Learn to draw and paint portraits

Lesson 11: How to Draw Hands

How to draw hands

Join the team! Get 3 FREE portrait drawing lessons PLUS special indepth lessons available only to you.

Miss a lesson?

#1: Intro and Notes on Drawing

#2: Unity

#3: Elements of Composition

#4: Architecture of Design

#5: Beginning a Painting

#6: Color Harmonies

#7: Creative Process | Pochade

#8: Creative Process 2 | Watercolor Study of A Young Girl

#9: Getting the BIG Shape

#10: A Walk in a Frozen Wood

#11: Drawing Hands

#12: Drawing the Skull

#13: Velazquez: Alla Prima

#14: Creative Process - Redux

#15: The Power of Triangles

Upcoming Zoom Classes

Video Workshops

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 1

The practice of drawing hands requires its own specific skill set. The hand is capable of expressing a wide range of gestures each with its own emotional connotation. However the hand’s primary movement is an inward curling movement towards the palm plus a much more restricted ability to expand laterally.

The fingers (phalanges) do not work as independently of each other as one would suppose. The movement of one finger affects all of the others – subtly in some gestures and greatly in others.

The four fingers are best grouped into two parts: the index and middle fingers are the strongest and usually are the movers in most hand gestures; the ring and little fingers are correspondingly smaller and weaker. Their employment is that of guiding and finely directing gesture.

As in figure and portrait drawing an understanding of the hand’s anatomy is critical. You do not need to memorize each and every anatomical term but an innate sense of the hand’s structural architecture should be ingrained.

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 2

The hand is always best drawn out from the forearm and wrist. When you are drawing only a hand, or pair of hands, the forearm should at least be implied. This brings us to the idea of the mass conception of simplified form.

To begin the study of the hand it is well advised to first considers its mass conception of simplified form. The hand is always drawn out from the forearm into the wrist which is the carpus. From the carpus is the trapezoidal form of the metacarpus which is the body of the hand. From the back of the hand, the dorsal aspect (or view) the metacarpus is convex; from the palmar aspect the metacarpus is concave.

The fleshy ball of the thumb (palmar aspect) is the thenar eminence; the ‘striking’ side of the hand is the hyperthenar eminence. The triangular sheet of tendinous fibers in the palm is the palmar aponeurosis – this form is subtly indicated when the hand is stretched out and flexed.

The hand is comprised of both extrinsic and intrinsic muscles. The extrinsic muscles are those of the forearm whose tendons insert into the hand. The intrinsic muscles are those of the hand, or manus, itself.

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 3

The dorsal aspect, the back of the hand, is bony and tendinous. The palmar aspect has three muscle masses: the thenar eminence (which is comprised of three muscles that constitute the ball of the thumb), the hypothenar eminence and the first dorsal interosseous muscle. All of these muscles masses are tear-shaped.

One’s initial foray into the hand’s anatomy can appear quite daunting. The ideal approach to studying the anatomy of the hand is bone by bone and muscle by muscle gradually building up one’s understanding in a layered approach.

It goes without saying that in figure and portrait drawing your hand must relate proportionately to the head and body. A hand can quickly grow out of control ...

Begin your hand drawing by first establishing the length from the wrist to the finger tips with two small marks. Then strike the arabesque which I refer to as the mitten – the entire hand gesture must fit snugly into the mitten.

In portrait drawing our primary landmark is the brow ridge; with the hand it is the main knuckle joints (metacarpophalangeal joints) of the metacarpus. However when drawing the palmar aspect of the hand the primary landmark is the palmar crease (where the fingers meet the fleshy mass of the palm).

Be sure to place the palmar crease accurately. Take your best guess of where it is first, then sight and correct as needed.

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 5

It goes without saying that in figure and portrait drawing your hand must relate proportionately to the head and body. A hand can quickly grow out of control ...

Begin your hand drawing by first establishing the length from the wrist to the finger tips with two small marks. Then strike the arabesque which I refer to as the mitten – the entire hand gesture must fit snugly into the mitten.

In portrait drawing our primary landmark is the brow ridge; with the hand it is the main knuckle joints (metacarpophalangeal joints) of the metacarpus. However when drawing the palmar aspect of the hand the primary landmark is the palmar crease (where the fingers meet the fleshy mass of the palm).

