What is the Tool of Thirds?

I’d heard Photography People say “rule of thirds” long before I learned what it actually was, and it always sounded so mysterious. A secret rule that photographers use to make Art instead of Snapshots! I avoided learning about it, because I hate rules, but when I did, I actually found it very useful and now I use it all the time. 

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Rules vs. Tools

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of watercolor books from the library. It is a great source of hidden gems, but I’ve also waded through a lot of material that does nothing for me and, if anything, turns me off the medium. I’m glad I didn’t find those books first! 

Nothing alienates me quicker than an approach to art that is rules-based: “Do this, not that.” “This is wrong, this is right.” “No. Incorrect.” I thought art was subjective! I am simultaneously too freewheeling and too analytical to accept rules-based systems, because in addition to being rigid, they also tend to be contradictory. Any system of art rules invariably ends with “Rule 10: Break the rules,” which invalidates the whole system.

That’s not to say that I don’t want any information or tips. I am reading a book to learn, after all. Teachers can also go too far the other way, simply saying “It’s all up to you! Everything is right! There are no rules! That splotch you made looks great!” And like… I guess I don’t disagree, but this is not helping me learn to paint the way I want to paint. It feels almost like knowledge-hoarding where the teacher does know how to achieve certain effects but won’t share. 

So how can a teacher thread the needle between being unhelpfully rigid and unhelpfully vague?

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