Today, we’re going to make drawing hands easy (or at least easier!). All with the help of a slice of bread. But more on that later.
Hand Anatomy 101
First, let’s take a quick look at the anatomy of the hand. We’re not going to use too much anatomy, so this is really just background information that might come in handy (pun intended).
- Hand bones (in blue): from the base of the palm, we’re going to have some wrist bones, and then branching out from there and travelling through the palm are some ‘metacarpal’ bones. Those turn into the fingers, as in the diagram above. By the time you get to the fingers, they’ve already started to branch out, which is why there are gaps between the fingers at their base.
- Muscles (in red): There are three muscles that we want to learn about. On the palm side, there’s the muscle running from the base of the palm to the thumb, and the muscle running from the little finger side of the palm. These are marked out by the red shapes in the diagram above. The diagram below shows the third muscle that we want to pay attention to which is on the top side of the palm (dorsal side): it sometimes bulges out between the thumb and the index finger (below).
- Fat: You will have some fatty pads on the palm side of the hand that bulge out slightly. This is marked out in the diagram below in yellow. On the top side of the hand it’s more skin and tendon and bone.
And that’s basic anatomy of the hand done! Let’s move on to the big idea.
The Palm Box
This palm box idea is going to make the most difference to your hand drawings. The core idea is this: the anatomy of the palm section of the hand combines to create a boxy shape. Imagine the hand with no fingers, no thumb, no wrist – just the palm section. It looks like a boxy shape, but it’s not a perfect box with parallel sides; it’s irregular. It starts off a bit more narrow at the wrist and as it goes up towards the fingers it gets a bit wider.
If we look at the hand from above, as in the diagram below, we can see the plane that runs around the knuckles is not a straight line. These knuckles run along a curve. That curve peaks its highest at the middle finger knuckle.
The boxy shape ends up looking like a slice of bread. You’re going to find that slice of bread shape in every hand pose. It takes practice to get good at seeing it, so let’s spend a moment working on how to visualise this shape.
I always explain it in a slightly gruesome way: to visualise the curved side of the palm box at the knuckles, you’ve got to imagine the fingers all being chopped off. Below is an example of what I mean:
Now, lets look at the plane on the side of the thumb – probably the trickiest side. In the example below, you can see how I’m visualising that plane as if the thumb weren’t there, as if it were chopped off.
Here’s another example below from a different angle and a different thumb position. Again, I’m chopping that thumb straight off along the side of the palm to get my simplified shape.
The aim is really to end up with a simplifed shape that ignores the thumb. Visualising that takes some practice.
In terms of chopping it off at the wrist, it can be confusing when the hand is bent at the wrist. A lot of people want to bend the palm box along with the wrist, but you don’t want to do that. Instead, just imagine those metacarpals running from the knuckles back through the palm, and visualise a plane that runs perpendicular to those. Here’s an example below.
Now, one added complication here is that the palm box is also not flat. It’s got a bit of an arch to it. If you look at some fingers from the front, you’ll see the arch I’m referring to. It’s like the slice of bread is a little bit bent.
I often just don’t include that arch in my initial boxy palm shape. This keeps things simple. But then as I build up the hand drawing, I’ll bring in that arch idea. In some cases if I’m looking at a hand from the front, as in the example above, I will focus on that arch. But then I might forget about the curve going through those knuckles. It’s just so hard to imagine both the curve of the knuckles and the arch at the same time! So I’ll probably end up thinking more about one and less the other, and then as I build up the drawing I can bring out more ideas.
So, that is the palm box. The palm box is the thing to really practice and spend time on because once you can throw that down, you’re going to be halfway there with every hand you draw.
Next up, we’re going to add either fingers or a thumb, depending on what you want to add next. Let’s talk about the thumb first.
- There’s the form that actually attaches onto the palm box (marked on the diagram below in red). This form is sort of embedded into the palm box. It’s often an egg like shape.
- The little cylindrical bit in the middle (marked on the diagram below in yellow)
- And then the thumb tip, the bit that you would give your thumb print with (marked on the diagram below in pink)
The thumb has a wide range of motion. It can be held in front of the palm as in the example above, or to the side of the palm as in the example below. When the thumb is pulled across to the side of the palm, it can create a triangular wedge shape:
However it’s held, I normally look for an egg shape. If the thumb is out to the side of palm, the egg shape is usually flatter. If it is held out perpendicular to the palm, the egg shape becomes stronger and more rounded.
