Journal

Soft Hands

26-Jun-2015

Hands are one of the toughest parts of the human body to draw or paint, as any art student will know. Their treatment by painters has evolved dramatically since the renaissance, with Velasquez as probably the most influential master in this evolution.


Hands are one of the toughest parts of the human body to draw or paint, as any art student will know. Their treatment by painters has evolved dramatically since the renaissance, with Velasquez as probably the most influential master in this evolution. Before Velasquez, masters of the renaissance would compete over who could render the intricacies of the digits and creases of the palms and wrists, none more successfully than Caravaggio. Below is a collection of hands from Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’, which hangs in the National Gallery in London.

 

As you can see, these hands are rendered at least as tightly, and anything else in the picture. No fingernail is left out, no accent of reflected light omitted. Caravaggio most probably painted this picture in 1601 and his hands might be argued to represent the highest achievement of the renaissance approach.

Velasquez was two years old when the Supper at Emmaus was painted, and indeed during his career, the vast majority of painters still followed in the tradition of Caravaggio, but Velasquez pioneered an altogether different approach. While all around him were painting sharp, tight detail, Velasquez learnt that realism could be enhanced by making parts of it more blurry. He made all kinds of things blurry; clothes, eyes, hair and especially hands. Below are both hands from his portrait of Pope Innocent X, painted around 1650.

 

From a distance they look solid, weighty and in perfect harmony with the rest of the painting but a close inspection shows how each edge is blurred and softened, even see-through in parts. The further away hand on the right (which, incidentally, holds a letter of recommendation for Velasquez’s promotion to knight of the realm, a position he coveted throughout his career) seems to be missing a fingernail and the outlines of the fingers and knuckles are barely distinguishable.

While many of his contemporaries shunned Velasquez’ breakthrough, it was to have a great influence on John Singer Sargent, Ilya Repin, Anders Zorn and other nineteenth century realists. What Sargent added to Velasquez’ technique was his own insistence on clear, distinctive shapes, albeit with soft edges linking them. This enabled him to describe the forms of knuckles and tiny plane changes in the back of the hand while keeping the softness that sits the hands into the overall atmosphere of the picture. A selection of hands by Sargent are shown below.

 

Author: Tom Greenwood

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