Drawing Expressive Hands

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Text Only © Nicholas Ferenczy 0ctober 2011
(Text may be used for not for profit purposes.
Please give a credit.)

(Punctuated for reading aloud.)

‘Safe Hands’ Potter

There’s a natural tendency, when drawing a figure, to leave the hands until late in a session or perhaps to leave them out altogether.
It’s natural because compared with the rest of the forms, hands are small and complex and so, make great demands on you as a drawer/draftsperson. They call on you for precision and so, for more time. The only way to draw hands well is to take the time to do so.


‘Spiritual Hands’ Mother Teresa

And okay, sometimes you just don’t have the time. But you should always at least be aware of what hands can do for a figure when drawn in and drawn well and, conversely, be aware of the effects of neglecting them or leaving them out altogether.

Hands are important for two reasons: first in satisfactorily completing the extremities of a figure (as are the feet and the head, of course) (again, rules to be broken!) secondly and equally as importantly, perhaps more so, for their expressive powers. And I’ll return to these ideas later.



‘Enduring Hands’ Barbara Hepworth

Hands are the most remarkable structures. I believe that in a strange way, they’re a summation of all the other parts of the body.
By that I mean you can see reflected in them, remarkable similarities to the rest of the body. Take their proportions, for example…





‘Walking Fingers’

If you set the tips of your index and middle fingers down on the palm of your other hand to make a little ‘standing’ or ‘jumping man’, I think you’ll agree that although you have something that’s a little ‘lop-sided’ and slightly comical, you have something that bears an uncanny resemblance to the lower part of the body in some respects.
These knuckles could be the knees, the upper part of the fingers would be the upper part of the legs and across here would be the hips. And though I think the thumb coming at the side as the tips of the fingers might come against the thigh if an arm were held against a leg is a coincidence, the whole does look to me about right!

But more generally, and in all seriousness, as I look around a figure when drawing, I see the same proportions, shapes, forms – more generally, visual rhythms – repeating throughout.

‘Fingers as Creative Conduits’ Ravi Shankar

Obviously there are great similarities visually, between hands and feet. For instance, compare the profiles of the thumb and big toe seen from the side. But this is perhaps self-evident of a creature than once went on all fours.


What is not so evident until you start to observe and consider a figure carefully whilst drawing are the families of curves, junctions and forms that repeat all around a body. It seems to me not inconceivable that repetitions/replications of repeating rhythms might be coded into the DNA that makes us the shapes we are.

‘Look No Hands’ Crick and Watson

After all, a message that says simply: ‘make this like that but (say) smaller’ (where ‘that’ is incredibly complex) would amount to an efficient shortcut.

I don’t know whether this is true. As I understand it, a great deal of DNA is simply junk code. (I think recently there is evidence to suggest this isn’t the case.) If that’s the case then perhaps efficiency is not a guiding principle in evolution.

Perhaps the forms of the hands are not variations on other forms within the body but unique in themselves, as is every other part. But even then, might it not be the case that there is code within the form of a hand that partially spells out a similar form elsewhere?

It would be interesting to know more about this. But were we to know – would it help our drawing? I don’t know! But I would never turn down the opportunity to know more and by doing so, unlock further the mysteries of appearances of the human figure.

Let’s stay on this excursion out for a while longer…

‘Ice Face’

I don’t know if it’s because we’re humans that we’re naturally tuned into recognizing human-like forms in other things – perhaps it is. (Certainly it happens with faces, doesn’t it?) But I don’t really mean here simply seeing a ‘face’ in ice or a ‘hand’ in rock – as in the diverting illustrations here (right).




Hand of Rock’

I mean seeing human-like forms – again those curves and twists and changes in direction – that makes the limb of a tree (say) or the lay of a landscape seem somehow ‘almost human’.

I don’t think a landscape could be the same shape we are for the same reasons we are. I mean a hill (say) gets its form by being pushed, prodded and abraded by the forces of nature, externally, rather than growing to a blueprint from within.

But the laws by which the limbs of trees grow might actually share something in common with us.

‘Limbs that Reach’

Aside from the big and obvious differences between plants and animals in that where the first are static, the second are dynamic (move by use of muscles pulling on their frames), both are living, growing things and both plants and animals have DNA.


