Drawing Hands

Hands remain a challenge in life drawing classes.  As Assignment 4 approaches, I decided that I needed to focus on hands in order to identify specific difficulties.

To begin with, I looked at drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.  I found several studies, which use different media. The pen and ink Study of a Hand, below, has depth – the fingers closing around inner darkness of the palm create three-dimensionality, as does the darkened outline of the hand where it lies against the fabric of a coat. The outline in general is quite strong, which surprises me because art students are discouraged from using outlines that surround their subject, as this one does. A particular difficulty that I find in drawing hands is alignment and shaping of the knuckles relative to the fingers.  In Leonardo’s study, referred to above, the alignment is clear and believable.  Most of the back of the hand is hidden from view behind the “knuckle ridge” and the forearm is also foreshortened.

In the second study which I have chosen, Study of a Hand (red chalk on paper), the forearm is once again foreshortened and to a greater extent.  The hand appears delicate, possibly a woman’s, or even a child’s.  The proximal phalanxes of the first two fingers are barely visible – drastically foreshortened.  There is rather less tonal variation in this sketch and it doesn’t have quite the depth of the first study possibly also due to the lack of context. However, it is a beautiful drawing.  I especially like the way in which the contours of the arm have been depicted by repeated fine lines which collectively suggest the muscle in the forearm.

The third study I have chosen, The Study of Arms is anatomical. Leonardo made many drawings based on dissections before his notebooks disappeared from view for 300 years after his death.  Although his anatomical drawings did not contribute towards the advancement of scientific knowledge in the manner of Vesalius’ drawings later, when Leonardo’s notebooks re-emerged at the end of the 19th century, the drawings were acknowledged to be the finest ever drawn, anatomical errors notwithstanding, and greatly influenced the ways in which the human body has been represented in illustrations through the 19th and 20th centuries (Simblet, p.12).

In the Study of Arms (pen & ink on paper), the hand is presented as a skeleton without visible muscles while the skeletal structure of the arm is concealed by layers of muscle.  It clearly shows articulation at the elbow and wrist and conveys a sense of flexibility and potential movement.  In studying the anatomy of the hand, I discovered that it contains ball and socket joints (similar to the hip and shoulder) at the base of each finger (Bammes, p.174). This seems logical now that I have thought about it: the joints offer not only hinge-like movement but also a degree of rotation.  The remaining joints in the hand are purely hinge joints. The longest metacarpal – the bones that connect the finger joints to the bones at the base of the hand – is actually that which connects to the index finger, not the middle finger which might intuitively be thought to be the case because the middle finger is the longest. 

Another artist whose delicate preparatory studies I admire is Raphael. Raphael’s Study for the Figure of Bramante  (pencil on paper) reveals ways in which the artist sought to represent, specifically, the head and hands of Donato Bramante in the School of Athens, a fresco painted in 1510 on one wall of the Raphaelle Stanze in the Palazzi Pontifici in the Vatican.  Bramante was the architect of St Peter’s Cathedral, a neighbouring building.

On Bramante’s death, Raphael took over as architect (Tyler & Kubovy). An article of particular interest to mathematicians states that the figure of Bramante is represented by that of Pythagoras in the fresco (Haas, pp 9-10).   I understand from several sources, such as this one, that Pythagoras is depicted reading a book propped up on one knee, on the left hand side of the painting (see image below). I see a little resemblance to Bramante in the preparatory study: the shape of the nose is similar. However, Raphael did intend to represent him as Pythagoras and perhaps a clearer resemblance to Bramante, as he appears in the preparatory study, cannot easily be seen on this scale.   The position of his hand is unlike any in the study above, but of course many such studies may have been drawn before one was chosen.  Comparing studies such as the ones above with the final work which resulted from them is instructive in the importance of planning from multiple perspectives and with consideration of different compositional choices.

Screen Shot 2012 12 26 at 12 16 33



My own explorations of the hand…

At this point, I considered breaking this post up into two so that Leonardo’s and Raphael’s hands were not sullied by my own attempts!  However, they are a part of the historical context in which I have done my own studies, so we all remain here. 

I have done a few studies of hands before (a couple of years ago), which I show here first.  I looked them up in an old sketchbook to remind myself of my initial process and so as a record that I have already tackled this subject with a degree of success.  Apart from wanting to be able to draw lifelike hands where the detail and realistic representation are important, I also want to find a way in which to represent hands relatively quickly in short poses in life class or when out and about sketching people. 

The context for these initial drawings was Betty Edwards’ New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (pp 105-110), which I was working through at the time. The three sketchbook pages immediately below are my interpretations of exercises from her book.

My very first attempt was a blind contour drawing to focus on seeing the hand.  I followed this with a 5 minute observational study in which I looked back and forth from hand to paper. 



I followed these with an exercise using a picture plane device made with a piece of plexiglass containing cross lines that divided the picture plane into four quadrants.  I reproduced the size exactly on the page and divided it similarly.  This was then used to plot the hand drawing, which includes some foreshortening in the fingers.  I have left the drawing device visibly on the page to remind of the process. I was pleased with the outcome, especially given that it was drawn directly after the 5 minute hand above, although this one obviously took longer. I have not recorded the time taken. 



