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How to Draw Hands, a Step-by-Step Guide

How to draw hands - article title

As you no doubt have already figured out, drawing hands is not an easy task. The forms change dramatically depending on the gesture, and like with all good drawing we have to keep a lot of things in mind at once: anatomy, proportions, expression, etc.

Since drawing hands is complicated, we are going to do what we did successfully in other tutorials, we are going to break it down into simple, easy to understand sections. At the end of this article, I have compiled a checklist you can download to check against your drawings of hands.

If I had to summarize drawing hands in one paragraph, I would say: know some anatomy, then start with the shape and angle of the palm, then block-in the shape and silhouette of the entire hand, while minding proportions, before drawing the details or individual fingers. We will go through this process step-by-step below.

Drawing hands encompasses having control over six areas, they are:

  1. Shape
  2. Landmarks
  3. Proportion
  4. Basic anatomy
  5. Expression
  6. Drawing method, step-by-step

It is easy to group 1 through 3 under anatomy in general, but there is more to learn under some of these topics than just anatomy. Therefore, we will consider each one of them in turn as we learn to draw hands.

In preparation for this tutorial, I drew hundreds of hand studies over a period of 10 days, in my 10-day hand drawing challenge. Learning to draw is a discipline requiring both the acquisition of deep knowledge and its application while you draw. It works best when you learn something and apply it to drawing the same day, and then again over the next few days to solidify your understanding. if you are interested in drawing hands well, I highly encourage you to take this challenge. Details on my 10-day hand drawing challenge can be found here. 

If you need more help on learning to draw hands and anything in general, head over to the Academy. There, I teach how to draw hands by building a visual library. The methods are more complex and are provided at Step 16 in my course Learn to Draw in 18 Steps.

Without further ado, let’s get started with an overview of the basic shape of the hand.

1. Consider Shape When Drawing Hands

This is a good section to start discussing the drawing process:

Draw the contour shape of the hand first, before getting into the details of what goes inside of the shape. Look at good reference (I have some great references for hand drawing at this pinterest board) and try to carefully observe what goes into the shape outline of the hand, what features are visible? Study the shape of the palm (or the back of the hand) and build the shape from there. 

Keep the following in mind when observing the shapes you are drawing:

1. There are two main masses to deal with when drawing the hand: that of the palm and the one of the thumb attached to it. These masses shift, the palm folds, but the changes are minimal compared to the movement of the fingers.

how to draw hands - shape of palm and thumb
1. Observe two main masses of the hand: that of the palm and that of the thumb.

2. The middle finger is the longest and is at the apex of an arch created by the fingers when they are extended.

how to draw hands - second finger

3. When fingers are extended, their shape has a backward curve to it. Incorporate this backward curve when drawing hands with fingers flaring out, or the drawing will not look natural.

how to draw hands - back curve when fingers extended
how to draw hands

4. The palm has an arch to it pointing inward to the knuckles. Notice that the palm of the hand has a hollow in the middle, forming a sort of a spoon-like shape, especially when the thumb is brought close to the hand.

how to draw hands - palm curvature

5. When clenched into a fist, the thumb does not stretch beyond the second finger.

how to draw hands - thumb shape

6. There is a change in the shape of the form from the forearm to the hand. The hand steps down from the way it attaches to the arm. Hold your hand out in front of you as in the diagram below, and observe this shift in planes. Make sure to indicate this in your hand drawings.

how to draw hands - step down from arm to hand

Keep the above pointers in mind regarding the shapes when drawing hands. Now let’s add some more information to your visual library by looking at important landmarks.

2. Important Landmarks for Drawing Hands

Highlighting anatomical landmarks and sometimes exaggerating them in your hand drawings will help create expressive and believable drawings.

When you are looking at a painting of an old master or a modern-day artist you really like, where anatomical landmarks seem to have been subdued and, on the surface, it may appear as though there are a bunch of straight lines creating very straight fingers barely indicating the knuckles or most masses of the palm. When you see this, know that this is only what seems to appear on the surface. Because if you are looking at a great and believable drawing of hands there is no doubt that anatomical landmarks are properly indicated, just very subtly and in a way that could be impossible to detect to an untrained eye. Yet, trained or untrained, we all see the resulting beautiful drawing.

