Don’t pay any attention to the critics. Don’t even ignore them

Part Five: Hands

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Part Five: Hands

Perhaps no aspect of drawing is accompanied by more confusion and provided with less adequate material for study than is the drawing of hands. Much of the trouble is caused by searching for material instead of using the material you have available, because in your own two hands you have the best source of information available. Perhaps you have never thought about them in that light. Drawing of hands must be largely self-taught. All any instructor can do is point out the facts that lie right in your own hands.

The study of hands, aside from learning their anatomical construction, consists mainly of breaking down the measurements of various parts into comparisons. Fingers have a certain length in relation to the palm; spaces between the joints of the fingers are in definite proportion to the whole finger. The palm is so wide in comparison to the length. The distances between the knuckles on the back of the fingers are longer than those between the creases on the undersides. The length of the longest finger from its tip to the third knuckle in back is practically half the length of the back of the hand from fingertip to wrist. The thumb reaches nearly to the second joint of the first finger. The length of the hand is about equal to the length of the face from chin to hairline. You can make these comparative measurements as well as anyone else.

The hand is the most pliable and adjustable part of the whole anatomy; it can be made to fit around or grasp almost any shape within reasonable size or weight. This pliability is what causes difficulty for the artist, because the whole hand can assume countless different positions. Yet the mechanical principle by which the hands work remains constant. The palm, as a hollow, opens and closes, and the fingers fold inward toward the middle of the palm. The nails are really a stiff backing for the tips of the fingers, as well as an extra edge for precise grasping. You pick up a pin with the fingertips; you pick up a hammer with the palm and fingers. The back of the hand is more or less rigid to the backward pressure of the fingers, as used in pushing. For adjustment to almost unlimited purposes, the hand is the most wonderful mechanism we know. In addition to its perfection as an instrument, it is perhaps more closely coordinated with the brain than any other part of the body is. Many of its movements are controlled by subconscious reflexes; examples are typing and playing the piano.

Man started to educate his hands long before he educated his brain in the cultural sense. The infant can use his hands effectively long before he can think. He will grasp a lighted match before he has learned that it will burn. The story of man’s progress from prehistoric times must be closely associated with the adaptability of the human hand.

The fact that the hands and their movements require so little conscious thought may be one reason why so little thought is given to drawing them. Look now at your own hands; you will see them in a new light. Note how the hand automatically assumes a shape compatible with an object before grasping the object. To draw a hand in the act of picking up an object you must first study the contour of the object, then observe the automatic adjustment of the hand to fit that contour. Start to pick up a ball, a peach, or an apple and watch your fingers adjust themselves, just ahead of the grasp. The mechanical principle involved is very important in the drawing of the hand. Only by knowing how it actually works can the hand be drawn convincingly.

The back of the hand can usually be drawn in three planes-one for the thumb section as far as the bottom knuckle of the first finger, and the other two across the back of the band, tapering to the wrist. In most actions the back of the hand is curved and the curve is reduced to these three planes. The palm is usually the three blocks surrounding the hollow of the palm—the heel of the hand, the thick base of the thumb, and the padded portion just under the fingers. The knuckles of the fingers and thumb must be aligned to work inward toward the hollow of the palm, or when outstretched to be at right angles to the direction of the column of the finger. We must also be careful to align the nails so that they lie on top of the column with the middle line of the nail extended from the middle line of the column of the finger. Otherwise the nail may slip around the finger without our realizing what is wrong.

Keep studying your own hands to learn about hands in general. The inner muscles are so deeply embedded that they are not as important as the outer shapes. The only indication of bone we see is across the back, the knuckles, and the wrists. If you get the shape of the palm in almost any action, the fingers can quite easily be attached to it and aligned with it. Study the comparative lengths of the fingers; remember
that the thumb works mostly at a right angle to the fingers. Get rid of the idea that hands are hard to draw. They are simply confusing to draw unless you know how they operate. Once understood, hands become fascinating.

The most important fact to remember about the hand is that it is hollow on the palm side and convex on top. The pads are so arranged around the palm that even liquid can be held in the hand. The hand served primitive man as a cup, and by cupping the two hands together he could eat food which he could not hold with his fingers alone. The big muscle of the thumb is by far the most important one in the hand. That muscle, combined with or in opposition to the pull of the fingers, gave man a grasp powerful enough to hold even his own weight in suspension. This powerful muscle held his club, his bow, his spear. Animals depend upon the jaw muscles for existence, but we might say that man depended upon his hands.

