A Show of Hands

At our 20 June meeting, print contest results, the judge made an observation about how to pose women’s hands: namely that only the edges of the hands should be shown. He was referring to “rules” used in judging in the PPA. He also noted images where hands were brightly lit, drawing attention to them and away from the face.

I thought I’d look online and see how some of the past masters portrayed women’s hands.

We start with the most famous painting of all. Notice that the full back of Lisa’s rather large right hand hand is visible and even prominent, though slightly darker than her face. The left hand is mostly covered and the fingers are curled.

Next we have a Gilbert Stuart portrait from the National Gallery in D.C.. The fingers of Ann Barry’s slender hands are interlaced and the position of her hands mirrors the curve of her neck.

Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755 – 1828 ), Ann Barry, 1803/1805, oil on canvas

Finally we have a Vermeer work, also from the National Gallery. We see the edge of the woman’s left hand and the palm of the right in which she holds a balance. The fingers are elegantly curled and the palm is in shadow. This conveys the care with which she is weighing her pearls without making the hand itself a visual distraction.

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632 – 1675), Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, oil on canvas

When we look at images of people, the faces are what we most want to see. In these images, the artists used lighting and position so that the hands are not the first thing you look at. But hands say a lot about a person. Mona Lisa might have been a terror with a rolling pin. Ann Barry’s hands emphasize her youth and delicacy. Vermeer’s subject is careful and focussed.

When you include hands in an image, make sure they function both as compositional elements and as part of the story.


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