Hands: Adding Character and Likeness to Your Portraits

Art Collector
June/July 2009.

Art Collector 2009: HandsYou have often heard that many people judge the quality of the hands. Adding expression and personality, the addition of hands can greatly increase the interest and likeness to any portrait.

Several years ago I was in New York City and visited my mentor , Everett Raymond Kinstler. During our time together, I shared several portraits I was currently working on in my studio. As he reviewed the portraits in progress he began to point out several areas that could be strengthened. in particular he felt the hands needed to be more fully “realized.” As he reflected on this crucial element of my portraits he was reminded of his friend and mentor John C. Johansesn (1876-1964) and their similar meetings to discuss paintings in progress over 40 years before.

Over his long and illustrious career, Johansen had created hundreds of hand studies as he worked to grow as an artist. Many of them painted on old canvas panels, over the top of abandoned paintings, or even the tops of a wooden cigar box. He was a firm believer in the power of sketches. he felt an artist should constantly be observing and completing studies or “statements,” in an effort to understand the world around him or in this case, something as specific as the human hand. Oer the years these studies had become a source of reference for his finished work. Johansesn would often share these studies with the young Kinstler to illustrate his point during these valuable sessions.

That day, as I enjoyed a masters’s critique in that same studio where Kinstler and Johansen had met years before, my teacher vanished in a small areal beneath the steps leading to the loft. When he reappeared from the stacks of canvases he had a couple of the great Johansen’s hand studies under his arm. We examined them, every stroke and edge, and discussed the significance of the strength and power of gesture. I loved the bold, confident brushwork and complete understanding of the anatomy. “Painted from the inside out,” explained Kinstler.

Today, as I reflect on this experience the lessons still ring true: the value of making studies or “statements” as an avenue to gaining knowledge and experience, the importance of solid construction, the power and strength of gesture over detail.

To begin your study of hands, spend time drawing, using your sketchbook to create quick drawings of hands. the study possibilities are endless and variety of poses is valuable.

For the school of painting I study, by far the most important factor in painting hands is capturing the gesture. Hands are as characteristic of the sitter as their face, but usually the way a person uses their hands expressively in pose is more valuable than the detail added to them. Clasping the hands together in a prayerful pose creates a distinctly different feeling than does a fist with the thumbs hooked on a man’s belt. An artist wants to ceated hands in a composition that are characteristic of the personality and pose of the sitter.

When painting the hands after understanding the gesture, stucture the hand in simple planes. See the top portion of the hand as one plane, from the knuckles to the first bend of the fingers and the second plane, and the first bend to the tip of the fingers as the second plane, and the first bend to the tip as the third plane. Keep in mind that the hand is structured very much likea box. It has a top and sides. The fingers are stuctured similarly in a planed, box-like fashion. Simplify hands where you can, but you may find that the sugestion of veins in the top of the hand or fingernails a valueable addition.

Ultimately, the addition of handgs to any portait ceates and opportunity for the artist to strenght likeness and expression. Thes interesting forms can ceate. strength, gentility, elegance or even inteinsity in a well conceived and composed painting. never shy aweay fom employing this useful and powerful element to any figurative work.