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Skin, muscle, and bones: The complicated process of painting a human hand

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Hands are one of the most complicated shapes of the human body. This article shares a bit about my technique and approach to painting hands.

I’ve received a lot of Facebook comments recently about my painting techniques, specifically my treatment of hands.

Hands are some of the most difficult and rewarding body parts to paint. They represent our ability to manipulate and change the environment around us and are our primary means of creating action.

Hands help create the motion, action, and dynamism of a painting. (Detail from "The Guardian Warrior.")

Anatomy education

Many artists struggle with hands. Before I went to art school, I could create hands fairly well. But after going to school, my representation of hands improved dramatically.

Hand study from my student days at Rhode Island School of Design

One of the keys for my expertise in creating hands was to learn specifically about human anatomy, including taking anatomy courses at Brown University and viewing medical cadavers so that I could see the musculature and the vascular systems.

There are more layers to the hand than you might think! You can look at charts and feel your own hands, but seeing the underlying structures was essential in my understanding.

Composition details

When I compose a painting, I spend time specifically composing the hands. There is a fine balance that an artist needs to find: the hand cannot be so dynamic that it looks unnatural, nor can it be so simple that it looks fake or club-like.

I start by first defining the larger shapes and structure at a macro level, beginning with a mitt-like form. Then, I add a structure—akin to a wireframe—to define the mechanical aspects of the hand’s movements.

Once I have this foundation in place, I can draw lines from each junction of the metacarpals and then create directional angles from the knuckles. This step is important to help properly define the hand. The nature of the hand is to be dynamic and the digits have to move correctly or the viewer will know something is “off”, even if they cannot identify the problem explicitly.

After creating proper angles, I focus on what I want the hand to do with the rest of the composition: how the shapes of the hands interact with the other shapes of the painting, focus on the negative space created by the four fingers and one thumb, etc.

Only after completing this analysis do I start working on any detail such as skin, veins, or muscles.

Gender differences

When I add details to the hands is when I focus on the visible gender differences in the hands. Male hands have greater size, bulk, and strength than a woman’s hands with much more dramatic ligaments.

Male flute player from "Allure of the Flute Player"

With my female portrayals, I try to strike a balance between strength and femininity.

Hand detail from "Daytime Gaze"

As with all people who inhabited the West in the 19 th century, the women I paint had to work to survive. Between toting water, weaving baskets, and sewing garments, these women developed strong, tanned hands.

The challenge for me as an artist is make the female hands look realistic and sturdy without making them look too rugged and masculine.

The hands of a young Navajo shepherdess

Examples of hands in my paintings

I hope you have enjoyed this brief view into my technique and thought processes for creating realistic hands.

If you would like to see more examples of hands in my paintings, please visit my Sold Work page where you can view hundreds of thumbnails of my work. From there, you can click on any piece that catches your eye and see the painting in detail.

Interested in reading more about how I compose my paintings? Please visit the James Ayers Painting Process page.


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