But what could connect the similarities in forms between people and plants? Are they merely coincidences or might there actually be reasons for these apparent visual similarities? Consider this…



Hand of Chopin cast post-mortem

Weight is the force acting on us due to gravity. Both trees and people grow such that they support their own weight. Although you do sometimes see the limb of a tree that has simply grown too heavy and snapped under its own weight, you see far more that branch perfectly, stepping down in thickness (and weight) such that they’re able to reach efficiently towards the light.





‘Giant Leap’ Apollo 11 Moon Landing

Whether it’s the limb of a tree or a person, it usually thins as it ‘moves away’ from the supporting trunk if it’s going to beat gravity.








I think gravity has a great deal to do with the shapes we are in other ways too. For instance, if, when we were ‘on our feet’ all day, we didn’t have to work against the force of gravity, our muscles would not be called upon to work as they do and the muscle mass would not remain as it is.

Hence the need for experiments conducted in space programmes to find out what happens to the muscles (and bones and central nervous systems) of astronauts living in ‘weightless’ environments.

So I don’t think it’s a coincidence to find (visually) similar rhythms throughout
nature. It is perhaps one consequence of living on a planet with the gravity
that it’s got (and you can put a number on it) and the materials (nucleotides)
stacked up to beat it (and you can list those).

‘Stepping Up of Form’ Lobster Claw

You do get apparent counter examples to this ‘stepping down’ (thinning) of forms
towards the extremities: the constrictions of a wasp’s or an ant’s waist before
its abdomen or a clunking great crab or lobster claw at the end of a relatively
slender leg, for instance. But the laws of physics have always to prevail: wasps
and ants weigh virtually nothing (have very little mass); the lobster claw is supported by

To my mind, this principle of gravity-beating growth shaping our own forms doesn’t seem unreasonable.


‘Dynamic Limbs’ Usain Bolt

Of course, on top of that there’s a stepping down of the structures in terms of the dynamics – in terms of the size of the muscles pulling on our frames and the strength (and so size) of that frame. So, for example, big muscle at the shoulder, smaller on the arm, smaller still in wrist and smallest in fingers – it wouldn’t work the other way round – or at least not without changing the consistency of materials.

(You do get little ‘anomalies’ to this where there is a slight stepping up – at the joints, for example – nodal points where there is a widening – at the knuckles, elbows and knees, for instance. These are load-bearing surfaces where increased surface area reduces pressure and hence wear and tear.)

Plants were grown in weightless conditions on the International Space Station

I suppose the only ways to test this theory would be to see how forms would evolve outside of the influence of gravity or how they have evolved.


With respect to the former, experiments to see how organisms adapt (how spiders learn to cope with building their webs, for instance) have been carried out in weightless environments. With respect to the latter, we have yet to meet them!


‘The Gravity of Drawing’ Albert Einstein

In any case, I’m not sure how much we need understand physics to draw well. But I am sure that gravity is an important consideration in life drawing for other reasons not discussed here.



But to return to the hand and to this idea of it containing within its forms (visually that is), the rest of the body….

‘Alberto Giacometti in His Studio’ (detail)

I believe that as you look around a figure, not only will you see rhythms repeat about the figure generally (in the hands and elsewhere), but you’ll see characteristics in that hand peculiar to the person you’re drawing, and again, see those features elsewhere in that person’s physique.




To my mind, it would not be surprising to find that in the hands of a person with (say) long slender bones in the feet, that the bones there were long and slender also.


And this might be something that one would wish to bring out in a drawing – that’s to say, if not by exaggerating them, then perhaps by making a feature of them – simply by choosing a viewpoint where you can see them clearly, for example.

But here alarm bells ought to be ringing loud and clear because the diversity among humans is such that we ought to take nothing for granted.









‘Handy Spoofs’ (Uri Geller)

In other walks of life, prejudice and stereotyping are to be avoided but in art we can create fictions and fantasies, lampoon and even lie – do what is not acceptable in (say) Science or Law – and by doing so, somehow get closer to the truth (perhaps).


It’s kind of what makes Art at once so powerful and so futile. But before you can ‘tell a lie’, you surely have to have a truth to lie about. For the truth (as they say) sets you free.




