Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Hands in My Figure Painting Look Like Sausages

Hand painting can be a problematic area if the brain insists that the hand is but a square piece of flesh with five tube-like digits extending from it. Combined with the idealised pink colour, it is small wonder that a painting of hands could end up looking like sausages or unconvincing in some other way. What is the secret to painting hands effectively?

How Not to Paint Hands

How to Paint Hands in Oils
Rachel Shirley
The following problem areas when painting the hand can wreak havoc to figure painting, but when addressed and tackled head-on, the artist can begin to make improvements.
  • Painting the hands and the arms too small and thin in relation to the body.
  • Portraying hands in a generalised way that does not set them apart from anyone else’s hands due to lack of observation.
  • Painting only what the brain knows about hands rather than what the eye actually sees. For example, the palm is square; it is attached to a cylindrical wrist; it has five digits extending from it. Each finger exhibits a fingernail which has a crescent-shaped marking and (except for the thumb) bends at two points.
  • Using flesh tint or pink pigment to represent the flesh tones of the hand.
  • Using black to darken skin tones for the shadows around the hands.
  • Using dark lines to represent the creases on the palms and on the folds around the joints.
  • Painting fingers as extended when they are in foreshortened view or pointing at the viewer.
  • Using poor photographic reference, forcing the artist to guess some of the detail in the hands.
How to Draw Hands

To get to grips with painting hands, it is necessary to draw them accurately. The beauty of this is that the artist’s own hands are always available as a subject matter. Sketching hands at different angles is great practice for the figure painter. Try drawing the hand splayed out initially then try more challenging forms, such as:
  1. Hand in a fist.
  2. Hand holding a pencil.
  3. Fingers curled gently inwards.
  4. Finger pointing at the viewer.
  5. Handing holding a cup of tea.
  6. Hand resting palm upwards.
Drawing hands with foreshortened aspects can be particularly tricky, because this creates a dilemma in the brain: the finger is long, and yet it appear to be stub-like. Once the brain overcomes what it knows about the hand and paints only what it sees, drawing other hand postures will seem less daunting.

How to Improve Hand Painting

It is important to remember that hands are not only lines, but areas of colour and tone. Half closing the eyes and getting an overall view of how these abstract variations in skin colour are arranged will help in rendering more realistic paintings of hands. The following tips on painting hands will also help.
  • Hands are much bigger in relation to the body than beginners often assume. This is because the brain assigns hands as less important than the head, and so represents this importance in size. The arms too are often represented as too thin. The length of an adult hand equals three-quarters the height of the head and the wrist is usually just a little narrower than the palm.
  • The hand is also a more complex form than is often represented, consisting of sinews, muscles, hair, knuckles, wrinkles, cuticles and padding.
  • Forget what the subject matter is when painting hands. This will help dispel any assumptions about what the hand “should” look like. View the hand as abstract forms and shapes. Observe the negative space between the fingers, as well as the shapes of the subject matter itself. If painting from a photograph, try turning it upside down.
  • Hands can possess a multitude of colours that may not always be expected. Bin the black and the flesh tint. Mix colours from scratch. Oil pigments I often find in hands are: white, permanent rose, ultramarine blue, cadmium red, burnt sienna, burnt umber and pthalo blue. Other colours such as greens, violets and greys can also be found in hands. Interesting colours can be found in fingers that are backlit, allowing the artist to see blood colours shining through, or reflections from neighbouring clothing.
Painting babies’ hands or those of young children often requires a different approach, as they are much smaller in relation to the body than adults. The infant hand contains softer curves and fewer imperfections.

Oil Painting Techniques for Hands

Figure Painting in Oil
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Many art techniques would be suitable for hand painting, but using alkyd oils or oil washes would be ideal. Known as glazing, this entails the application of translucent oil paint to modify the colour beneath. Using different colours in strategic areas of the hand painting will allow the artist to express subtle variations in colour and tone. Using soft sables for dry brushing and blending detail towards the end will enable the artist to bring out form by dragging a little white or cream paint onto highlights and a little burnt umber and permanent rose for the darks.

Links on Skin Colours and Figure Painting

Books on Figure Painting
Books on Oil Painting for Beginners
How to Paint Skin Tones in Portraits
How to Paint Figures

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