Learning to see: Drawing hands & feet

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration 11 Comments

If you’re looking at someone’s drawing or painting of the human figure, always check out the hands and feet. They’re a dead giveaway of an artist’s training. A lot of us are totally uncomfortable with these complicated appendages — which is why I’m so lucky to be taking a workshop this week that is teaching me to see emotionally on a whole new level.

Hands and feet are hard to capture because there are so, so many finely articulated bones and muscles. They are also incredibly expressive. I’m learning to see them as a series of tilts and angular shapes, which is totally fascinating.

We are working from a live model, a woman. She has lovely hands and feet. But you wouldn’t know it from my first attempt at drawing her right hand! It has a witch-y claw-like look to it. Still, it was better than any hand I’d ever sketched before. In my second take on that same hand, I could see more, which gives the hand a more natural volume. It’s not as flattened out.

I ended the 9:00-12:30 p.m. session by taking a stab at sketching the model’s left hand and eyeballing her foot. At this point, I was starting to see the role that shadows also play in conveying mood. Shadows will never again be simply vague shading blobs for me. Who knew — they actually cast their own geometric shapes that help define what we look at. Wow, wow, wow.

This workshop I’m taking will run every day this week. That’s five mornings of luxuriating in hands and feet — a visual mani-pedi, haha! It’s forcing me to slow down, get quiet and just be with myself. What a treat.

If you’d like to see my progress, I’ll add more pictures to this post during the week, with some notes. And, if you’d like to know when they’re up, just subscribe to this particular post by going to the comments section below and checking off the box that says “Notify me of follow-up comments by email.” (You can always come back and uncheck the box and the notifications from this post will stop.)

In the meantime, you might have fun by joining me this week in watching how people use their hands and feet as they sit, walk, rest and talk. I am also appreciating the interplay that light and shadow brings to every single visual moment that fills my day.

The new challenge presented by this class is this: We all absorb visual information as we go through our busy days. But how much do we really see? Learning to look means figuring out what to do with the information that’s passing before my eyes. How much can I take in? What is my idea of reality and how much am I willing to see of it?

So here’s to a week of not rushing. Just being. Letting myself feel stuff — even the queasy, uncomfortable emotions and situations. If I give them a chance to play out on the palette of my life, there might be something truly beautiful waiting to greet me. xoxoxoxo.


Update on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013: This workshop was so fantastic. Hope you won’t mind if I blog about it next week. I went into this wanting to draw and got much more. Will share on Tuesday.

Meantime, here’s a foot I drew during the middle of the week. The lighting isn’t quite right and my use of the pencil isn’t sharp enough yet but I am heading in a new direction. My goodness, it was still the best foot I’d ever drawn in my life — at least, up until that point in time! And check out those lovely toes!

Comments 11

  1. Betty,
    Your work is wonderful. Nice job! Me, myself, I can paint some lovely trees but that’s about the extent of my visual arts skills. However, I can paint some pretty powerful worlds using light. I’ve been a stage light designer in a season of my life. Its one of my favorite gigs – designing light for dance shows especially.

    So much emotion can evoke with the use of light… and dark. My husband is a camera operator/cinematographer. For fun we watch the lighting, angles, shadows in movies. Maybe we’re just geeks but next time you watch a movie, see if you can detect what kind of colors and how the scene is lit (minus the sound). Then tune into what you’re feeling. Its an unusual exercise to match the emotion to the light instead of the actual scene. See if you notice any green in a scene. Should prove to be interesting.

    I’ll check in for more of your drawings. I always need a little incentive to explore or stretch my pencil and paper talent. Thank you for sharing!

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      Gee, Lila, I would be THRILLED if I could paint trees! And what you have to say about shadows…..thanks for reminding me that shadows come in colors, shades of darkness. Love the image of you and your honey watching flicks for the shadows. I should try that some time. And I will certainly post some drawings and stuff soon! Thanks for stopping by. :)

  2. Hi Betty, thanks for sharing! I do not draw or paint but I can definitely ask some of these questions to my child and hear what he says about seeing. I think that as a writer, the questions you pose might work for me, too. Even as a reader. Can’t they? I will think about what kinds of moods I set up with my words this week. Can I use a little more light? Can I describe a hand or a foot as with as much details as a visual artist can sketch it? That would be interesting to find out.

    Have you ever thought about how words and images come together for an artist? I was just thinking about a sketch artist at a police station or courtroom illustrator. He or she would have to listen for a description of what to draw and listen for where to put the light and shadows. That is different from drawing what you see, it is drawing what you hear. When writing, I guess I have to write what I see and hear, too. Maybe it’s not that different.

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      Skye, you know what’s the same for words and visuals? Editing. It’s all about editing down to the essential elements. And in both cases, it’s super-easy to become distracted by too much detail! For me, the words and visuals are also at their most expressive and accurate when I’m not overthinking. It feels great to write from pure emotion. Don’t worry too much about describing in detail — just pick out the defining details and go with that!

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    Okay, posted a foot for you to look at. If you compare that to the little thumbnail of my first foot on Day 1, I’ve gone from cartoon to more lifelike. In the first foot, it was all about the toenails. But in the foot I just posted, it’s all about shading and getting the shapes/angles right.

    More coming next week. This workshop ended up being all about life lessons. Will share more in my next blog post. With more photos too! Thanks for coming back here to have a look. xo

  4. Pingback: Learning to love myself, others: Why we should all learn to draw | betty ming liu

  5. Maybe it’s because I’ve done so much photography, especially black and white photography, that the bit about shadows rings so true.

    Where and how shadows fall is critical to photography, especially to black and white photography. When you are forced by the media to think in shades of grey you begin to understand how important where your black and white are placed and where your shadow is and where it is not.

    And when you start talking about portrait work it gets very serious. You go bonkers looking for that soft, diffuse light. Or you go bonkers experimenting with single source light. But to go truly bonkers, you need a flash, then you understand how an overpowering single source light can utterly ruin an image. You really understand how critical shadow is when your image has exactly none of it. Oh, the faces I washed out when the flash was not dialed in right.

    It’s a yin yang thing, getting light and shadow and the bits in between dialed in right. It’s got to be in the right amount in the right form and in the right place. When it works it’s magic, the image pops, and well worth the effort put into the work.

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      Thanks for explaining that, James! Sometimes now, I find myself just sitting around looking at what’s before me — looking for blocks of light and dark. Your description of the process really helps me to appreciate the power of positioning the lens. :)

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