‘Get Out of Jail Free’ Harry Houdini

Even if what you might wish to produce is far from an objective interpretation (if ever there was such a thing), then I’d suggest our starting point ought at least to be with what we see and not with what we expect to see.


And what we see might be surprising. It might be a person with deft hands and feet of clay.

In fact if we’re drawing in the right frame of mind – that is: with our eyes and mind open, nerve-endings exposed, ‘switched-on’ but also relaxed and care-free, then the figure really ought to be surprising every time!


So now to return to what this is really all about… the expressive qualities of hands.


‘Hands of Clay’ (Muhammad Ali)

I think we’d all agree that hands are expressive but why so and how might you make them so in your drawing?





‘The Pen…’ Charles Dickens

Well for one thing, hands are agents of our intelligence, one of the most direct means by which we’re able to turn thought to action. To me, it’s the fine motor movements of which the hands are capable that makes them closely allied to our minds – more so than any of the larger movements of the rest of the body.





‘…and the Sword’ Martina Navratilova

For instance, compare the movements of the body made in writing a letter with those of (say) playing tennis.





‘A Bit of a Handful?’ Dr Strangelove

The movements of the hands are often loaded with intent. I mean the action of a finger plucking the string of a violin might look much like the action of a finger pulling the trigger of a gun; and the button-pressing finger of someone calling a lift might look identical to that of a general sending a missile to its target. But of course, in each case the intentions are very different. And yes of course hands can create and destroy but we use them in so many ways.



‘The Shaking Game’ JF Kennedy and Nikita Kruschev

For example, to communicate by making deliberate gestures – to wave to someone, beckon to them, stop them by holding up our palm; silence them by putting a finger to our lips; give the thumbs up; point to something; salute (in all its forms); applaud or shake someone else’s hand.



‘Madonna with Sleeping Child’ by Mantegna

And then, most significantly of all, there are all the ways we use our hands involuntarily: the hand put up to a mouth in shock; the hand that holds someone they love; the hand that soothes a child’s brow; or that grips someone’s arm to support them or that reaches out for support. We might do all of these without a thought, not with intent, not to communicate and yet of course, all of these do communicate – very strongly – because, they tell us, how another person is, by showing it.



‘The Creation of Adam’ Detail from fresco of ceiling of Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo

So in another sense the hand embodies us emotionally. But of course it’s also a spiritual embodiment too.

For instance, the hand plays a great part in the imagery (probably of all religions), but certainly within those of the Christian religion – you see hands hard at work in religious icons, paintings and stained glass windows.


There are two main ways in which I see its symbolism working there: one is as a symbol of power, where the hand is seen transmitting spiritual power – for instance, by administering a blessing. So it’s the hand of a higher power symbolized by a human hand (a lower one).


‘The Praying Hands’ by Albrecht Durer

The second is as the hand appears in supplication. The hands might be clasped together in prayer – which seems to me to be a pretty well exclusively religious ‘gesture’. But there is also the hand held open in supplication – waiting to receive – or even held in resignation, again open and perhaps the ultimate example of that is the Crucifixion.




So in the first case the hand is a symbol of power, transmitting – giving out – and in the second it is a symbol of humility, of need, of acceptance, of resignation even.

Child Drawing Around Hand

To my mind there is something about the outline of a hand as a child might make one by drawing around their own hand with their fingers apart that is so tremendously human. I mean the hand seen closed up, in perspective is a rather ambiguous form – sometimes hard to read as a hand. But seen flat and opened out it stands almost as a symbol of itself.



So I think you’ll agree that hands can have great significance. The question to consider now is how that might be achieved in your drawings. One way to do so is to look to the works of other artist’s who’ve done this successfully…

The works of Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) would be good places to start. What you will see in both of these artists’ works are not merely hands drawn well – because in a way, that’s never enough – but hands in starring roles, hands as a main players – hands that ‘speak’ to us.


In fact the hands of Schiele’s drawings are highly stylised. That’s to say: they’re not drawn in an even, objective way.