This is why I highly recommend that if you are interested in drawing hands well that you take my 10-day hand drawing challenge. I vividly remember very subtle changes in lines and angles that indicated proper anatomical placement of features in many master drawings that I have reviewed; and that I personally could not even spot until about day 5 of the drawing challenge.

With that in mind, let’s look at the most prominent landmarks to look for in your reference, and to indicate your hand drawings.

1. Distance between the knuckles and the tip of the fingers is longer than the distance between the webbing between the fingers and the tip of the fingers on the palm side.

This means that the knuckles are set back a bit from the webbing between the fingers. Fingers appear longer due to this when looking at the back of the hand, comparative to the palm side. When drawing the back of the hand, do not place the knuckles right up against the bottom of the fingers.

Knuckles actually sit right above the horizontal fold of the palm. Hold your hand with your thumb pointing to you and your little finger pointing away from you, bend the palm and observe the location of the knuckles.

how to draw hands - webbing and knuckles

2. The second knuckle is larger and higher than the rest. It creates an arch pointed upward when the fist is formed:

how to draw hands - arch when fist is formed
how to draw hands - fist second knuckle

3. The palm is made up of three sections:

  • (1) thenar eminence (mass next to the thumb on the palm side)
  • (2) hypothenar eminence (mass under the little finger stretching to the wrist),
  • (3) The pads found right below the fingers.

Thenar eminence of the thumb is the highest of these. A detailed discussion of these is below under the anatomy section.

how to draw hands - padding of the palm
3. (note: a study of pads of the palm on the right is from Loomis’ drawing books).
how to draw hands - thenar eminence
3. See how the thenar eminence (pad of the thumb) raises above the other masses of the palm, blocking them from view in the two drawings on the right.
how to draw hands - pads palm view
how to draw hands - masses of the palm

4. There are two bones in the lower arm connecting to the wrist, the radius and the ulna. Each as they connect leaves a landmark in the form of a bump below the wrist area. These landmarks are the styloid process of the ulna and the styloid process of the radius

The styloid process of the ulna is the more visible and thus more prominent of the two of these landmarks in hand drawings. It is visible on the little finger side right below the wrist. Carefully look for it in your references and indicate it accordingly in your drawings.

how to draw hands - ulna
4. The styloid process of the ulna indicated
how to draw hands - ulna 2

5. Styloid process of the radius. The styloid process of the radius is on the thumb side down below the carpal bones of the wrist. It is less obvious than that of the ulna but can be seen in many angles. Indicate it accordingly in your drawings.

how to draw hands - styloid process of the radius
how to draw hands - radius

3. Consider Proportions When Drawing Hands

A  small caveat: I am not big on memorizing proportions in a way that can be expressed as a formula. This is because as you practice drawing from reference, over time you will develop a better eye for proportion. Further, there are many variations in proportion in life, and you may want to express that in your drawings. With that said, here are some formula-type proportion statements to memorize when drawing the hand. I think that at least at the beginning they can be very helpful, but I am confident that with time you will refer to these less often.

1. The first joint of each finger is equal to the last two joints of that finger in length.

how to draw hands - proportions

2. The length of the middle finger from its tip to right before the knuckle is equal to the length of the hand.

how to draw hands - hand proportions

3. The first finger (index finger) almost reaches the fingernail of the middle finger.

4. The third finger is just slightly longer than the index finger.

5. The little finger barely reaches the top knuckle of the third finger.

6. To find the last joint in each finger, take the length from the middle joint to the top of that finger and divide it in half.

7. The hand, wrist to the tip of the middle finger is about the height of the face.

4. Basic Hand Anatomy to Draw Hands Well

Without further ado let’s discuss the basic anatomy of the hand. Anatomy can be an intimidating topic, therefore we will take a practical approach and keep things as simple as possible with focus on learning just enough to create anatomically correct hand drawings.

