Fundamentals of Composition: Rule of Thirds

Easily the most challenging thing for me is composition. I have to hunt and peck, twist my shoulders and cross my eyes in order to find a composition that’s interesting and occasionally beautiful. I look out at the world around me and see beautiful subjects, unique subjects, intriguing stories, but capturing that in a photo, drawing, or painting is an elusive endeavor to say the least.

At first, I was disappointed to learn that composition is such a struggle for me, because in my mind composition is the thing that gifted artists “just get.” The fact that I struggle with composition tells me that I’m not one of those naturally gifted artists who can magically compose a shot. It’s even more disappointing to me when I think about the fact that I studied composition a good bit when I took photography classes in high school and college.

In my mind, I know there are rules I should follow. But honestly, I have never focused on these rules very closely. I learned about the rule of thirds, framing, leading lines, s-curves, pattern, rhythm and motion. As I think about it, it becomes clear to me that I know OF these things, but I don’t KNOW them. In order for good composition to become natural to me, I need to internalize these rules and understand them much more deeply than I currently do.

The more I think about it, the less disappointed I am that composition is the thing I’m struggling with. I see this as a really positive thing because it means I’m finally becoming comfortable enough with the medium of watercolor that I’m progressing from wrangling pigment, to painting a story. Technique is really just dozens of speed bumps on the road to telling a story. The fact that I’m struggling with composition tells me that driving over those speed bumps for the past several months has finally started wearing them down. I can now drive down the road and focus on where I’m going instead of just trying to avoid crashing on the speed bumps.

I’m moving from wondering “how” to put paint on paper, and I’m starting to explore “why” paint should go there. Because I learn best by teaching, I’ll try to explain the fundamentals of composition here. But instead of just parroting the rules as I have learned them, I’ll try to explain why these rules are important – hopefully this exercise will help me to better internalize the fundamentals of good composition.

Rule of Thirds

By far, the most important rule of composition is the Rule of Thirds. It’s the easiest to understand and employ, and has the most dramatic impact on the quality of compositions. Basically the rule of thirds just says, “put the focal point at an intersection of thirds.”

As an example, consider this photo of my daughter:

Winnie’s head is smack in the middle of the composition. Instead of feeling balanced because the focal point is smack dab in the middle, it actually feels unbalanced, like it’s about to tip over for some reason. Worst of all, with the subject in the middle, the composition is just plain-old boring.

If we make a slight change, and move the focal point to the intersection of thirds, we get a much more interesting composition.

All I did was cut the image into thirds, horizontally and vertically, and crop the image with Winnie’s eye at the intersection of two of those lines.

So, if you take an image and cut the image into thirds horizontally and vertically, and put the focal point at the intersection of two of those lines, you get an improved composition. This is simple to do, but the interesting question is why? Why is the rule of thirds so effective? Why does putting the focal point here make the image so much more interesting? I think it comes down to nature, and nurture. For some reason, as far as art is concerned, both nature and nurture agree that the rule of thirds should be obeyed.

The Rule of Thirds is so effective because it’s so prevalent in nature. In order to demonstrate this, I need to start talking about effing Math, and something called the Fibonacci Sequence.

The Fibonacci Sequence

The Fibonacci sequence is a well-known number pattern. It’s really very simple. Start with the number 1. Add it to the number that came before it in the sequence, and repeat.

So… the first number in our sequence is 1.

There is no number before this because it’s the first number in our sequence. So “the number before the first number” is zero.


So, the second number in the sequence is… another 1.

Now, add that to the number that came before it in the sequence.


Our sequence is now: 1, 1, 2

Add two to the number that came before it, and we get the next number in the sequence, 3.

1, 1, 2, 3

Add that to the number that came before it, and we get the next number in the sequence, 5.

1, 1, 2, 3, 5

Keep doing this until your brain falls out of your ear.

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597. 2584, 4181, 6765, 10946, 17711, 28657, 46368, 75025, 121393, 196418, 317811… and on and on and on…

What does this have to do with art? Well, it gets neat when we draw the Fibonacci sequence.

The Golden Rectangle

Wait, what? Draw a list of numbers? Trust me,,, here’s some pictures so you can follow along.

Draw a square.
Find the middle of the bottom edge.
Connect that to the opposite corner.
Lay that line down, keeping the bottom where it is.
Use the end of that line as the right-hand edge of a rectangle.

Remember this big red rectangle. It’s super important.

Now, it’s simple – just create a square in the rectangular bit… you’ll get a smaller rectangular bit above it.
Make a square in that smaller rectangular bit.
Now just keep going.
and going
and going…
Until you can’t any more.

So what… what does this get us? Why draw all these squares? Well, look at what happens when we measure the length of the sides of each square…

We drew the Fibonacci sequence. And – interestingly – if we draw a curved line in each corner – we’ll get what Leonardo DaVinci called, the golden spiral.

And now to the magical part… that spiral can be found ALL OVER THE PLACE in nature.

The Nautilus Shell is a famous example
As is this cactus
Here you can see it in a lily.
And these leaves.
It works in outer space.
And on a dog’s nose.
It worked on beautiful people from a long time ago.
And it works on racist dictatorial jackasses from today.

The Golden Rectangle and The Rule of Thirds

What does this have to do with the rule of thirds? Well, remember that big red rectangle? It turns out, if you divide the height of that rectangle by the width of it, you get 1.618blahblahblah. Every rectangle works the same way. They all have a height to width ratio of 1.618blahblahblah. That number has a magical name – it’s called ϕ (the Greek letter phi – pronounced “fee”).

Remember, ϕ is the ratio of the height of a golden rectangle divided by its length. If you start with an imperial sized sheet of watercolor paper, you have a rectangle that’s 30 inches by 22 inches. Height/width=1.36363636yougettheidea. This ratio is decidedly NOT ϕ. So, how can we get something out of an imperial rectangle that closely approximates a golden rectangle? Well, remember that the golden rectangle is a square, plus a little bit. That “little bit” is proportional to the square. And that proportion is important. If we draw a square on a sheet of imperial watercolor paper using the height to determine the size of the square, then the “little bit” we have left will be too small.

But! If we divide the sheet into thirds… 30/3=10. 10×2=20. So, we get two rectangles, one is 22×20, the other is 22×10. If we lop an inch off the top and bottom, we get a square 20×20 and a rectangle 20×10. Together, they make one rectangle that’s 20×30. And the ratio of that rectangle is 1.5. MUCH closer to ϕ.

So, dividing a sheet of watercolor paper into thirds gives us something approximating the golden ratio, and it’s a hell of a lot faster than doing all that math. Either you can do a ton of math, and lop off some of the paper to get a golden rectangle, or, you can just cut your rectangle into thirds to get something that’s pretty close.

After you cut the paper into thirds, you have the landmarks needed to plan your composition so that it more closely aligns to the golden ratio. And, because we see that ratio so often in beautiful things in nature, we associate things that fall into that ratio with beautiful things.

*PHEW* so, if you made it through all that, congratulations. The big takeaway is – good composition starts by dividing your paper into thirds. Why that works is much more complicated.