Be sure to place the palmar crease accurately. Take your best guess of where it is first, then sight and correct as needed.

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 5

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 6

The thumb and muscle mass of the ball of the thumb (the thenar eminence) is now sketched in. Your main concern is its placement and proportion within the mitten. Don’t even think of sketching in the thumb-nail or other such insignificant details. Think only of the structural architecture!

A structural approach to resolving the hand is the surest way to avoid drawing the dreaded banana fingers. Banana fingers are those balloon-like symbolic preconceptions of what we think fingers look like. Reality is much more surprising.

Within the mitten of the hand and working out from the palmar crease I articulate each finger taking careful note of both positive and negative shapes.

The result can be perceptually challenging. There is a subtle foreshortening in the fingers which are curling inwards to the palm. Don’t be thrown off course at this stage of your drawing – the doubt that you are feeling is a consequence of your symbolic preconceptions battling reality.

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 6a

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 7

With the edge of a small piece of conte I broadly blocked in the primary light/dark pattern. Keep this initial blocking in flat. At this point we just want to have one dark value and one light value (which is the paper – I’m using ivory colored Fabriano Ingres).

The initial blocking-in will quite often make sense of and quell the discord of competing symbolic preconception and reality.

Acquiring the skills of structurally building the gesture of a hand is a relatively straight forward proposition. The more difficult issue is the additive/sub- tractive process of rendering tone.

Getting from the initially blocked-in pattern of light and dark to the flattened, under-painted stage pictured here required a strategy of simultaneously stumping down with my finger and painting out the lights with a kneaded eraser.

This strategy cannot be adequately described in written or verbal form; to really understand the additive/subtractive process you need to first watch it being demonstrated and then imitating the process. Imitation is the first step in acquiring a deeper understanding of developing tone.

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 8

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 9

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 10

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 11

Building the tone for this hand was a reasonably straight forward progression. (This was a rare instance – quite often building tone requires taking a step back for every two taken forward.) I began by working up the tonal forms in the index and middle fingers. This required lightly cross-hatching in the darker values with a very sharp conte crayon followed by a finer re-working with a small tortillion (paper stump) and re-working further with a kneaded eraser. This process is generally described as drawing with a sculptural sensibility. You are visually carving out the form.

In the middle drawing I began with the fleshy furrowed mass of the palm. The creases in the palm were lightly sketched in and the strong middle cast shadow was worked up first. It is quite easy to lose your place in complex areas, what often happens is that we are looking at one area and working another trying to force ill-fitting pieces together and wondering why things are not locking into place. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, if a piece doesn’t snap into place then it doesn’t belong there.

Work your tone up in small, manageable, yet logical, pieces. i.e., the index and middle fingers together, the palm, and then the ring and little finger together. The caveat, though, is that all of the various pieces must read together as a whole.

The thumb and thenar eminence are the last to be worked on. I prefer to work from back to front.

Portrait Drawing Lessons - Hands 12

Constructing tone is a practice of balancing each value relative to both the whole image and to the other values. As you apply and stump the conte you need to be alert for ‘black holes’. That is when you overshoot a value and leave a visual hole. Conversely, while painting out (the subtractive process) you need to be vigilant as to when too much is lifted out and a light starts to ‘pop-out’. When that happens you need to knock down that light by either stumping or re-rendering with the conte.

The tone was continually worked up and, at times, retracted until I felt that I had pushed this as far as I could and dared. There is no simple answer as to how far the drawing should be pushed. With practice and experience you will develop a gut instinct as to when your drawing is ‘finished’.

Practice of Mixing Flesh Tones

The Practice of Mixing Flesh Tones & Spotting Color Notes

The Newest Release by Michael Britton

No more chalky and lifeless portraits! In this 6 hours and 45 minutes download video workshop you will learn step-by-step the time-tested principles of mixing fleshtones that breath life and emotion.

With each guided exercise your skill and understanding of mixing flesh tones will deepen as you learn the practice of juxtaposing cool and warm hues with tint, tone, shade and complementaries.

And that's only the first part of this indepth six hours and 45 minutes workshop. The second part teaches you how to apply the paint and develop your own expressive brushwork and voice. Spotting color notes is an elegant and dynamic process of painting. It is the method of Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Manet, Wyeth, etc.