Bones of the hand:

There are two bones in the forearm that are connected to the bones in the hand by the bones in the wrist. These are the radius and the ulna. So we the following sections of bones to think about: the two in the forearm (the radius and the ulna), the 8 in the wrist (all 8 of which we will collectively call the carpals), and the bones of the hand of which there are precisely 19, 4 for each finger and 3 for the thumb.

bones of the hand - carpal bones

The first section of these 19 bones is housed in the hand itself. They are collectively called the metacarpals, there are 5 of them, one for each finger and the thumb.

bones of the hand - bones - metacarpals

The following sections are all housed in the fingers and the thumb are collectively called the phalanges. Each finger has three of them and the thumb has just two.

bones of the hand - phalanges

So to summarize, we have the metacarpals that are the bones inside the hand, they are connected to the carpals (the wrist bones) on one side, and to the phalanges (the finger bones) on the other side. The carpals are connected to the forearm bones the radius and the ulna.

If we move from the elbow to the tip of the fingers, we get Ulna/radius —.> carpals /wrist bones —-> metacarpals/hand bones ——-> phalanges/finger bones.

Before we move on to the muscles we need to think about when drawing the hand,  let’s come up with a quick way to memorize the names of these bones and their sequence from elbow to the finger:

To memorize this, just remember: “Your Cape Must Fly” or “UR Cape Must Phly” or “Ulna/Radius, Carpal, Metacarpals, Phalanges”. This phrase gives us all the bones we need in the proper sequence from elbow to the tip of the fingers. 

Another consideration with the bones of the hand is that there is one bone in the carpal group (the bones of the wrist), that we do need to know, the pisiform bone. This bone is housed on the palm side, down from the little finger on the corner of the palm. In some angles, it stands out in drawing, especially when the hand is extended back. See the below diagram for its placement.

bones of the hand - pisiform bone

Muscles of the hand, back view:

In the back of the hand we only need to concern ourselves with three items:  

  1. 1st dorsal interosseous – muscle between the thumb and the index finger. It originates at the carpal group (bones of the wrist), below the base of the thumb, and its insertion is at base of thumb and base of the index finger.
  2. Abductor digiti minimi – It originates at the pisiform bone of the carpal group (bones of the wrist) with insertion at the base of the little finger (its first phalanx – the first of the three phalanges of the little finger)
  3. Tendons covering the fingers. The thumb and the little finger have their own extensors. However, the fingers 2 through 4 have them grouped as tendons of extensors digitorum – a muscle of the forearm. The little finger’s tendon is of the extensor digiti minimi muscle of the forearm. Both it and the extensors digitorum originate at the humerus bone by the elbow. You can tell where,if you place your left hand on your right elbow and wiggle the fingers of your right hand, you should feel extensor muscles flexing with your right hand. The tendons covering the thumb do not go to the elbow, originating about halfway at the ulna.

Muscles of the hand, palm view:

In the palm, there are many tendons and muscles, but we only need to concern ourselves with what is visible and that is mainly three masses of flesh and skin:

  1. Thenar eminence – thumb side of the palm and the largest of the three (responsible for the movement of the thumb – so this mass moves up or bulges up when the thumb is brought in to the palm) (note that the same happens with the muscle opposite the thenar eminence on the back of the hand, the 1st dorsal interosseous.). There are multiple muscles in the thenar eminence region but we only need to concern ourselves with these muscles as a group, in which abductor pollicis brevis stands out forming most of this eminence. It originates at the carpal bones and its insertion is the base of proximal phalanx of the thumb.
  2. Hypothenar eminence, opposite the thenar eminence, on the little finger side. The primary muscle in this group is the abductor digiti minimi (abductor of the little finger). Part of this muscle is seen on the back of the hand, as it wraps around into the palm side. It originates at the pisiform bone, and its insertion is the medial side of proximal phalanx of the little finger.
  3. The horizontal fat pad at the base of the fingers, also known as mounts of the palm, or four pads of flesh and fat directly under the fingers. There are made up mostly of skin padding, underneath there are tendons that pass through the carpal tunnel to the tips of the four fingers, they are not visible, however. Therefore our main concern is to indicate the padding under the fingers in our hand drawings. Look at your own hands and study the shapes in different hand gestures. Try to memorize the shapes and describe them in your drawings of hands to improve your visual vocabulary.
how to draw hands - examples

5. Expression and Stylization

Hands play a primary role in non-verbal communication and therefore can carry a lot of expression in drawing. There are a lot of variations and styles of drawing hands, and it seems as if each art period through the ages has had its own stylistic changes in drawing of hands. Each artist also draws hands differently. Looking at many different styles of drawings of hands can help identify what you find interesting.