When you have mastered the construction and proportions of the hand (Plates 77 to 85), you will find it easy to use your knowledge to show the special characteristics of women’s hands and those of babies, children, and older people.

Plate 77

Plate 77. Anatomy of the hand

Note the strong tendon which attaches to the heel of the hand, and how, on the back of the hand, the tendons are grouped to pull the fingers out. The operation of these tendons is marvelous, for they can operate all the fingers together from inside or outside the palm, yet can control each finger separately. The muscles which pull these tendons are located in the forearm. Fortunately for the artist, most of the tendons of the palm are buried deeply and do not show. In babies and young people, the tendons on the back of the hand are hidden, but they are much in evidence in the hands of adults and the aged.

Plate 78

Plate 78. Block forms of the hand

The bones and tendons across the back of the hand are close to the surface; those around the palm and inside of the fingers are thoroughly padded. I have blocked out these pads so you can familiarize yourself with them. Note the extra thickness of the pads of the thumb muscle and the heel of the palm. At the base of each finger there is a pad. These combine to make a pad across the top of the palm. The pads of the fingers protect the bones inside. Since these pads are all pliable, they provide an even firmer grip on objects much as the pliable treads on an automobile tire grip the surface of a road. There are no pads on the top of the hand, though the pad at the outer edge on the little-finger side can take a tremendous blow, especially with the fist closed, without injury to the hand.

Plate 79

Plate 79. Proportions of the hand

The next thing of importance is the curved arrangement of the fingertips and knuckles. Two fingers lie on each side of a line drawn through the middle of the palm. The tendon of the middle finger just about divides the back of the hand in half. Important also is the fact that the thumb is turned at right angles to the other fingers. The thumb operates mostly in and out from the palm, while the fingers open and close toward the palm. The knuckles of the fingers are slightly above their creases on the inside of the fingers. Note the flat curve of the knuckles across the back of the hand, with the curves getting deeper as they cross the knuckles toward the fingertips.

The middle finger is the key finger from which we determine the length of the hand. The length of this finger to its knuckle in back is slightly over half the length of the hand. The width of the palm is slightly more than that of half the hand on the inside. The first or index finger just about reachcs the fingernail of the middle finger. The third finger is about equal to the index finger in length. The little finger just reaches the top knuckle of the third finger.

Plate 80

Plate 80. Construction of the hand

Plate 81

Plate 81. The hollow of the palm

In the drawings above, note how the hollow of the hand has been carefully defined. Also note the resulting curve of the back of the hand. Hands never look natural or capable of grasping until the artist understands this feature of the hand. All these hands look as if they could take hold of an object. The loud sound of clapping comes from the sudden compression of air between these two cups or pockets of the palms. A hand that does not look capable of clasping is badly drawn. Study your own hands.

Plate 82

Plate 82. Foreshortening in drawing hands

Plate 83

Plate 83. The hand in action

Plate 84

Plate 84. Knuckles

Plate 85

Plate 85. Drawing your own hand

Plate 86

Plate 86. The female hand

Womens hands, like their faces, differ from those of men chiefly in having smaller bones, more delicate muscles, and generally more roundness of planes. If the middle finger is made at least half the length of the hand on the palm side it will be more graceful and will characterize the hand as feminine. Even though feminine hands are slim, they still have amazing tenacity of grip. The long fingernails, oval in shape, add charm.

Plate 87

Plate 87. Tapered fingers

Plate 88

Plate 88. Make many studies of hands

There is only one sure way to learn to draw hands, and that is to draw many, many studies. With hands, more than with anything else, proper spacing is essential. You must fit the fingers onto the palm in the particular view you see before you. Hands are almost never straight and flat. Judge the spaces between the knuckles carefully. Much of the time the view will require foreshortening, as shown in Plates 82 through 85.

Plate 89

Plate 89. The baby hand

Babies’ hands are a study in themselves. The basic difference from adults’ hands is that the palm is relatively thicker in relation to the small fingers. The thumb muscle and heel of the baby hand are proportionately very powerful. Quite young babies have a grasp equal to their own weight. The knuckles across the back of the hand are buried in flesh and are indicated by dimples. The base of the hand may be entirely surrounded with creases. The heel of the hand is much thicker than the pads across the top of the palm.