The next drawing was a modified contour drawing made a couple of months later.  I created a tonal ground using graphite powder and then drew into this with both graphite pencils and an eraser.  Again, a picture plane divide was used (just visible at the edges of the format). I was quite pleased with the improved sense of form.  There is an attempt at depth through use of tone but it does not go far enough.  




More recently: I began this time by watching a couple of videos of hands being drawn, such as this one.  I found these useful as a starting point: the artists made it look straightforward and said how it really isn’t difficult!  I noted what they had done and tried to repeat their methods.  I agree that it doesn’t appear difficult (although still requires practice) , as long as all you want to do is to produce a stereotyped model of a hand for, say, general illustration purposes.  There is a formula that can be followed and, with some practice of drawing the hand in a variety of positions, it would be possible to become competent in drawing hands (similar “rules” can be drawn up for feet, too).  However, if you want to draw a hand that reflects the idiosyncrasies and character of its owner, one that has depth and dimensions, then it is a much more challenging proposition, and not one for which a simple formula can be derived.  Having a model method in the back of your mind can help but it could lead to drawings of the “mind model” rather than the hands that one is observing, and if I do this I am afraid that my hands will all turn out alike and without any character of their own.

Here are some drawings made in the past couple of days.  I began with a sketchbook page of hands based on the modelling that I had observed in the videos: 




This was the point at which I decided that following a formula was going to lead to formulaic hands so I decided to use direct observation.  I did not use a picture plane device but did measure relative proportions of the hand.  I have introduced some shadow to give the image more depth.  The knuckles still don’t look right even though I do have quite large, bony hands.  Given that the fingers are further from the viewer, they should be a little shorter than drawn. The hand appears both bony and too flat simultaneously – a neat trick!  I prefer the second image in the bottom right corner.



I drew one more in which the fingers are foreshortened.  This took much revising and I am still not happy with the position of the fingers and the proportions of palm to fingers, even though I checked proportions repeatedly while drawing.  One difficulty was trying to hold my hand up in a constant position for a period of time and I know that I viewed it from multiple positions in this time, constantly readjusting it, trying to bring it back to the “original” position as I conceived it.  The image displays some tonal variation but, once again, I have avoided using low tones over an appreciable area with the outcome that there is insufficient tonal impact. The absence of darks in this image causes distortion in perception because the eye does not perceive the depth that it expects to find.




The course notes suggested attempting an anatomical drawing.  I suspect that this means a full figure with defined musculature in flayed body mode. However, for now, I have traced the outline of the hand drawing (above) and attempted to draw the skeleton into the outline freehand using a drawing by Gottfried Bammes  (Complete Guide to Life Drawing, p.175) as a guide.  The difficulty was that the book illustration was of the left hand but, being left-handed, my drawings are all of the right hand.  Therefore, I had to invert the skeletal structure in my mind as I was drawing.  I came unstuck with the multiple little bones in the wrist, each of which has a unique structure. The human hand contains 27 bones – I don’t think this drawing does …



To illustrate the relationship between them, I superimposed the tracing upon the drawing and reinforced the outline of some of the bones.  This is not the most accurate drawing that I have ever done but it was an interesting exercise in that it has made me more conscious of the  invisible underlying skeletal structure to humans, or indeed any mammal.  It is easier to see the fingers that are literally “out-of-joint” when looking at the skeleton, because of the straighter edges of bone compared to the rounded form of  flesh.  The angle of the little finger at its middle joint, in particular, is too wide, with respect to the edge of the hand. Also, the index finger in my drawing does not have the longest meta-carpal bone, as it should have…




Subsequent to this exercise, I have come across another youtube video which does acknowledge the difficulty and challenge in drawing hands and is shown at a speed which is easier to follow. The video lasts almost 13 minutes and could be useful as a starting point.  The main use of videos, I have found, is to direct the novice to look for shapes, which is useful as a first step from which to develop a unique drawing of a unique hand. 


Where to from here?

I need to practise drawing hands. particularly with regard to foreshortened fingers and proportions of palm to fingers.

I seem to be afraid of using lower tonal values and need to work on this if I am to achieve real depth in my drawings. 

This post has been edited to remove images from Bridgman Education.  This required minor text editing for references to images and consequent coherence of the text.  This has resulted in fluctuations in the font which I have been unable to resolve without considerable time investment.  Links to the Bridgman images have been established. 


Bammes, Gottfried  (2011)  Complete Guide to Life Drawing.  Search P. 

Edwards, Betty (1999)  New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain   Tarcher Penguin.

Haas, Robert (2012) Raphael’s School of Athens: A Theorem in a Painting? J. Humanistic Mathematics, 2(2), 2-26. Viewed at http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1050&context=jhm  Accessed 27.12.12

Simblet, Sarah (2001) Anatomy for the Artist.  Dorling Kindersley

Tyler, Christopher & Kubovy, Michael (2004) The Rise of Renaissance perspective   http://www.webexhibits.org/sciartperspective/raphaelperspective2.html  Accessed 27.12.12

The image from the School of Athens has been reproduced many times across the internet and is sold at many of these as posters, suggesting that copyright regarding this fresco, which has been photographed thousands or millions of times does not exist, as such.  I took a screenshot of a part of one such photograph for educational purposes and hope that this will not be consider breach of copyright for the anonymous photographer! 














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