It’s All in Your Hands

The hands are the most intricate visible structure of the human body. Not just marvels of design able to perform complex mechanical actions, they also have the uncanny ability to express the characteristics and emotional states of their possessors. By looking at a person?s hands, you can guess such things as age, experience, social status and even mood.


Defining Features: Both in their physical characteristics and in the way they’re held, the hands can reveal a great deal about a subject, as in this portrait of a rugged but graceful Indian.

That?s why it?s absolutely essential for portrait artists to draw hands well. There?s nothing more harmful to an otherwise beautifully painted portrait than having poorly drawn hands. Students and beginning artists tend to approach the study of hands with less enthusiasm than such things as the head or the torso, but that?s a mistake, and here?s why.

Anatomy Rules
Sir Joshua Reynolds, 18th-century master portraitist and president of Britain?s Royal Academy of Arts, constantly stressed the importance of studying anatomy and wouldn?t let his students advance without knowing it. ?If you know the form and the structure of the object that you are drawing or painting from the inside,? he said, ?the outside will be surprisingly easy to work on.? My own teachers referred to this as ?structural imagination,? and it?s vital to all representational artists.

Along with drawing from live models whenever possible (or taking a trip to the morgue), get a well-illustrated book on human anatomy for artists. Choose one that has precise information and a substantial section on hands, and make this book your bible as you practice. You don?t need to remember the exact medical terms of each muscle or bone, but understanding the structure, the major connections and the breaking points is essential. As an exercise, I recommend drawing only the bone structure of the hands in a particular artwork before turning to your final version.

See The Big Picture
When drawing, always start with lightly sketching the major forms, then gradually move on to the smaller forms. Many students make the mistake of doing very detailed work on one finger and then another but end up losing the general character of the whole, which is just as important. Remember that we look at our hands perhaps more often than anything else in our lives, and we know intimately how they operate, so it?s crucial that all the individual parts are working well together.


Get Inside: There’s no better preparation for drawing hands than knowing their anatomy. This student drawing demonstrates a valuable exercise—drawing only the bones before rendering the whole thing.

Pay attention to the differences between the hands of men and women, and of children and the elderly, for it?s these that not only define the hands but the person, as well. The typical loose skin and boniness of elderly hands give them an easily visible anatomy and interesting dramatic lines, more so than the soft, smooth hands of children. In short, the lines and shapes of older people?s hands are more likely to tell their stories. Women?s hands, in general, appear more elegant, thinner, and with narrower palm areas and longer fingers than men?s.

Practice Pays Off
Ultimately the best strategy you can adopt for mastering these skills is to practice, practice, practice. Sketch your own hands and those of your friends and family, and put them in a variety of different lighting situations. Also, you may be familiar with copying the work of the masters as a training exercise, but it?s particularly useful for specific elements of a picture, such as a portrait subject?s hands. In the work of such artists as Sargent, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Durer you?ll notice that while all possessing the same major characteristics, the hands of each subject have their own inimitable character.

As artists we hope to see, interpret and reflect the world around us with more insight than the average person has. That requires not just seeing the world but also knowing it, and this is sometimes the most difficult part of the job. A thorough knowledge of your subject makes the task much easier. It?s the key to successfully drawing a subject as complex as human hands, and it should be a crucial part of your artistic discipline.

Wende Caporale is an award-winning pastelist whose portraits are commissioned nationwide. The author of Painting Children?s Portraits in Pastel (International Artist Books), she?s a popular pastel instructor at the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts in Mount Kisco, New York.

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