Plate 90

Plate 90. Studies of baby hands

Plate 91

Plate 91. Children’s hands

The child’s hand is halfway between that of the baby and that of the teenager. This means that the thumb muscle and the heel of the hand are thicker proportionately than they are in the adult hand, but not as thick in relation to the fingers as they are in the baby hand. The fingers in relation to the palm are about the same as in the adult. The whole hand is smaller, a little fatter, and more dimpled, and the knuckles are of course smoother.

Plate 92

Plate 92. The proportions remain fairly constant

At grammar-school age there is very little difference between the hand of a boy and that of a girl but at adolescence there is a big change. The boys hand is much larger and sturdier, showing development of bone and muscle. The girls hand never develops the big knuckles of the boy’s, since the bones stay smaller. The heel of the hand develops in the boy, but stays much softer and slimmer in the girl. In the boys hand the fingernails as well as the fingers are slightly broader.

Plate 93

Plate 93. The hand ages

A Farewell to the Reader

In concluding this book, I want to thank the readers of my previous books for their very kind letters. Because of the large number of these, and because of the pressure on my own time, I have never been able to answer as many as I wished to. If my books have helped you, I am happy.

It is only within the past decade that so many books on drawing and painting have been available. Perhaps another seems superfluous, but in investigating before starting this one, I found very few which concentrated on heads or hands. Both are so important to commercial and portrait artists that I have undertaken to fill the gap. It is my conviction that such a book should come from a person whose livelihood has depended upon the very material he is writing about. In this capacity I have felt that I could substitute actual practice for theory, because my own work based on the principles given here has proved itself by actual sales to leading publications over a long period of time.

There are many fine men in the field of commercial art, and many fine teachers in the schools, who would be capable of handling the same subject. It is largely a matter of finding the time and energy for such an effort in an already full schedule. I have found, however, that time can be apportioned for almost any endeavor that is interesting and pleasant to undertake, simply by curtailing competing pleasures. Much of this book has been done in the evenings or at times between the pressure of other work. My hope is that if I could find time to do the book, others could also in the same way set aside time to study it. My end of the effort is completed, but I am still concerned that it will go out and do the job for young people that I want it to do.

The men in the field who are now the greatest contributors are men who had to come up the hard way, without much knowledge available in books, grasping here and there for information together with much personal practice and experiment. Books will not do the work for anyone, but they can make individual effort more practical and profitable, speeding the acquiring of much-needed knowledge, so that the artist can have more years of successful practice.

It is not my intention to have my readers stop their study of the head and hands with the closing of this book. My aim has been to help them to a well-grounded start that will give their own ability the best of chances. We know that a head cannot be well drawn by any approach that does not, in the final effort, produce solidity and good construction. The portrayal of character must come from specific analysis and from understanding the general anatomy of the head. If I have shown you how that analysis can be made and the reasons for the things that happen in drawing a head, your own progress will be greatly accelerated.

Aside from technical knowledge, I feel that the artist must have a certain reverence for the beauty of the construction of the head, the qualities of its forms that give it individuality, plus a desire for beauty of craftsmanship in the rendering. He should strive never to let his technique become a routine formula, by which all heads are done in the same manner. Let him experiment constantly with the expression of his basic knowledge. Some heads can be done best by suggestion, others by complete detail and fidelity to life. Some will be more interesting if rendered in line, others by tonal suggestion. The result should never look as if it came off an assembly line. To vary your technical style is not easy; neither is keeping your thinking varied. A great deal of practice and experiment is required.

A very fine idea is for a group of young artists to organize a sketch class, meeting once a week, sharing the cost of a model and other expenses. Such a class offers each man the possibility of learning from the others, and it also establishes friendships which last a lifetime. We did this in my early days in Chicago. Many of the men in that group have forged ahead in their fields, and some are doing the outstanding work of the country. While each must be credited with a great deal of individual effort, there is no doubt that all gained from the collective experience. Of course, any person intending to make a living at art should attend a good art school if possible. But training need not stop there. In the group I mention, all the fellows had finished their academic work and already were active in the field, but they were all interested in learning more and so organized this informal clinic.

I have enjoyed the preparation of this volume, even if it turned into a mountain of work. I wish every reader the best of luck, and I hope that each will find something in these pages that will be of lasting value. For those to whom drawing is a hobby rather than a profession, I hope the simplification of their problems will bring them still greater happiness in their chosen pastime.

praxis | Part Five: Hands