The middle section of the thumb (in yellow in the diagrams) is more or less a simple cylinder. This cylinder that may get narrower in the middle.
Now, for the thumb tip. I don’t really have a useful analogy because it’s a distinctive form on its own. It’s a little bit rounded, it’s got a flattened top, one side kind of curves back, and then the other side curves back even stronger.
You can see it all the time on your own hands, so you’ve got a really good reference point for what this form looks like and you can practice drawing it from different angles.
Now that we’ve gone over the three forms of the thumb, we can introduce a major skill that you need when you’re drawing hands: these simplified forms are always going to overlap in different ways.
Being able to overlap your simple forms and hide one thing behind another is actually something our brains resist. Our brains often try to draw forms like they’re separate and not overlapped but if you can overlap them, you’re going to bring a sense of depth.
Before we get to drawing the fingers, I think it’s worth thinking about the knuckles.
The knuckles are pretty big structures that are embedded into the palm, and they’re often overlapped. A lot of people will kind of stretch them out as it’s they’re not overlapped. So, I think sometimes it’s useful to think of the knuckles as four ball shapes set into that palm box, and think about how each ball shape is overlapping the other.
When it comes to the fingers, we know that there are three sections to each finger and there are four fingers, so that’s 12 forms just in the fingers. We’ve already been through four simplified forms so far in this lesson (one palm box and three forms in the thumb). This is why hands are so difficult. We’ve potentially got 16 different forms going in different directions in 3D space and we’re trying to draw them in a coherent way.
So, the first thing that I’d recommend is to find a line or a curve that unifies those fingers in some way. Here’s an example.
We might firstly be able to forget about the separate 12 forms in the fingers, and instead think about the simple planes that they create. To do that, we can find the curve starting at the knuckles and from there find a broader plane, turning this group of fingers into one boxy shape. The fewer the forms, the better.
But what if the fingers seem like they’re each going in different directions, as in the example below? It’s not as easy to turn these fingers into simple planes.
Very often, the fingers are not arranged randomly. Generally speaking, the fingers usually work together so that even when they’re separate, often there is still a unifying curve running through the knuckles or through the fingertips. So I’d recommend finding the most obvious of those and drawing that in. Even though the fingers are going in different directions, there’s still a kind of gestural through flow, like a connection through those. And I want to put that down to help me get started with them.
Now, eventually you’re going to have to draw the actual forms of the fingers. Thinking about them as three cylindrical sections is really useful for that.
Here are a few tips to avoid the temptation to turn the fingers into sausages that bulge out on every side:
- Remember that fingers usually taper down towards the ends
- When you look at the side of the finger, it’s usually flatter on one edge (the top side) and curved on the other (the palm side)
- Try to bring out the gap between the fingers – I have found that really helps to avoid the sausage finger look.
When it comes to proportions, generally speaking, the length from the wrist to the middle finger knuckle is about the same distance as as the middle finger kunckle to the end of the finger. Also worth noting, as you go away from the palm, each section of the finger gets a little bit shorter.
A lot of these proportions will appear differently on the palm side of the hand because we tend to think of the palm as going up to the webbing of the fingers rather than the knuckles. So it just kind of feels like the proportions are different on the front side versus the back of the hand. It’s something to keep in mind.
Of course, it’s worth noting that a lot of this goes out of the window with foreshortening!
The key skill that I would recommend you to spend the most time is not so much standard proportions or anatomy, but simple forms. Seeing the simple forms and trying to overlap them is an incredibly powerful exercise, not just for hands but for your drawing skills in general. If you were to spend 10 or 15 minutes each evening just sketching your own hand in a really relaxed way, thinking about those simple forms and overlapping them, it’s going to have a big payoff for your drawing skills.
For more anatomy guides, check out our library of anatomy tutorials here
If you want to learn more about simplified forms, check out our free mini course, the Fresh Eyes Challenge. It’s a ten-day course and it contains some super powerful and effective drawing exercises.
If you enjoyed this tutorial and you’re learning to draw figures, I would highly recommend checking out our free PDF guide to figure drawing. It gives you all the skills that you need to work on in order, and then asks you questions to figure out which skill you need to work on next, and gives you links to thte tutorials you need to learn those skills.