait subjects and objects in a still life or landscape.

In the portrait below, consider the placement of the girl’s eyes, where most people would spend the most time looking.

portrait of little girl, divided by three equidistant lines in both dimensions

If your portrait subject is looking off in one direction, that’s a good place to put the biggest area of negative space. That way, when we have an impulse to follow her gaze, there’s distance there to cover and our eyes follow across the canvas.

The use of positive and negative space is just the starting point. Next you want to think about scale and motion.

Using scale and the rule of thirds to convey motion

Our brains are built to interpret information transmitted by our eyes and extrapolate motion and distance. It helps us navigate our environments and avoid running into things or being hit by moving objects.

So we expect to perceive motion in everything we look at, including still images.

Even if what we’re looking at is made up of objects that don’t move, we can use visual tension to stand in for motion. How do we do that?

One way is by using scale and proximity of forms to suggest directional lines. These aren’t necessarily drawn lines, but perceived lines plotted by edges, corners, or other focal points of objects. Our brains actually do the job of drawing these lines when we see things that seem to line up.

Photo by Anthony Tuil on Unsplash
Photo by Anthony Tuil on Unsplash

These trees roughly align along thirds, but this composition also uses scale to promote a sense of direction.

It’s important to be mindful of details or objects that line up and may prompt a viewer’s brain to draw that invisible line. You at least want to pay attention to where those lines may draw a viewer’s gaze so they don’t interfere with your intended focal point.

A time and place for the rule of thirds

“Now, to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravity before going for a walk.” ~ Edward Weston

The real intent behind the rule of thirds is not to be a hard and fast rule. Merely a tool to help you draw a viewer’s gaze where you want it to go, and also to create a visual energy that draws attention. It’s by no means the only way to build a compelling image.

But if you’re relatively new to painting or drawing and seem to be having composition issues, working with the rule of thirds for a while can be a big help. Eventually, you will be so used to building a composition that you will make all these placement decisions intuitively and won’t have to put as much thought into it.

What about composition give you the most difficulty? Have you used a system to help you create better compositions? Leave a comment and let me know.

Chiara Scuro

Chiara is an acrylic painter, content writer and painting consultant. She's out to chuck a Molotov cocktail at the elitist notion that it takes some innate talent to learn how to paint. Check out her blog, The Painted Pants Lady, and learn how to paint smarter.

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