Hands, What’s the Point?

Artists have long enjoyed the addition of hands to any portrait and suffered over the consequences! You’ve often heard that many people judge the quality of the portrait by the quality of the hands. Adding expression and personality, the addition of hands can greatly increase interest and likeness to any portrait. 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 the 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 thumb hooked on a man’s belt. An artists wants to create hands in a composition that are characteristic of the personality and pose of the sitter.

The study of hands should remain a lifelong pursuit. Take time to do studies of hands whenever you can. This may be for a commissioned portrait or for your own growth as an artist. John C. Johnasen, one of Mr. Kinstler’s amazing teachers, had a passion for painting hands. In his lifetime he completed hundreds of studies, placing the hands of both men and women in most any pose and lighting condition he could think of. He kept these as references for future portraits. If he had a pose he was having difficulty with, he would search back through old sketches for inspiration. When painting the hands after understanding the gesture, structure 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 as the second plane, and the first bend to the tip of the fingers as the third plane. Keep in mind that the hand is structured very much like a box. It has a top and sides. The fingers are structured similarly in a planed, box-like fashion. Simplify hands where you can, but you may find that the suggestion of veins in the top of the hand or fingernails a valuable addition.

Portrait Society of America 2010!  I will be demonstrating an approach to painting hands at this years annual conference.  For more information go to www.portraitsociety.org

3 Responses to Hands, What’s the Point?
  1. rahina q.h.

    Hi Michael, amazing how the obvious is often overlooked. The two portraits of the women and their hands are wonderful! Are these in oils and what size are they? r.

  2. MIchael Shane Neal

    Hi Rahina,

    Thanks for your post. Yes oil on canvas. Both portraits are near life size. They can be seen in larger format on my website: http://www.michaelshaneneal.com

  3. Candace X. Moore

    Michael, Great post. Have been studying Anders Zorn lately, and always marvel at how a few simple, well designed brushstrokes can convey the complex structure of a hand. Just found your blog, very informative. Best regards.