Beyond stylization, however, there are narrative and thematic expression an artist should consider. Will you draw delicate hands with long fingers, or muscular ones with short thick fingers? What gesture will you draw and what are you trying to communicate? …and so on. Below are examples of variations I tried in preparation for this tutorial.

drawing hands - expressive examples

6. Creating Hand Drawings, Step-By-Step

At this point, we looked at hand anatomy, specific landmarks, and proportions. Let’s continue now to draw the hand step-by-step.

I think the easiest way to draw the hand is first to observe your reference and note the outline or the shape you are about to draw. Really try to take it in and understand the spirit of that shape and have a plan as to what you plan to put on the canvas.

Then armed with the knowledge that we have covered in this tutorial so far, identify the landmarks you are looking for. Depending on the reference you look at, some of the information may not be present in the image or in real life depending on lighting conditions, however having the knowledge of anatomy you should still know where the landmarks are. I created a checklist for reference when drawing hands that you can download by subscribing to my newsletter below.

Once you check for the landmarks and identified their placement, now we can begin to actually draw the hans.

Start by identifying the shape and the angle of the palm, and then attach the fingers to it. So let’s do that now:

step-by-step 1

In this drawing of the palm of the hand, I tried to identify the angle that we are looking at and the overall shape of the palm, and now I can start drawing the fingers. It is a good idea to indicate landmarks at this point, is the pisiform bone visible, which knuckles are visible and should they be made more prominent in your drawing depending on style or expression?

step-by-step, example 2
In this drawing of the hand, I indicated the fingertips with two dots up top. This is to gauge proportion before drawing in the fingers.

You can see that I’m placing dots at the point where the fingers would end. As I do that I step back from the drawing and try to imagine the fingers drawn in with the dots as the placeholder for their length.

Then I compare that to the reference and to what I want to draw and decide whether the fingers were indicated to be long enough and proportional enough. If not, no need to redraw, I can adjust by just erasing these dots and placing them somewhere else more appropriate. If I feel like the proportions are correct I can start drawing and fingers. 

step-by-step, example 3
Having indicated proportions and shapes to a level I was happy within this step, I then moved to drawing details
step-by-step, example 4
step-by-step, example 5
This is a drawing over the base sketch created in the last step.
 step-by-step, example 6
And this is the final hand drawing over the previous correcting some forms.

Here is a video time-lapse of this hand drawing:

BONUS: How to Draw Hands Using Bridgman Construction

Let’s now go through a six-line construction method for drawing the hand found in Bridgman’s anatomy books.

This method of hand construction begins by drawing the inactive and the active sides of the hand. Depending on position, if the thumb side is the action side, the little finger side is the inaction side and the opposite is true. In this method of drawing the hand, the inaction side is drawn as a single line straight with the arm.

There are six lines total for construction in this type of drawing and three of these lines are always unchanged:

  1. one from the thumb’s metacarpal to the outer base of the index finger,
  2. the second from that point to the top middle of the metacarpal of the second finger, and
  3. the third line from that point to the base of the little finger.

There are 3 construction lines remaining. Two are attributed to the action side depending on the gesture, and only one to the inaction side. This is of course not the final drawing, but lines used to construct a believable gesture in hand drawing. See below diagram, notice how construction changes depending on the action side of the hand.

how to draw hands - Bridgman construction - 6 lines
Bridgman six-line hand construction applied to palm and back

Although this is a very simple method to construct the hand, the proportions in this method still have to be resolved, and it seems like Bridgeman only used it for the construction of the palm. Although at its simplest form I think you can use it to construct the back view as well as I did in the above example.

Final Remarks on Drawing Hands

This is the end of this hands drawing tutorial. I hope you learned something and that it will show in your drawings!

I must tell you that there is one topic I purposely omitted from this hand drawing tutorial: function. Studying the functions of the muscles of the hand and the hand itself is an advanced topic that would move this tutorial well into A3 category. I plan to visit this topic in the future in a separate tutorial. For now, watch your drawings of hands closely when developing a specific gesture and examine how the muscles move and what positions the fingers take when interacting with objects.

Finally, I compiled a checklist based on this tutorial that can be used to analyze your hand drawings. It is available to my newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe for free here and also get my artist trainer pdf workbook for free, as well as other downloads.