This short tutorial is a just a small taste of a larger and much more in-depth book I wrote called The Mad Art of Caricature! The book is 175 full-color pages, lavishly illustrated and contains greatly expanded explanations of the concepts presented in this tutorials, as well and a great deal of additional material on caricaturing other facial features, posture, hands, expression and more, techniques on drawing from live models, doing caricature for freelance illustration and for MAD Magazine. This is a must have book for anyone interested in caricature, cartooning or humorous illustration. You can order it online here.
How to Draw Hands
Easily the most asked question I get is “how do you draw caricatures?”. However a close runner up is “how do you draw hands?”. I’m not exactly the king of drawing hands, but I have made a special study of them as they are very important when doing comic book type work… hands and their gestures are a big part of “acting” and therefore of storytelling.
Next to faces, hands are probably the most expressive and intricate part of the human form. In fact, humans probably spend more time looking at their hands than they do looking at anything else over their entire lives. Being that we are all so familiar with the way hands look, a poorly drawn hand sticks out like a sore thumb (sorry about the pun). Oddly enough, hands are something that most artists struggle to draw well. So, with that in mind I thought I’d do a tutorial on my approach to drawing hands.
I’m a cartoonist at heart, so the hands I draw are not realistic hands by most definitions. However my style of cartooning lends itself more to realistic representation than, say, a certain four fingered gloved mouse or other much more cartoony characters do. Therefore a lot of the information in this tutorial will apply to drawing hands realistically as well as in more cartoon form. I’ll attempt to explain the basic anatomy of a hand, things to keep in mind at all times when drawing them and common mistakes and issues that plague many artists when drawing hands.
Breaking Down Hand Structure
As with drawing anything, it all starts with an understanding of the basic form and structure of your subject matter. Hands are certainly no different. In fact, many of the most common problems with drawing hands stems from incorrect notions of the form of the hand. I’m not a big stickler for memorizing the names of muscles and bones because it seems to zone people out when you start tossing around “Carpal this” and “Metatarsal that”… however labels are something that some people need to be able to apply, so some general surface anatomy with layman’s terms seems to be the best approach. Here is a breakdown of a hand with the important surface elements labeled:
Not really much to it, is there? Everybody knows what knuckles and fingernails are. Where an artist gets tripped up is not understanding how they relate to one another, and how they move in relationship to one another when the hand starts doing its thing. Things like how the knuckles line up, where the pad creases fall, how the fingers bend and interact… these are all important elements to drawing convincing hand gestures.
These are the principal area of the underside of hand
Relationships of Hand Structure
I can sum up the biggest problem most beginners have with drawing hands in one word: CURVES. For some reason people seem to insist that hands are made up of straight lines.. fingers are parallel to each other (they are not), knuckles line up in a row (no) the edges of the hand are straight and parallel (nope!), Once an artist starts seeing the curves in the hands and thinking of them as flexible objects made of multiple parts, they quickly improve their hand drawings.
Fingers- Everybody knows (or should) that the fingers are not all the same length. Our naughty middle finger is the longest, and the pointer and ring fingers along side are almost the same length (ring is a little shorter). The pinky is the odd man out, being much shorter. That of course forms a curve along the top of the hand. What is often missed is that arc of that curve is not just a function of the length of the fingers, because the knuckles are also curved. Pinky therefore is not only shorter it’s set farther down into the hand, giving it the double whammy. Ring finger is actually the same length as pointer, but it appears shorter because it’s knuckle is lower on the hand than pointer’s.
Likewise the pads of fingers are not the same size, and the creases that define the separation between the pads are very staggered. Pinky’s first crease (down from the tip) lines up with ring finger’s SECOND crease. The tip of pinky lines up with ring’s FIRST crease.
Knuckles- Each finger has three knuckles on the back of the hand. The main knuckle is located at the base of each finger. The two minor knuckles farther up toward the tip. The main knuckle is knobby and has tendons that cross it creating a corded look running up into the finger. The second knuckle is covered with a very circular wrinkled surface, and the smallest final knuckle is indicated with some horizontal creases. You would think the knuckles would line up with the corresponding separations between the pads on the underside of each finger, but you’d be wrong. Curl your pointer finger and look from the side… the second knuckle and the pad crease under it exactly line up. However the smaller upper knuckle is more forward on the finger than the crease below it. That’s nothing compared to the main knuckle. Here is where a lot of people get confused with hands. Open your hand and look at it palm toward you. Look at the base of each finger. Many people think the knuckle of the finger rests directly behind the crease that represents the base of the finger right under the bottom finger pad. Now turn your hand around. That main knuckle is SIGNIFICANTLY lower on the hand. In fact it’s below the upper pad of the palm that curve below all the fingers. A lot more of your finger resides inside the palm/body than you might think. Understanding that is a big part of figuring out hands.
