The Rule of Thirds was first documented by John Thomas Smith in 1797. In his book "Remarks on Rural Scenery," Smith quotes a 1783 work by Sir Joshua Reynolds, in which Reynolds discusses, in unquantified terms, the balance of dark and light values in a painting. Smith then continues with an expansion on the idea, naming it the "Rule of Thirds." Joshua Reynolds stated that "Two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture. One should be principal, and the rest subordinate, both in dimension and degree. Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part, while parts of equal appearance hold it awkwardly suspended, as if unable to determine which of those parts is to be considered as the subordinate. And to give the utmost force and solidity to your work, some part of the picture should be as light, and some as dark as possible. These two extremes are then to be harmonized and reconciled to each other."
So, from Joshua Reynold's statement, John Thomas Smith came to the conclusion that the principles of design could be reduced to the simple explanation of value distribution. Smith states, "Analogous to this "Rule of Thirds," if I may be allowed so to call it, I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion. For example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two: Again, two-thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives.
This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object. In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, or to any other case, whether of light, shade, form, or color, I have found the ratio of about two-thirds to one-third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever. I should think myself honored by the opinion of any gentleman on this point; but until I shall by better informed, shall conclude this general proportion of two and one to be the most picturesque medium in all cases of breaking or otherwise qualifying straight lines and masses and groups as Hogarth's line is agreed to be the most beautiful, (or, in other words, the most picturesque) medium of curves."
Hence, the Rule of Thirds was born.
However, the confusion and lack of credibility with this "one size fits all" approach to composition is unavoidable because Joshua Reynolds is referring to the distribution of values between light and dark and the greatest area of contrast, not the divisional breaks of the square or rectangle. These are two separate and distinct principles. Moreover, the Rule of Thirds analogy isn't considering the dimensions of the rectangle used in a work of art. In other words, there isn't anything wrong with creating divisions at the half or four-fifths point as long as all the elements in a composition are balanced and harmonized. For example, you can break a root 2 Dynamic Symmetry rectangle on the theme of 2 and all the dividing lines are at half divisions.
In conclusion, after reading "Remarks on Rural Scenery" and analyzing some of John Thomas Smith’s engravings, it's evident that the Rule of Thirds is, at best, a "beginner" level design concept. What's more, because the Rule of Thirds doesn't incorporate diagonal lines into the design scheme, applying the grid to a work of art tends to produce compositions that lack energy, theme, variation, and harmony. Creating great art will always require the application of respectable design principles and anything less is denying oneself the ultimate satisfaction of creating work that is worthy of respect, admiration, integrity, and longevity.
The Mechanics of a Rule of Thirds Grid
Contemporary photographers and artists are often more familiar with the Rule of Thirds than Dynamic Symmetry. And even though I don't recommend using the Rule of Thirds for composition in art, it's still important to at least explain the concept for the purpose of comparison. The Rule of Thirds states that when a rectangle or square is divided into thirds horizontally and vertically, the four intersecting points within the composition are the most effective areas of interest. The artist or photographer can then place the essential elements of their subject in or near one or more of the intersections called "eyes." These positioned elements in a design don't need to land exactly on the "eyes" to be effective. Below is an example of the Rule of Thirds grid.
Limitations of the Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds Doesn't Incorporate Diagonal Lines
While there isn't anything wrong with creating divisions on thirds in a design, the use of additional diagonal lines are critical to the success of any work of art whether it's a drawing, painting, or photograph. Because the Rule of Thirds doesn't incorporate diagonal lines into the design grid, an artist can't determine the best position to place their subject within the intersecting points called "eyes." Regrettably, this limitation forces the photographer or artist to "guess" most of the time.
You Can't Use the Rule of Thirds Grid to Analyze Master Artist's Work
Because master artists designs are far more complex than the Rule of Thirds grid, you can't analyze or learn anything from their art. In other words, you don't have any resources available to study. To become more proficient at visual literacy, you have to possess the necessary skills to be able to decode composition, color theory, and so on. Once you master these skills, you can discover how other master artists design their work and apply that knowledge to your own art.
The Rule of Thirds Can Create Imbalances in a Composition
If an artist isn't careful, it's easy to create imbalances in a composition using a Rule of Thirds grid. Because the Rule of Thirds design concept pulls your subject out of the center of the frame (regardless of the artist's intention) and off to one side, it's not uncommon to disregard what remains in the other half or twothirds of the image. Many photographers and artists assume that as long as they have their subject in a particular crosshair, it's good design. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Balance in design is critical to the success of any work of art and leaving areas of dead space on one side gives the viewer a sense of imbalance.
Images below compare the Rule of Thirds grid to the 14 line armature of the rectangle.
Why the Rule of Thirds Is Popular With Artists and Photographers
Even though the Rule of Thirds doesn't offer an artist much in terms of creative value, you might be asking yourself, “why is this rule so popular?” There are several reasons:
The first reason is due to the lack of written material available on design. Finding worthwhile content on Dynamic Symmetry and the golden section is incredibly difficult, as well as the required effort of piecing the information together so that it makes sense to the artist. In my experience, it's taken me more than five years to find the best available resources for learning composition and a lot more time analyzing masterworks. In contrast, finding articles on the Rule of Thirds is easy.
The second reason the Rule of Thirds is so popular is that it's easy to use and doesn't require any effort, skill, or knowledge. For example, all the photographer or artist has to do is place their main subject in one of the four crosshairs and bang, an instant masterpiece. However, realistically speaking, that is rarely the case. Creating successful compositions in art requires more than a simple one level tic-tac-toe grid can provide.
The Rule of Thirds and the 21st Century Artist
Due to organizations like the Art Renewal Center and the Da Vinci Initiative, as well as the deterioration and lack of interest in Conceptual modern art, classical art training has gained widespread popularity over the past sixteen years. In fact, art ateliers are having a difficult time keeping up with the ever-growing demands of the contemporary art student and their desire for skill-based training.
Because of this rebirth of classical art appreciation, the generic composition concepts (the Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, the Rule of Space, and Leading Lines) that have become so popular over the past 15-20 years are dying off quickly. For this simple reason, if the 21st century artist or photographer expects to remain competitive in these rapidly changing times, the knowledge and application of skill-based design techniques will be a requirement.