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The Thirds Rule

Banes at 12:00AM, Nov. 30, 2023

The Rule of Thirds

When most people take a picture or draw a picture, the natural thing to do is to photograph or draw the subject in the center of the frame.

But one of the big tenets of visual composition is the RULE of THIRDS.

So pretty much, the frame is divided into…well, thirds. And the subject will sit in one side or the other.

This has the effect (so I've read) of pulling the viewer in to the image to take it in more fully, rather than having them just glance at the centrally-framed subject.

When a movie cuts between, say, two people having a conversation, the two will appear on opposite sides of the screen when the flick cuts to each one.

We see this effect in comics, too, with characters in conversation appearing on opposite sides of panels; if the comic “camera” was cutting between the characters but showing them on the same side of the panel, things would look awkward and confusing.

Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (and some of his other movies like A Clockwork Orange) are well known by people who are interested in such things, to break this rule and use a lot of centrally-framed images.

This has the effect, over a bit of time, of looking “wrong” to the viewer. This effect would be very bad if used unintentionally and out of context, in most standard films. But in these unsettling movies, used by a director with a mastery of visual language, the impact is powerful indeed! The director Wes Anderson seems to frame things in center pretty often, too, which works alongside other elements of his characters, writing and directing to give his movies their odd, quirky feel.

A lot of us do this pretty naturally in comics; we generally have the character off to the side to make room for the text bubbles! But even when there is no dialogue balloon, or if it's a landscape or whatever, thinking of composition is a good idea. And the first rule is the Rule of Thirds!

A quick Google Image search will show the huge variety of images that have their focal points in the thirds. It's very instructive!

By the way, even though it's called a “Rule” - rules are made to be broken, especially in art. This isn't something to be followed slavishly. All things in their context. But this “Rule” and other rules along these lines, is something handy to know about at least, even if it's something you end up ignoring.

Do you observe this “rule” in your comics? Do you observe the feeling of “wrongness” or discomfort when things are framed wrongly?

have a good one!

-Banes the Third

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JohnCelestri at 2:41PM, Dec. 3, 2023

This Rule of Thirds was taken to extremes by Sergio Leone in his 1960s spaghetti westerns. Fast cutting from scene to scene, replacing static images (different close up faces with different expressions) on different thirds of the screen/panel makes for interesting compositions and storytelling without dialog.

MOrgan at 12:53PM, Nov. 30, 2023

I was at an auction a few weeks ago and one of the paintings was apparently done that way, which produced an awful lot of wasted space. The bottom third was a dolphin leaping out of the water, but the dolphin was on the left third, and there was nothing to provide balance. If the artist had put a small sailboat on the right third, that would have helped. The top two-thirds was just dark sky that should have been broken up with some clouds or a plane. You could just crop that pic to a nice little pic of a dolphin leaping out of the water and throw away the rest.

J_Scarbrough at 12:34PM, Nov. 30, 2023

@PaulEberhardt Same. For my own art style and sensibilities, I've always approached each panel of a comic as though it were a still frame from an animated show or movie . . . I know the general idea for comics, and something that Charles Schulz has preached, is only draw what's necessary - if it's not important, don't draw it . . . which is all well and good, maybe for newspaper comic strips or even minimalistic comic books, but for me, I've had a very detailed-oriented vision.

PaulEberhardt at 11:45AM, Nov. 30, 2023

This is a very important rule. I've always done this by gut feeling, but it boils down to ending up as this. In fact, I often instinctively think of panels as if they were a stage in a theatre, as in how to place the characters so they don't obstruct the view on each other and the scene as a whole. A frontal centre shot is good for emphasis (frontal TIGER ATTACK!!) and that's why you're right that it shouldn't be overused.

J_Scarbrough at 8:26AM, Nov. 30, 2023

I actually have read about this very subject not too long ago, but not necessarily for drawing comics, but for framing shots - specifically, framing shots for an open matte aspect ratio like 3:2, which is what 35mm film is when not cropped in 4:3 or 16:9.

Ironscarf at 8:13AM, Nov. 30, 2023

I've been looking at some of Alex Toth's romance work and those comics could be very wordy. Almost half the panel is taken up with balloons in some cases, but he'll sometimes push all the action into one third of what's left and cover the rest with an arm or something. The composition looks amazing and instead of everything looking cramped, it creates space and depth for days.

Banes at 5:28AM, Nov. 30, 2023

@marcorossi - Makes sense! Also, where the characters/objects go in relation to the empty space (left/right/above/below...) can create a strong but subtle emotional effect that supports the scene. I don't have extensive knowledge here, but the book "Framed Ink" was mind-blowing on that subject.

marcorossi at 4:34AM, Nov. 30, 2023

I think the rule of thirds makes sense when there are multiple points of attention in a picture, like face + balloons but also e.g. character walking on the left, background on the right that creates a strong sense of setting (whereas if you put the character in the center less people will look at the background). IMHO.

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