Tattoo Design – Rule of Thirds
Listen to this Article::
Rule of Thirds – Art and Aesthetics
How to use the body and simple techniques to make amazing designs.
In this section we will take a peek at “The Rule of Thirds”. Let’s learn what t means, how to use it and how tattooing has a unique way of using this rule to apply contrast to a design.
About The Rule of Thirds.
The rule of thirds is a technique that helps create balance in an image. To use it, place an imaginary grid pattern over a design or picture to give you hints about where to place focal points in an image. Photographers and artists have used this technique for centuries when creating media that attracts the eye.
How can we utilize the same techniques to better create large scale designs? Look at this image below and pay attention to the gridlines that run through it.
What does your eye see first in each image? Do you see one of the rocks more easily when you compare the frames?
Does one of the images appeal to your aesthetic more than the other?
The picture above shows us that by splitting an image into 9, even squares (3 vertical sections and 3 horizontal sections), you can easily create balance and readability in a design. You do this by placing the areas of interest in a design/image on or near the vertical or horizontal lines. Where the lines intersect is where you put the most important aspects of your design/image.
Pay attention to the photos you view.
How often do you see these photos use linear focal points as a technique to guide the eyes of the viewer and create balance?
The truth is, the practice is ubiquitous in art.
Don’t believe me? Open Instagram and look around for an hour. The influencers who make so much money off those “ likes” you give them utilize professional photographers and the rule of thirds to create vivid images that make you want to interact with them.
How does this work.
Most tattoos we see, from realism to illustrative, and everything in between, require great effort during the design process to take advantage of focal points and balance. Using this technique – “the rule of thirds” – you can easily check your sketches for flow and balance before committing to a final draft.
Focus and Balance.
Think about most tattoos you see. They are one-off designs that sit inside a bordered area of the body. These tattoos are only viewed from a single point (inside, outside, front or back of a body part/area) and are not designed with balance in mind. They are designed to look good on a flat surface – like paper.
A common culprit is traditional Americana tattoos. Bold lines surrounding simple color palette in a very basic representative design. There is no depth or flow past the organic shapes/lines normally associated with the design.
American traditional designs are made to look like a sticker. Connecting these designs within a large-scale tattoo are very difficult… If you don’t take the time to plan ahead.
Practice Using a Grid – Click on All Images
Traditional tattoos look great at times because, on paper, they fit within a box and can follow the rule of thirds if designed to fit a grid. They are usually a one-off design which focuses heavily on structure versus connectivity and flow.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t take advantage of the grid layout and the rule of thirds, it means that not many people do. To most tattoo artists inspiration comes from social media and replicating the images they think look good. We learn through our senses and interpret others work the same way. If something fits, we copy it.
While the copy/paste application of smaller tattoos works well for most people, critical thinking is needed when approaching large scale design. The focus of our artwork must be taken from multiple viewpoints, which is different than paper or canvas. Tattoo artists must understand focus and figure out how best to balance an image if they wish to achieve a better result.
As discussed before – large scale tattoo is not like a drawing or painting. How you utilize the body in the design is more like a sculpture. Think about it differently: You do not add color to the skin. Instead, you are removing large swathes of natural skin color and replacing it with something new.
Just like the sculptor removes clay from their rough design.
The use of a grid when creating a design shows us how to attract viewers eyes to areas of the design, we want them to see. These areas are called FOCAL POINTS.
Here are a couple tips to help you when using the “rule of thirds”.
Using a Grid
Take any design that you have on hand and imagine a grid overtop the entirety of it.
Look at the center, where overlapping vertical and horizontal lines intersect.
Does your design have important features lying under or near an intersection?
If you are utilizing an intersection for a part of your design, where is the focal point located in the design: the foreground, background or midground?
If it is int the foreground, how easily can you located and define what that aspect of the image is? Is your eye more naturally attracted to this point before working through the rest of the image?
How does your focal point move into the other areas of the design? Is the focal point floating off on its own or does it work with the rest of the image that you worked so hard on? If it is difficult to translate the transition between the focal point and the rest of the image, try applying things like flowing elements, skin breaks or contrasting colors/tones to increase cohesion and readability of the design.
Check Your Lines
How about the horizontal lines?
Is there any background to your design or another element that runs along a horizontal?
When we use the word horizontal, it doesn’t mean that it runs parallel with the ground you walk upon.
The horizontal is simply a line that runs perpendicular to the vertical.
If your “vertical” line is actually running diagonally your horizontal line would run perpendicular to it.
If you do turn an image at an angle, don’t keep your grid straight! This is beyond essential to remember when working with the skin.
Regardless of how you lay a “flat” aspect of design it will fit to the body. It will bend, warp and wrap.
What’s Your Depth?
Does your design have a background, midground and/or foreground that is easily definable?
If you are using a design that is 2 dimensional (much like traditional tattoo designs) you may not want a background.
That’s fine but, is there a spot in the design where some part is located behind all the others?
How is that point of the design oriented?
Creating balance between the foreground, midground and background is very difficult to learn so be patient.
Balance is required to ensure the design is not overly loaded in one aspect of dimension.
When you do overload element associated with depth in a design the final product will look very flat.
We are going to get more into the idea of balance and bring out another rule of thirds below,” The rule of thirds – foreground, midground and background.”
A Practical Example – Practicing Layout
Let’s do a quick mock-up of a tattoo design using the body and “rule of thirds”.
Taking a look at this back and how we have laid out our graph box we can clearly see 4 focal point locations.
What we need to do first is figure out what our design is and which direction it is moving.
Readability in a design comes from utilizing “flow” (discussed in another lesson) and focal points effectively.
Let’s look at a couple examples:
Elements of the Design Area
If your design flows up, from the lower part or section of the body, the placement of focal points needs to be easily translatable to the eye.
Let’s pick apart the back of this image:
- First- the back is a broad surface. It is the largest tattooable, single area on the body and most full-back tattoos employs the use of the buttocks, which is the largest muscle on the body.
- Second- the back is not a flat surface and is extremely prone to distortion near the truck (the lower back).
- Third- The skin on the back suffers environmental stresses (like UV damage and aging) unevenly. The neck of a person will get baked in the sun while their lower small-of-the-back gets nearly no sun throughout a lifetime.
These are some things to think about when using a focal point on the lower back:
- Placing the focal points at the bottom of the back would make it difficult for a person to pick out what’s going on – even if you used a ton of flowing elements to point the viewer’s eyes to the spot because it tapers to meet the hips.
- Focal points located lower on the back suffer from being shallow in comparison to the other parts of the back and compete for space with images located on the ribs.
- The shoulders and buttocks extend away from the body and are closer to the viewer(s) position when looking at it straight on. This makes the lower back lovely for a deeper set aspect of the design or darker elements of design, flowing elements that move across the back, aspects of the design that tie into other parts like the ribs.
- The lower back works great as an ending point for oversized leg pieces. Positioning an additional focal point on the lower back that works with others located on the leg gives viewers an additional interception points where they can choose to interact with the tattoo.
Think about how else you can segment the back and what the positives and negatives are for each layout!