Historically, many artists have had difficulty painting and drawing hands. Edgar Degas often obscured the hands of his ballerinas or painted them incorrectly, whereas Mary Cassatt knew the hand well and never shied away from them.
Why are hands a challenge to paint and draw? In this post, I will outline the top 5 common mistakes artists make. These mistakes will point out the difficulties in drawing hands while explaining how they can be drawn correctly. Hands are known as the most difficult subject to draw. Interestingly, even non-artists know this.
Several years ago I painted a large body of work (26 pieces) where I featured the hand as the subject to tell my visual story. Through the power of hands, I commemorated the women of the 1800’s, conveying the important contributions they made to the United States. The series is entitled, “No Time for Idle Hands.” My book describing my process and experiences is titled, “An Artist’s Journey with the Women of the West.” The watercolor painting above is “Always on the Move.”
The common 5 mistakes artists make painting and drawing hands:
1. Artists tend to rely on their visual dictionary when painting and drawing hands. It is important to let-go of this visual history and really LOOK at the hand you want to draw. Because we see our hands all day long, we have a tendency to make assumptions when drawing hands.
2. It is important to notice the negative spaces between our fingers. It is easy to get caught up in drawing the fingers and palm/back of the hand, meanwhile you loose the essence of what you want the hand is to be doing when the negative spaces are not accurately seen. For example, in “Prized Possession,” (below) you can see the various negative spaces I had to draw to convey that this woman was playing a pump organ keyboard.
3. Artists do not take the time to learn the bone structure of the hand. Few of us know that there are 27 bones! It is easy to forget how complex the hand is. I spent a year drawing the skeleton of the hand and attending life drawing classes where I focused on learning to draw the hand. It is a magical subject.
4. Do you know the proportions of the hand? There are simple mathematical proportions to our hands. Once you know these, the hand becomes much easier to draw. The most important one is the relationship between the length of each part of the finger that bends – also known as a phalanx.
Looking at the second sketch below, notice that I have sections labelled A, B and C. If you look closely, you see that Section A is two-thirds the length of Section B, and B is two-thirds the length of Section C. For every finger the relationship is the same, not the lengths. Most artists make the mistake of making these proportions in the range of one-fourth and one-half.
TIP: Once you know all of the proportions of the hand, it is much easier to paint them quickly and more abstractly.
5. Artists often confuse the location of the webbing of the hand with the main knuckles. Frequently, the webbing in our hands in relationship to the knuckles in the hand is drawn incorrectly. The webbing tends to be drawn too close in relationship to the location of the knuckles, whereas you can see in this sketch that they do not line up. I have circled the knuckles and drawn arrows where the hand webbing begins. Now look at your hand and make a note of this relationship.
I have made an interesting observation over the years — all of us know when a hand is not drawn accurately. We don’t usually know exactly what it is that is incorrect, but it makes us uncomfortable. I believe it is because our hands are well-known to us and that we see them all day long.
It is distracting to viewers when the hand is not painted or drawn correctly. Hence, I believe it is important to know the nuances so that your work can be viewed to its fullest.
Why do you think we know when an artist has drawn or painted a hand incorrectly? What is a 6th common mistakes artists make when painting and drawing hands? Please comment below.
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