Creative Process

How I Use the Rule of Thirds and the Guides in Photoshop to Compose My Illustrations

How I Use the Rule of Thirds and the Guides in Photoshop to Compose My Illustrations
Written by Magoz
4 min read 12.8k views 18 comments

Composing an image means to decide how to place the elements inside the format.
The way you compose has a massive impact in the final result. A bad composition can ruin a good image and idea. It is as important as the colour palette or the style.

I always follow a specific procedure to develop my illustrations, especially at the beginning of the process.
Setting up the guides is the first thing I do after creating the Photoshop file.

To help me in this process, I use my particular version of the rule of thirds.
And I use guides in Photoshop, which make this system to work fast and painless.

The guides give me certainty and direction. The elements and shapes aren’t floating around; they are placed, built and based on those powerful invisible lines.

The rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a simplified version of the golden ratio. It is based on Phi, a mathematical ratio, and has been used since antiquity and extensively by Leonardo Da Vinci, Dali or Le Corbusier.

The rule of thirds consists in dividing the composition into nine equal sectors using two vertical and two horizontal lines.

Magoz - rule of thirds and guides in photoshop

How I use the rule of ninths, my particular version of the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is very practical because you can use it again unlimited times over the resulting sectors. Getting as many divisions and guides as you need.
I use the rule of thirds twice, which creates 3 times more thirds. So, we could call it also the rule of ninths.

This is extremely helpful because:

  • You get some guides that allow you to define margins. For example, I rarely surpass the external sectors. I like to give space to the composition.
  • The rule of thirds creates 4 attention points where you can place the most important element of the composition. In case of having two important elements, I place them in diagonally opposed points.
  • I use those guides as a lines or shapes like horizon line, or other vertical or horizontal reference lines of my illustrations.

Break the rules

Some images require to break those rules, and I don’t have any trouble doing it.
Those guides are just for reference, and the nature of each image is distinct. Each composition should respond to each brief, as they produce different effects.

There are dozens of different composition diagrams. Rikard Rodin has a marvellous article about it, where he analyses more than 50 composition diagrams on posters.
You can’t miss it!

Guide Guide

I create the guides based in the rule of thirds in one click. I use an awesome free Photoshop extension by Cameron McEfee called Guide Guide.

In addition to the rule of thirds’ guides, I like to add the vertical and horizontal midpoints guides. Very useful to centre elements. You can import my set of guides using this link in Guide Guide.

Paying attention to the composition has a huge impact on the final result.
Working with the rule of thirds and guides gives me direction. My steps are firm.
But I trust more my eye and my experience. I break and ignore those rules when I need it. Every image is unique.

Do you use guides or any theory for composing? How do you use them? As always, I would love your workflows in the comments!


Nomadic illustrator. Thinker. Seeker.


  1. Loving your posts, Magoz! Good job with the blog so far, looking forward to more :)

  2. That’s awesome Magoz, thanks for sharing with us!

  3. Thanks for sharing, Magoz! One of my ‘rules’ is to try not to use more than two different stroke weights in illustrations. It gives my artwork a better rhythm.

    • Awesome Wijtze!
      Thank you for sharing your stroke rule. When I use strokes (very rarely) I use a similar rule, using only one brush size. As you said, it gives a better rhythm and harmony.

      Which other rules do you have?
      Thanks fella!

  4. Hi Magoz, going behind the scenes feels like a brave step (for me at least) so thanks for doing this, I think it’s really interesting for illustrators to see how others work

    • Hi Timothy!
      I’ve been working and learning alone for a long time, so it was time to open the doors.

      I’m very glad to have you here. Thanks for commenting! :-)

  5. P
    Pierre-Louis Anceau

    Thank you for sharing ! It’s so interesting.
    In the new photoshop you can set a guide layout easily via view>guide layout.
    It has remplaced guide guide for me. Hope this helps !

    • I didn’t know this one! It’s very useful!
      But how can I add the ninths at the same time than the center guides (horizontal and vertical)?
      If it’s possible to do it, it will replace Guide Guide for me as well :-)

      Thank you very much, Pierre-Louis, for contributing to creating a much better blog!

  6. Thank you Magoz! All stuff that you are sharing are so interesting.

  7. C
    Charlotte, Contagious

    Interesting post Magoz!

  8. Hello, thanks for this great post! Would love to see more examples of this structure in your work, with diferent compositions. Can you write a little more in depth about attention points in an image, I tend to think that these are not always very clear, or even that are not the same for everyone… Can’t seem to find Rikard Rodin’s article. Do you where it is available? Thanks
    Please keep making these, their quite helpful. :)

    • Thanks for your suggestion, S. Oliveira! It might be a very interesting article. I’ve just added it to my topic list :-)

      By the way, the link is working now.

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