Helpful Tips for Carving Hands

The Giant Hand of Vyrnwy is, without a doubt, my best-known sculpture. It’s basically what the name suggests; a 50′ hand carved into a storm-damaged tree on the Vyrnwy estate.
In 2022, I also created something similar in Allai (Sardinia) called A Hand Between Sky and Earth.
Add to those the countless sculptures of people that I’ve made and I guess you could say I’ve got a lot of experience carving hands! T
hey’re not the easiest thing to carve however, and need time and focus to get them right. In fact, when I carved The Beatles live at the pierhead, I only had a weekend to complete all four members, so I carved them all with their hands in their pockets!
So, having learned a few things over the years about this particular body part, I thought it would be good to share a few of my tips for carving hands…

Drone photograph looking down on a 50ft sculpture of a hand known as The Giant Hand of Vyrnwy. Photo is part of a blog by its creator Simon O'Rourke sharing his tips for carving hands.

TIPS FOR CARVING HANDS: INTRODUCTION TO HANDS

Hands are complicated! We take them for granted as we use them and see them every day. And even though they’re very familiar to us, we don’t often think about how they’re constructed.
Did you know they’re made up of the wrist, palm, and fingers? And consist of 27 bones, 27 joints, 34 muscles, and over 100 ligaments and tendons, as well as many blood vessels and nerves?
That’s a lot of anatomy, right there! Knowing and understanding something about that anatomy is key to creating realistic hands.

Anatomical diagram of hands and wrist with bones and some ligaments labelled

TIPS FOR CARVING HANDS: RELATIONSHIP TO BODY

Of course, hands are not an isolated body part. It seems an obvious thing to say, but hands are connected to, and extend from the arms. Understanding this is the first step towards carving realistic hands.

Fingers, for example, don’t start at your knuckles. Rather, they begin at the wrist. This is the first mistake a lot of people make.
Although you can twist you hand left and right, the middle finger will always be in the centre of the hand. So you’re first point of reference is to think of that as a continuation of the direction of the forearm.

sketch of a hand with a line to show how the middle finger is a continuation of the direction of the forearm - one of simon o'rourke's helpful  tips for carving hands.
The middle finger continues in the same direction as the forearm

TIPS FOR CARVING HANDS: FINGERS & KNUCKLES

Now, let’s look at the rest of the fingers. If you look at the skeletal construction of the hand, after the wrist bones, the finger bones start and radiate outwards. Using the middle finger as a reference point, we can determine the spacing of the ring and little finger, thumb and forefinger.

However, bear in mind there’s a fixed point where the knuckles are.

When the hand forms a fist, the fold at the knuckles will always stay in a line – more or less!!! After that, the fingers can operate independently. So when you plan your hands, you’ll have a line of joints to follow as shown in the photo below.

Photo shows the giant hand of allai sculpture. Artist SImon O'Rourke has drawn lines over it to show the direction of the finger bones and knuckles as part of his tips for carving hands.

TIPS FOR CARVING HANDS: WHERE TO BEGIN

So, that covers mapping the hand you’re going to carve. But where to actually start?
I often begin with very simple shapes for body parts; cubes, spheres, pyraminds etc. In fact, I’ve caught some of my sculptures in progress and they’ve had parts that look very ‘blocky’ – like something from Minecraft!
In the case of hands, I recommend starting with a paddle shape. That gives a smooth surface to plan where the hand is going. As you carve, remember that “Nature abhors a straight line” (William Kent) and consider curves or some cupping for a more natural look.

Photo comparing hands in two of simon o'rourke's sculptures

MORE TIPS FOR CARVING HANDS

I hope you’ve found this quick introduction to carving hands helpful. Honestly, there’s LOADS more I could say! I’m actually going to do a video series on this, so if there’s a specific question you have about hands, leave it in the comments and I’ll try to answer it.


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