The Rule of Thirds in History

Last week we looked at the Rule of Thirds as a general rule that can be applied differently depending on the type of photography.  You could use the hot spots or the lines for compositional approaches, and I commented on what seems to be a trend toward the former being more popular in portrait work and the latter being more popular in landscape type work.  The idea makes sense as portraits have subjects within the picture, while with landscapes the subject IS the picture (the entire scene).  Click here for the full blog post with examples.

Well, today, I am taking advantage of the open sourced nature of Wikipedia (all images link back to the Wikipedia pages they came from) for some well-known works of art that have survived the test of time to see how they measure up under the Rule of Thirds.  The results are kind of interesting:

The first is from Picasso, from his Cubism work, titled Three Musicians…

Van Gogh

A super-imposed Rule of Thirds grid is rather telling.  While this construct is somewhat different, because of the style of Cubism, I found it interesting to see the lines that he painted also fell into roughly the same places as those of the Rule of Thirds.  And the hot point in the upper left is kind of close to the “face” of one of the musicians.  Does the rule of Thirds apply here?  Given the linear composition, my vote is Yes – what’s yours?

Next up, is Van Gogh, with a painting titled “Street Scene in the Montmartre”:

Vaon Gogh

Here, hot points are very much at play, with the people walking down the street, coming in at the lower left hot point, and the red splash of color on the windmill is very close to the upper right point.  The fence line also roughly follows the lower third so elements of both compositional styles are present here.  Does the Rule of Thirds apply here?  I’d say yes!  Do you agree?

Lastly, let’s take a look at one of the more abstract artists in history:  Monet, and one of my favorite works of his, “Impression, Sunrise”…

Picture 2

The sun – pretty close to the upper right hot spot, and teh reflection in the impressionist waters, almost as in line with the right third line.  The boater shadow, being an opposing color, stands out anyway, but it also helps the composition that the lower third intersects it to a degree.  Remember, art is not an exact science, and creativity wouldn’t have variation if subjects were always right on the hotspot.  Equally, it wouldn’t spark or inspire us to always place things on the thirds lines. These are guides, meant to help you compose in aesthetically pleasing and appealing ways.  Does the Rule of Thirds apply here?  Without a doubt, is my answer!  Am I wrong?  What’s your take?

These are but three single instances of works of art that have survived the test of time.  There is so much history to art and its creative appeal, but I would venture to guess that much of it has some elemetns of composition in common throughout the ages.  Yet, there will always be exceptions.  That is the challenge for today – do you know any famous works of art historically that break the rules?   What makes them work and why?  Share your comments here in the blog.

A few other tidbits to share today outside of the main focal point (get it? 🙂 ):

  • Three more days to the Worldwide Photowalk, hosted by Scott Kelby and with tons of sponsors and prizes.  Have you registered?  Some cities still have openings so check cities near you – there’s still time to register!  (It’s free!)
  • A fellow NAPP member had started a community forum thread asking about the graphics tablet pen as a useful tool, and Dave Cross stopped in to share that he made a blog post scheduled for yesterday.  I made a mental note to stop over and read it – great thoughts, and definitely worth the 30 seconds (I read his blog daily anyway)!
  • Last, but not least, I got an email recently about this new site where photographers of any background can upload images of their lighting setups or other creative perspectives and setups with light to share with the community at large.  It’s a great outlet and you can get some pretty incredible inspiration from it…the name is Light Test and coincidentally, so is the web address.  Check them out here.

As a final note today, as I always like to share sources of creativity, I’d like to give some special thanks to Elizabeth Gast (a.k.a. Firgs), of  Design by Firgs.   She has been instrumental in helping me think outside my own box of creative limits, and in working hard to improve both the quality of work and how I present that work.  Today, she featured me on her site as a “Hot Site!”.  While I am always going to take the self-deprecating approach, here I must simply and humbly say thanks to her.  Not only for the mention on her site today, but also for her instrumental help in helping me improve my own web presence with regard to branding and design styles (see my Twitter background for an example).

That’s enough for one day, doncha think?  Happy shooting and we’ll see you back here again tomorrow.

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3 comments for “The Rule of Thirds in History

  1. July 15, 2009 at 9:21 am


    Very cool to see the paintings in the rules of 3rds framework. Guess I’ll take a look at my business partner’s paintings today and see what I see. Very creative post!

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