{R} Rule of thirds: A brief introduction to composition

Rule of three: An odd number of hearts makes for a more effective spread than if there were 2 or 4.

Rule of three: An odd number of hearts makes for a more effective spread than if there were 2 or 4.

Composition – or how various elements are placed in a work of art – is key to the success of all visual arts. Being a photography enthusiast, I have an innate understanding of some of these rules {such as the rule of thirds}, but when it comes to art, I’ve had to be a little more deliberate about composition. More often than not, however, art journal spreads are not planned – we often wing it! And that’s when we stumble upon problems of achieving balance and white space, depth and an overall pleasing composition.

This is why I believe it is important to know the elements of composition – so that you can intuitively {and even deliberately} create pages that are pleasing to you without going completely off the bend.

Going in-depth in to composition rules is beyond the scope of this post – it is a vast subject with subtle variations depending on which visual art you wish to pursue. What I would really like to share with you today are a few simple tips that can help you create more pleasing pages without over-thinking the elements of design.

The rule of three – an odd number of marks or doodles, even color, works a lot better than an even number. This stems from the “rule of odds”, which states that the simplest way to make a composition more dynamic is to use odd numbers rather than an even number. This ensures that the viewer cannot pair them up or group them easily, which can make for a boring image. While this is typically used for the main focal image or subject, in art journals this rule is mostly used for supporting elements.

White space around the focal images - the two circles at the top left of the page - makes this spread less chaotic and moves the viewer's eye through the piece.

White space around the focal images – the two circles at the top left of the page – makes this spread less chaotic and moves the viewer’s eye through the piece. {Click image to enlarge}

Go off-center – try not to place your focal images in the center of your composition – putting it off-center creates more interest. This stems from the “rule of thirds”, which is a basic rule that’s very popular among photographers. Simply divide your page into thirds both horizontally and vertically, and place your focal images either one third across or one third up or down the picture. This ensures that the viewer’s eye is drawn across the page rather than looking just at the focal image and ignoring the rest of the image.

Create space – white space, or areas of relative calm in a richly layered spread – can make it easier to take in the page. A lack of white space can make your page look chaotic and the viewer may not know where to focus. White space doesn’t necessarily have to be white – as you can see from the image to the right. Having a few areas of calm helps the eye travel over the page and take in all of the elements, layers and rich detail that could have become very chaotic if there was no place for your eye to rest.

Once you understand these rules, they can be effectively broken too!

Put this lesson to work: White space can be a tricky one – too much and it feels incomplete, too little and it feels chaotic. To really practice this, try combining it with layers and go abstract. First, create a richly layered background. As you layer, think of your main elements – it could be simple shapes like circles or squares, or a big stamped image – and incorporate them onto your page. Then create some white space so that the viewer’s eye travels across the page and comes to rest on the focal image.

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11 Comments

    • Yes, it is! It took me a very long time to understand how to use it effectively. I won’t say I’ve mastered it just yet, but I’m not as scared of it as I used to be!

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