The Thumb- The thumb is a shorter, meatier version of the fingers. It has only two knuckles, one of which is hidden when extended. Compared to the fingers the thumb is much more diverse in it’s movements. It has a base that I think of as the meaty part of a chicken drumstick, and that drumstick can rotate inward, across and in circles from the palm. The “drumstick” of the thumb sort of coexists with the thinner drumstick of the outer part of the hand, which is a little like the bottom extension of the pinky. These two larger elements frame the hand and the palm. When drawing the thumb the curved vs. straight lines that define it’s form is important.
The Palm- This is the area between the fingers and the wrist, and the thumb and the outside “heel” of the hand. This is an often misunderstood area. Roughly square/rectangular in shape, it’s got asymmetrical curved sides, and is made up of three major elements: Thumb pad, outer pad and upper pad. Many drawing books want you to think of the hand as a rectangular block from which the fingers and thumb protrude, but that is where many people get into trouble. You must think of the hand as more flexible and curved than that. Think of the pads as three separate elements that combine to make that curves “shovel” shape. They can roll in on one another, and create a hollow pocket or spread out and be almost flat.
Fingernails– often glossed over, the fingernails have a curved, narrow base, straight sides that fan out as they approach the tip of the finger, then have a very curved top. Women’s nails are often grown out past the end of the fingertip. The are slightly recessed as they grow out from under the skin.
What to Look for When Drawing Hands
Trying to describe how to draw a hand in every imaginable position would be an impossible task. There are too many and hands themselves have different shapes and sizes. Fortunately you are never far away from a perfect source of reference for any hand position… the end of your arms, in fact. I have a small mirror near my drawing table and often pose my hands when I am struggling with a certain hand position. Still there are a number of tips and common issues that I would suggest an artist look out for when drawing hands in general:
CURVES– I cannot emphasize that enough. Knuckles curve when the hand is open or when it’s in a fist. Looking at a fist from the knuckles you see that the act of making the fist curve the back of the hand from thumb to pinky. Hands that are reaching or gesturing also have a thumb to pinky curve to them. Curves, curves, curves. Hands with more than just a few straight lines are stiff and unnatural.
Fingers– Remember that the length of the fingers are different, but the action of the hand also changes the way fingers relate. Fingers are rarely ever side by side. They tend to overlap and stagger their positions between each other. When you hold a curved object like a bottle, for example, your fingers overlap and your pointer tends to be back farther than the other three fingers, which crowd together. Look for that when you pose your hands. Nothing looks less natural than four perfectly parallel fingers. Even in repose, your fingers will not be parallel. In a relaxed state, they naturally separate and crowd each other at random. Your pinky tends to separate from the other most often but not always.
Remember the Meat!– That sounds graphic but your hands are made up of a lot of meaty muscle and padding. When they squeeze or clench or cup they pinch and gather all that meat in ways that make for a lot of creases, wrinkles and lumps. Remember the three important pads of the palm. The thumb and outer pads stay roughly that “drumstick” shape, but the upper pad does a lot more curving and bending, and it bulges up a lot as the fingers move toward the thumb. Your hand is thickest across the lower palm.
Men’s vs. Women’s Hands– Men’s hands are thicker, with bigger fingers and a meatier palm whereas women’s hands are slimmer, with thinner fingers and palm. They are also typically smaller than men’s hands. Women’s nails when long create difficulties drawing fingertips. I just give women pointy fingertips and suggest the nail rather than trying to articulate the end of the finger… unless it’s a close up of the hand and then I have to draw the whole thing.
People hate it when I say this, but learning to draw hands is all about practicing. If you want to be able to draw something convincingly without relying on perfect reference, you need to develop an instinct for drawing that something… and that means drawing a lot of it. As I said before, you have the perfect reference source with you at all times. Spend some time observing your hands. Place your fingers and thumb on your dominant hand and move that hand around while you feel the muscles and bones beneath. Observe how the basic elements of the hand we have discussed move, rotate, flex and relax amid different movements. It’s funny, but the hands that people draw end up looking like their own hands… probably because they not only use their own hands for reference, but they have been staring at they hands for their entire lives and that’s what hands look like to them. If you ever meet Mort Drucker (a master of drawing hands) and look at his hands, they are the same hands he draws on his MAD men characters! Wide hands with thick, short fingers. The hands I draw have long fingers with knobby knuckles… just like my own hands. One exercise I do is to try and draw a hand in some position just out of your head, then pose your own hand and observe where you went wrong.
One piece of advice… don’t knock yourself out in your work trying to do some impossible hand gesture. Some hand positions are simple awkward by nature, and even drawing them correctly looks weird. If a hand position just isn’t working, come up with a different solution rather than banging your head against the wall. Most people have a “repertoire” of hand positions and gestures they will use a lot, and stick with them. As long as your repertoire is sufficiently large and varied, you can easily get away with this.
The other thing to do is look at hands as drawn by others. You can see how they solved certain problems or positions and learn from it. There are a few books on the subject, but for sheer volume of example George Bridgman‘s “The Book of a Hundred Hands” is a great one. Lot’s of impossible hand positions in that one.
Here are a bunch of examples of hand drawings I’ve done in MAD and elsewhere just for reference:
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