The Rule of Thirds in Landscape Painting (video)

Video Transcript – How to use the ‘rule of thirds’ in your landscape paintings

Morning class, today we are going to have a quick look at composition and the rule of thirds.

Even though it’s called a rule it’s really just a guide to help you compose a picture that looks natural within a rectangle, or square, I find it always works best though within a rectangle.

All you do is split your page into thirds, horizontally and vertically. And these bad boys on the intersections are what we’re looking for…these are what we can align key points of interest to pump up our paintings to guide the viewer into where we want them to look…

Let us look at this 17th-century Dutch painting by Ruisdael and you can see how it creates a focal point on the Windmill on the right. Because the horizon line is so low, a third of the painting, you’ve got this really imposing sky, you can imagine the wind coming through and hitting the windmill, the sails are up on the boat it has got a real sense of drama to it and a sense of movement.

When we overlay the rule of thirds over the top you can see how he’s positioned his windmill right up to one of the guidelines and even the masts of the ship are nearly spot on the other guide. The horizontal line at the bottom isn’t plum with the bottom guide, but this doesn’t matter. He hasn’t laid it exactly on the line because he needed to balance the horizon with this taller area of land in the foreground. The right-hand side of the painting is higher he’s had to drop the land on the left slightly to balance it, and remember it is just a guide.

A subtler approach, but still sticking to the rules, is Gainsborough’s View of Dedham. This is a warm autumnal scene with a mass of trees, there’s a break in the foliage to help send out eye through into the distance of the picture.

When we put the grid on again you can see how this church is bang in the middle of the guide, it’s not on the crosshairs, but right on the center line. This is another key point to remember not to get too caught up with everything having to hit exactly on all the crosses.
What is interesting to note though if we focus on the tree line even this tree has a little indent to allow it to sit in the guide, as Degas once said “ Even nature has to be composed”

I hope this has opened your eyes to the rule of thirds, so next time your on holiday click on the grid function on your camera and try and line up some of the key elements of your picture with the rule of thirds.I guarantee this will improve both your photography and your painting.

This is Will Kemp from Will Kemp Art School.

This Post Has 27 Comments

  1. I like your lessons, intresting to see how you explain things. But why not using the golden mean just as easy you did as here and you will see it fits even better on Ruysdaal. The selfportrait with circle from Rembrandt is a beautiful Golden mean. Even the circle is golden mean if you take it from the middle point. Thanks for your work to explain, Noel

  2. Hi Will,

    Great tutorial, Thanks and heads up for this.

    Maebel frm the Philippines

  3. Very interesting and instructive.

  4. Hello Will, I love painting and drawing. But I am somewhat new to this and just learning some of the key points. I’m so glad I found you to explain these in layman’s terms. Makes it so much less intimidating.

    1. Hi Sheshe,
      Thanks for dropping by, and so pleased you’re finding the tutorials easy to understand and are learning some key principles.


  5. Hi Will; I find your videos very clear, and you really share your information clearly. I’ve been drawing and painting for a long time, although not professionally; but with training, starting in England, actually – (when I was about 6 (1956) my father was sent there by the Navy, and I still have a painting that was done and shown in school in Bath!) We had good art lessons, and those continued in the Navy school in Canada. I feel strongly that drawing is the foundation to everything.

    It’s hard to find good instruction, and you don’t necessarily find it at an art school. I’ve had some good training, some in an art school but there it was frustrating to have concept pushed over skills, and I had to thank earlier teachers for giving me training in drawing. I’ve got holes in my education, but I’ve had enough training to know when a teacher isn’t helping, and I find your videos really, really good. You’re very generous with your information, and clear. The course might be what my daughter and I need to help her towards her BFA, and me to just paint better.

    1. Hi Susan,

      Nice to hear from you, and great to hear you’ve been finding the videos clear and easy to follow. Having a solid basis in drawing will always stand you in a good position when learning painting. Enjoy exploring the rest of the site.


  6. This is such a great site!!! I will be soon on my journey to a BFA, and I found a lots of great information and what to expect in class. Thanks Will

    1. Really pleased to hear it Mary.


  7. Hi Will
    Thank you very much for teaching. Can I please ask a conceptual question about choosing a scene for a landscape. There is a huge difference between painting ga and photographs. Sometimes I look at he view through the camera, it looks pretty from the top of the hill, but as a painting maybe not. Where is the painter, where is the viewer? Should the landscape scene be close to the viewer’s eyes and not a kind of arial view. How do I look at nature and choose what “works” to be a painting? My question I realize is more about how to look and how it affects the view? What is a successful composition choice? Thank you

    1. Hi Elvira,

      This is often where drawing comes in. It acts as a bridge between the view through the viewfinder and the final painting. This is often the quickest way to sharpen your composition.

      Hope this helps,


  8. When can we expect to have A Beginners Guide to Light & Shadow : Part 3

    1. Should be live next week William,

  9. Hi
    I am 66 years old and have a dream to have an art exhibition at 80. I have done a lot of children’s work in schools and church so all my art work have been large visual aids. ie one 10 foot Goliath or 8 foot Big Ben for the Narnia series we did. However it is hard to get SMALL!!!!

    I met an artist in Israel last year on a trip and she said you need someone to speak to you about “composition”. So today i looked on the computer and there you were. After only one session my mind is in top gear. It makes sense. And there is more to come!!! I am so encouraged. My confidence has soared,

    Thank you so much.
    On my way to my exhibition

    1. Great one Patricia, so pleased you found the article helpful, great to hear you’re feeling inspired towards your exhibition!


  10. Hi Will

    I am really interested in doing acrylic painting and your tutorial has helped alot. Thank you for sharing. I am not able to subscribe and participate in your online class, but grateful for some assistance through your web and email correspondence.



  11. Laughing so hard … I never knew that is the reason for the grid overlay on the camera! Thank you … Alice Ann

    1. Ha ha, pleased it helped Alice!

  12. Thank you so much Will. This is very helpful..

  13. Thank you! Just discovering your articles, tips, videos. Great vebsite. And you make it fun!

    1. You’re welcome Lorna, pleased you’ve been enjoying the website.

  14. Hi Will,

    Thank you so much for all of the information about composition. A lot to take in, and absolutely fascinating! I have struggled in coming up with compositions for landscape and still life pieces. I will continue to study your explanations and improve skills in this area.


    1. Cheers Irit, yes, just aligning a couple of objects to a thirds grid can really help as a basis for your compositions.

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