The rule of thirds


The rule of thirds can be applied to many aspects of design.  It’s found in nature— even on your face— and just about every product we buy.  Let’s look at a few ways to use the rule of thirds.


Focal points

Focal points are the areas of interest that the artist wants the viewer to focus on.  You can have more than one focal point but they should have a hierarchy.  The main focal point should be the largest.  The second should be smaller and the third smaller than the second, etc.  If you’ve ever seen a modern photo of the cast of a TV show, you’ll note that the main character is always on a larger scale than the others—their size decreases the further away from the main actor they are.  Focal points are usually placed around one third of the way in from any edge of the artwork.  Quilts are often composed of the same block in the rows and columns, but a focal point can be created with colour or a quilting feature in that area.


Does your eye focus on the one flower or the bunch? Do you want to the viewer to focus on the beauty and detail of one flower or the mass of colour?


Complementary colours

Instead of using equal amounts of complementary colours in a colour scheme, use a balance of two thirds of one colour and one third of the other colour.  The block below on the left uses black to give the eye somewhere to rest.  Although both blocks have some orange in them to soften the colour scheme, the block on the right is still overpowering.


Any colour scheme

The same goes for any colour scheme.  Try making two-thirds of your colour scheme one colour and use the other colours as highlights in the remaining third.  Remember you can use different values of your colours; a mainly blue quilt doesn’t need to only have navies, it can have all sorts of blue in it.


Scale of designs

The scale of designs can make or break an artwork or quilt. Some design elements can get lost in a scheme or overpower the focal point.  Try the designs on different scales to see which works best.  In the pebbles below, you’ll see that when they are all the same size, it gives great uniformity but can be a little boring sometimes.  It may also be difficult to keep them all the same size and fill the space without compromising their size.  If you vary their size, one large, one two-thirds the size of that one, and one two-thirds the size of the second one, then you’ll have an interesting design.

Scale of design lost Fiona Schiffl

The tear drops are lost in the design.


Scale of design fixed Fiona Schiffl

The tear drops are now a great feature of the design. Notice the different sized pebbles make for an interesting design.


In the arcs shown here, they are automatically varied in size because of the way the design is put together.




Ratio of an inner design to an outer design

This one is an interesting one.  I’ve designed many circular designs and often need to eliminate some of the units to make the design work.  If you have the same amount of units on the inside as the outside, they can look squashed into the space.  When I see this, I feel very sad for the design and realise that I may have been hanging around designs for too long!  As the rule of thirds applies to many design principles, I always start by eliminating one-third of the units in the inner ring of a design and it usually works pretty well.

Feather wreath 20 barbs Fiona Schiffl

Feather wreath with 20 barbs or units on both sides. Do you think the units on the inside look right?


Feather wreath 20 to 12 barbs Fiona Schiffl

Here eight of the units on the inside ring have been eliminated. The scale of the barbs is much better and looks more natural.

If you ever analyse each side of a serpentine feather on a quilt, you’ll probably notice that the concave part of the feather will have around two-thirds of barbs that are on the other side.  This happens even when the feather has not been drawn on the quilt before quilting.


Positive space to negative space

The positive space is the design, the negative space is the empty space around the design.  Making the positive space around two-thirds and the negative space about one-third of the area gives a balance to the artwork.  If the negative space is less than one-third, there may not be enough room for the eye to rest and the viewer will have to look away from the design.  As artists, we all want the viewer to be captivated by the the work.  Allow the design room to breathe and let it shine with the right amount of negative space.

The positive space is shown in white and the negative space is black.

The positive space is shown in white and the negative space is black.


While each artwork is different, consider using the rule of thirds in the design process.  It’s been around since time began so there’s got to be something to it!  If it works, that’s great.  If it doesn’t apply, go with your gut instinct and what’s right for your work.

Happy quilting,




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