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We are studying composition in my classes, right now. One of the first things we do is work on discovering the most interesting portion of the imagery we use for reference.

I teach my students the Rule of Thirds.


This means we divide our format (the space that we are going to use to create a painting on) into thirds vertically and horizontally. The areas of the format that are good to use to place a center of interest in are near or around where the lines intersect. Time has proven that creating two dimensional art where the most interesting aspect of a painting is placed in the center usually results in a static image or an isolated and boring composition. Greg Albert calls these intersections “sweet spots” in his book “the simple secret to better painting”.

In the image of the Bateleur Eagle, above, I decided the eye, surrounded by all that bright red was the most interesting aspect of the image. In order to place it on my watercolor paper, I had to crop the reference photo and draw a grid over the image dividing it into thirds, horizontally and vertically, so the eye and red area would be near a sweet spot.  You can see that the eye and red portion of the eagle are surrounding the “sweet spot” in the upper left quadrant.

Below are examples of two other paintings I designed from my reference photos in this manner:


I had too much foreground in the above photograph, so I used two “L’s” that I created by cutting a matte in two, to crop the photo to meet my needs. By cropping it in this manner, I was able to place the far child in a “sweet spot”, the foreground child between and to the left of the left side “sweet spots” and connecting the middle child to the first child in a “sweet spot”. This creates a pathway for the viewer’s eye to follow when viewing the portrait, beginning with the first child and ending with the far child.


The resulting drawing would look like above. The artist then erases the grid lines and creates their painting.

However, when you work from a grid, it only works when you create a format space that is proportional to the format space of your cropped image.

Here is an example of how to do that in the easiest way I know.


I crop and grid the above image. Note that the sweet spots are on the heads of the two people. The arm of the Grandfather holds the viewer’s eye on the page and leads to the book that they are both reading.


I then place the photo in the corner of my watercolor paper and angle a ruler or yardstick from the corner of the photo and watercolor paper through the opposite corner, diagonally, and make a mark somewhere along that diagonal line. Anywhere on that line is a multiple of the dimensions of the cropped photo that I plan to work from.


I then divide the format in thirds


….and draw the image.

Thank you to Wet Canvas for the reference image for Bateleur Eagle.

The eagle was painted on a grunge background. I describe how to create a grunge background here.


  1. How interesting! Love the eagle!

    • Thank you, Caroline. This eagle is native to Africa. I thought he was stunning and had to give painting him a try. Would not want to see him in my back yard, though. 🙂

  2. Wow, beautiful bird!! The perspective and color are fantastic, very dynamic.

    • Thank you, Cindy. This image caught my eye. I wanted to play with my brush in all those textured feathers of his ruff and loved the color. I really like what you are doing in graphite right now!

  3. Nice composition! The eye is definitely in the right spot for the focus of this composition plus your painting is really nice. I liked reading your composition info.

    • Leslie: Thanks for the info on Paper Garden….She started painting seriously at 72…(I can relate to that.) I check out her book through our Sno-isle library system. I’m looking forward to reading it.

      • I would not have mentioned it other than you have such an interest in all that you see in nature and I thought this might be something you would enjoy seeing. Your botanical studies are beautiful.

        Thank you for the comment to my eagle painting, Lois!

  4. Thank you Leslie, great information and love the eagle!

  5. Interesting rule of composition and I would love to see the finished portrait of the girls.

  6. That’s some beautiful eagle.
    You are always the teacher! Thank you for sharing your knowledge always. I remember those portraits of the girls and of grandpa and Sydney. Beautiful all.

    • Thank you, Carol. …and you made my day remembering the other images. Thank you.

  7. Hmm I wonder if I ever sub consciously do this… I’m going to have a look. Thanks Leslie!

    • You subconsciously do this on many of yours. So do many artists. It helped me, once I learned it. Thank you for your comment outside authority!

  8. Just mind blowing piece, Leslie. Yes, most of the time I do follow the rule. These spots do catch the eye most.

    • I know you follow this guideline. I see it in every painting you do. I also like how you divide space in a landscape to enhance the depth in it. Thank you for this comment, Padmaja.

  9. Love that red face! You captured its piercing stare very well too.

    Composition is much more important than many people just starting in art realize. I know it was not emphasized in any of my art classes in the 70’s (back when abstract was totally king and realistic work ridiculed except the old masters). I am glad for your students that you are giving them a leg up for success.

    • I wondered about that, Ruth. So many artists from our era say the same about not being taught about focal points or centers of interest. I am of the belief that many of the abstracts that have an existing focal point or center of interest are much more interesting. No painting has to have one, they just seem to read better. Thank you for this comment, Ruth!

  10. How fantastic! You really capture the wild creature! There is power in this… I love it! Thank you also for the teachings on composition… I always need to hear this again and again.

    • Thank you, Isabelle. There are two more references for this beautiful eagle. I may paint him again. This guy held my interest.

  11. You explain the technical stuff really well Leslie. It’s not something I’ve ever done but can see how important composition is for a successful painting. The bird is magnificent and I really like the way you’ve painted the feathers with so much texture. For some reason I only recall the painting with the three grand children – a tricky composition indeed.

    • Thank you for this, June. I loved every minute of the stages in painting this eagle.

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