Max by Egon Schiele

There is a way of drawing with line where any change of direction – such as at a joint – is used as a good excuse for an exaggeration. This is so in ‘Schiele’s hands’. The knuckles become like nodes – meeting places for the lines between them. At each of these meeting places there is angularity, and, compared with the stretches of finger between, a little swollenness.




(detail from above)

There’s no concern with the soft fleshiness of hands. His interest, (as it is with the body as a whole) is with the shape of the hand – with its ‘design’. And where he does come inside the shapes to address the tone and colour of what is there, it is only to emphasize the nodal quality of the knuckles (usually dark or warm and wrinkled), and to bring out the sinews – across the back of the hand, for instance.



(detail) from above

The nails might be left pail to emphasize the outline of the nail and so the finger tips, and the flesh, such that there is any, is left as pale webs stretching between fingers. The fingers are usually elongated, certainly never stumpy and often they’re visually ‘larger than life’ – that’s not to say their proportions are enlarged but visually enlarged so they have presence – as might a charismatic actor.


‘Self-Portrait with Hands on Chest’ Egon Schiele

They’re not what you’d call nice hands. Overall they have a skeletal quality. They are I think, vulnerable hands such as they have drawn into them, mortality. Yet at the same time, they are ‘vital’ because they look as though they have strived and could continue to do so. So in the end, in spite of their weird visual quality, they are very human hands.




‘Helping Russia’ Käthe Kollwitz

The German artist Käthe Kollwitz saw both World Wars (she died in 1945, sadly just days before peacetime) and her drawings are very much about the suffering of people in times of hardship. She was an artist of the people, for the people – a force for the good, rather in the way Honore Daumier was.


‘Solidarity’ by Käthe Kollwitz

The hands in Käthe Kollwitz’s drawings are active, they’re generally doing – holding, pulling, clasping (the self or others) knocking at a door. They’re not really designs as flat shapes – although of course they always fit into/are consistent with the overall treatment of the drawing as a whole, which might itself be quite stylized and full of ‘design’.


‘At the Doctor’s’ Käthe Kollwitz

So again they’re not objective drawings of hands; they’re loaded with expression – not just expression in terms of what the hands are doing – in (say) helping (as in ‘Helping Russia’) or (say) protecting (as in ‘The Survivors’) or showing tenderness (as in ‘Head of Child in its Mother’s Hands’) but in the way they are drawn – in the quality of the line(s) and mark-making, in the expressiveness of the artist making marks.




The subjects are grim and the images hard to look at (as they have to be to speak truthfully) and to write here alongside them of their ‘expressive qualities’ seems almost morally repugnant and exploitative. I don’t think it would if the drawings weren’t as good as they are – it they didn’t do their work so well. But they do. They say all that needs to be said…


At times they are almost unbearable but they are very worth looking at.

To jump a moment, there was a time in Picasso’s art when he drew (sometimes in paint) hands in the mannerist style – that is the style of the late renaissance – when there was a lot of elongation of forms – such as in hands.


‘The Frugal Repast’ Pablo Picasso

You can see this well in his drawing called ‘The Frugal Repast’ where the fingers are long, slim and tapering and speak of the hard times through which the couple are living. (You can see it again in some of his paintings of saltimbanques.)


Again this stylization is far from an objective interpretation of a hand drawn from life.


‘A Family of Saltimbanques’ (detail) Pablo Picasso’

But in a way, such stylizations allow for hands to be drawn from life quite rapidly and expressively.


I’m not suggesting you draw stylized hands in the way of these artists, I’m simply trying to say why hands are worth looking at and worth drawing, and I guess you might make very successful art were you never to draw anything but hands.

Finally, if you wish to see what effect the editing out of hands has, you could do worse than to look again to Egon Schiele’s drawings.


For, with his typically incandescent talent for figure drawing, having ‘followed the rules’ by attending to the extremities of figures, around 1910 he breaks them by experimenting with ‘chopping off’ hands, feet, arms and legs, left, right and centre, playing with the spaces around the figure, with the shapes bounded by the limits of the support and what is left of the figure.

*Note to image copyright holders: this essay is intended for educational use and to provoke discussion and is not written for profit.

Text Only © Nicholas Ferenczy 0ctober 2011
(Text may be used for not for profit purposes.
Please do give a credit.)



















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