Friday, April 6, 2012

Homage to the Prehensile, Multi-Fingered Extremity

3/16/12, Akashiya watercolors
The human hand has 27 bones, including 14 phalanges of the fingers and five metacarpals between the fingers and the wrist. Hand muscles are both intrinsic and extrinsic. Wikipedia lists four types of articulations related to the hand and three types of bony arches, which are formed by the fixed and mobile parts of the hand adapting to various everyday tasks. Then there are the four fingers and that all-important opposable thumb, which distinguishes us highly evolved hominidae from other critters who can grasp tools (a gross motor skill) or pick up a pebble (a fine motor skill) only in their dreams. (On the Wikipedia page, you’ll see a delightful photo of a Javanese tree shrew that has remarkably human-like hands, but alas, lacks opposability.)

While these impressive facts alone are enough to make me appreciate my two hands (which, as a lifelong crafter, I’ve always held in high regard anyway), my recent drawing practice makes me respect all the more the complexity and design of hands. Now that I’ve finished sketching my own hand 100 times, I’ve moved on to the hands of total strangers. This means I have come full circle, since my difficulty with drawing hands in coffee shops is what initially prompted my marathon.

Did the marathon help? Even with a 0.25 mechanical pen point, sketching skin stretched over those 27 bones and both intrinsic and extrinsic muscles forming three types of bony arches remains difficult. The four types of articulations result in at least four types of frustration. The rolling hills at the top of the metacarpals require subtle shading that I have yet to master. Defining wrinkles over knuckles alone is enough to make one weep.

4/5/12, Akashiya Thin Line
These challenges are exacerbated by the fact that the hands of strangers have the annoying tendency to move around. However, two things have helped: One is to select slow typists as models. The other is something Don Colley mentioned when he was asked how he is able to capture people’s gestures and expressions with such detailed accuracy when they aren’t paid models who are standing still. Don said that even when people are moving around, they are creatures of habit who tend to repeat the same series of gestures. So if a person he is sketching changes positions, it’s likely that the previous gesture will return at some point.

Don is right; I’ve made the same observation. If I start sketching a man with his chin propped up with his left hand, and he moves that hand to absent-mindedly scratch an ear, if I wait a bit, the left hand will return to the chin. So I take Don’s advice and start a series of sketches, one for each gesture, and as the model moves, so do I, from sketch to sketch.

4/5/12, Akashiya Thin Line
I also work on several victims simultaneously. This method decreases the chances of my being caught by any one victim, reduces my impatience while I wait for the hand to return to the chin, and increases my sketching mileage per cup of Americano.

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