How to Draw Hands: A Step-By-Step Tutorial
Here’s the simple truth about drawing: how you think about your subject is how you will draw it. If you see the hand as an impossible mess of muscle, bone, tendon, and flesh, that’s exactly how you’ll draw hands on your paper.
I’m going to teach you a step-by-step strategy that will help you simplify the forms of the hand. You’ll begin by drawing the largest forms of the hand and work toward the smallest details.
This is the hand we’ll be working with. Study it and refer back to it throughout the following six steps.
Step 1: Simplify the palm & wrist
When starting a drawing we want to approach our subject as simply as possible. Ask yourself: What are the biggest forms of the hand?
The biggest forms of the hand are the palm and wrist. We include the wrist because the bones and tendons of the hand extend well into the forearm.
Ignoring all detail, I’ll first draw the sides of the palm section of the hand (lines A & B in the following image). These lines flow directly out of the lines for the wrist (lines C & D).
Next, I’ll draw the curving line where the hand connects to the wrist (E). Finally, I’ll draw the line of the palm where the fingers attach. In this pose, the line can be divided into two sections. The first is where the index and ring fingers connect (F), and the second contains the ring and pinky fingers (G).
This step should be drawn very lightly. It’s meant to help us construct the rest of the hand, but should not be visible at the end of the drawing.
Step 2: Simplify the thumb & fingers
Next, I’ll draw the basic shapes of the thumb and fingers. Pay particular attention to where the fingers attach to the palm. Before drawing the shapes of the fingers, you may want to mark where they connect to the palm. For example, look at line A to B. In this pose, the connection between the index and middle fingers is in the middle.
You can also see that each finger has its own unique character. For example, the straight segments of the index finger bend at an angle while the pinky has a subtle s-curve (E).
In this pose, the thumb appears to emerge out of a large ovoid (line F) and tends to be thicker than any of the fingers.
Pay particular attention to the length of each finger in relationship to the palm. I like to visualize an imaginary line that connects the fingertips to one another (G). This helps me draw the shapes of the fingers at the right sizes in relationship to the palm and to one another.
Once again, this step should be drawn lightly.
Step 3: Simplify the volumes
Next, we’ll turn these flat, basic shapes into three-dimensional volumes. These volumes can change depending on the pose so we don’t want to default to a one-size-fits-all system.
The volume for the palm is usually a box (A). This box contains the metacarpals, the bones that extend from the wrist to the first set of knuckles.
Each finger is divided into three segments. Each segment will generally be cylindrical, although they can sometimes appear boxier. You can see that the cylinder at the base of the index finger (B) is larger than the second segment of the finger (C). The final segment of the finger tapers and rounds into an ovoid at the fingertip (D).
Pay close attention to the ellipses of these cylinders. They tell the viewer if the cylinders tilt toward us or away from us and how much.
The thumb only has 2 segments (E & F) that emerge out of an ovoid (G). Depending on the pose, sometimes this ovoid can appear more like a triangular wedge.
I have simplified the wrist into a box.
Like Steps 1 and 2, this step should be drawn lightly.
Step 4: Simplify light & shadow
The goal of this step is to understand and draw the basic light and shadow patterns of the hand.
First, we need to understand where the light is coming from. We can see that the shadows tend to be on the left sides of the forms of the hand so we know the light is coming from the right.
We’ll focus on three kinds of shadows: the core shadow, reflected light, and the cast shadow.
The core shadow is the dark band we see running along the length of the fingers (A). A core shadow occurs when curved forms turn away from the light and go into shadow. It’s soft-edged on both sides.
We see the reflected light to the left of the core shadow (B). The reflected light is light reflected back onto the subject from nearby surfaces. The reflected light is lighter than the core shadow, but not as bright as the parts of the hand hit with direct light.
The thumb and fingers have similar light and shadow patterns.
Finally, we have the cast shadow. A cast shadow occurs when direct light from the light source is completely blocked. In this case, the index finger is blocking light from hitting the part of the palm directly to its left. The cast shadow is the darkest shadow.
We can also see a shadow cast by the ring finger onto the box of the palm and a shadow cast by the thumb onto the wrist.
Step 5: Add detail & complexity
A successful drawing creates the illusion of three-dimensional form. This is accomplished by successful shading and details that accentuate the volume of the subject. Take a look at the core shadow starting at the tip of the index finger. Follow it as it runs down the finger toward the palm. This core shadow (A) appears more jagged than the core shadow drawn in step four. This finished core shadow includes the folds and textures of the surface of the finger. Despite more detail, the core shadow and reflected light are still distinct.
Next, look at the contours of the hand. The outer contour constantly dives inside the form creating overlaps. An overlap occurs when one line dives in front of another. This tells the viewer that one part of the form is in front of another. When an outer contour dives inside the form it becomes an inner contour. Inner contours can travel over the surface of the form.
For example, look at overlap B. It tells us that this segment of the finger is in front of the middle segment. Overlap C tells us the middle segment is in front of the base of the figure. When overlap C dives inside the form, you can see it rise and fall as it moves over the topography of the finger.
Overlaps also provide an opportunity for ellipses. Where one segment of the thumb overlaps the other (D) the line travels up and over the thumb creating an ellipse. This ellipse was first established in step three.
This drawing contains dozens of overlap and ellipses. How many can you see?
You can choose to include as many details as you like. Just keep the volumes, proportions, and shadow patterns from the previous steps.
Step 6: How to practice
Like any skill, drawing hands requires practice. For most students, the hardest part is drawing the basic volumes of hand in proportion to one another. After that, shading and details become much easier.
Fully shaded drawings of hands are great practice. But I also recommend doing quick sketches of the hand in different poses. These quick studies will help you understand the essential forms of the hand. Constructing these basic volumes is the most important part of successful hand drawing.
The human hand is an advanced subject that requires strong fundamental drawing skills. When you’re ready, this process will give you the skills you need to draw accurate, dynamic hands.
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