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How to Paint Realistic Hands in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

What is your least favorite body part to paint? For me, it's probably the hands. But one thing I've learned over time is that the best way to get better at anatomy is to simply practice.

In this tutorial, let's conquer our fears together by tackling two hands. We'll begin with a nice photo study for practice, and then move on to painting a hand from scratch.

1. Painting From a Reference

If you're just starting out, choose a picture of a hand in a position that is easy for you. As you get more familiar with the structure of the hand, take on more studies with different challenging positions to slowly conquer the shape and feel of the human hand.

For this painting, I'll be using this hand reference from Envato Market.

Hand Reference For Drawing From Envato Market

All I really need for this study is the hand, so don't feel pressured to include other parts like the rest of the forearm.

2. Sketch the Hand

Step 1

In order to draw this hand correctly, I created a rough trace above the original picture. The point of this rough trace is to show me all the important angles that are present in the reference. You can also practice drawing hands by breaking down their bone structure, but I like this method because it helps me translate what I see onto the canvas.

How to Draw a Hand From a Reference
Create directional lines to help you understand the angles for hand anatomy.

Step 2

With the trace as a guide, I begin drawing the hand using a Hard Round Brush. Start with the outside shapes and angles and work your way into the details.

How to Draw a Hand with Shapes

Double-check the measurements of each finger by seeing how they all line up against one another. When you're done, the final sketch might look something like this:

How to Sketch a Hand in Photoshop

3. Set Up the Base Layer

Step 1

Fill the background layer with a light blue color as a nice contrast against the skin. Then use a large Soft Round Brush to paint a soft white dot in the middle for a quick radial gradient effect.

How to Paint a Radial Gradient Background

Step 2

Next, use a Hard Round Brush with 100% Hardness to fill in the hand with a tan color on a New Layer. When you're finished, change the Layer Blend Mode of the sketch to Soft Light and set a New Layer above the base color as a Clipping Mask.

Base Colors for Painting a Hand

We'll use this layer in the next step to shade the hand.

4. Paint the Shadows

I love to tackle the shadows of any painting using the Layer Blend Mode Method. Simply use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to pick colors already on the canvas, and paint deep shadows by painting those colors on a layer set to Multiply. Start with a Soft Round Brush to lay in the initial shadow.

How to Shade Hands in Photoshop

This method allows you to shade the hand without ever needing to manually pick colors from the Color Picker. Continue to shade the hand, paying close attention to the original picture.

Over time you'll learn that there are parts of the human body that are redder than others. This is especially the case with hands because you can see them easily flush with blood or even see a hint of blue from your veins. To add a little warmth to this painting, set a New Layer above the shadows to Overlay. Use an orange color to paint more warmth for a more realistic effect.

How to Paint Realistic Hand Colors in Photoshop
Avoid saturating the hand with too much warmth; use it sparingly for a nice effect.

It's not necessary to make the whole hand red, so experiment until you're happy with the result.

5. Paint the Highlights and Texture

Step 1

Don't be discouraged by the initial shading. Achieving great realism is something that needs to be gradually developed over time.

Let's add some highlights by setting a New Layer to Linear Dodge (Add). Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) again to pick up nearby colors to paint the highlights. Because of the mode selected, the colors will automatically appear much lighter than they originally were.

Painting Hand Highlights in Photoshop
Concentrate the highlights on the palm and fingertips for this step.

Continue adding highlights to your hand until you're ready to move on.

Painting Realistic Highlights on a Hand

Step 2

Now let's create some texture. Nothing in nature is completely smooth, especially skin. Choose the Triangle Pastel brush from the Brush Presets panel and begin painting a light tan texture all over the hand. I would also recommend any grainy texture from this Grunge Brush Pack for this effect.

Create Skin Texture with the Triangle Pastel Brush

Instantly the painting has a more realistic vibe. As you continue to paint, keep in mind that you may have to smooth over some of the texture to clean up your painting a bit.

6. Refine the Painting

Step 1

It's around this time that I start to see all the elements working well together and that all I really need is to continue to refine the details. Let's start by quickly correcting the colors.

Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves. Adjust the curves for the RGB and Red Channels to create more light and warmth to the painting.

Color Correct Skin with Curves

Step 2

Now use a New Layer set to Multiply to deepen the lines on the fingers and palm. If some of the shading has gotten muddled from the texture, then use this layer to also tweak the shadows. Draw deep wrinkles into the skin using a Hard Round Brush (B).

Paint the Wrinkles and Lines in a Human Hand

Step 3

Hard brushes over time can create sharp edges that look super unappealing in any digital painting. So start to blend the skin and make it smooth by using the Smudge Tool (O) at 50% Strength.

Study your reference to notice any slight changes in the way the light illuminates the skin. Continue blending out the textures and start to refine the edges with a Hard Round Brush at 100% Hardness.

Refine Your Digital Painting

Step 4

Always leave the brightest highlights for your last step. Paint shine onto the skin where the light would reflect onto it from either the background or light source.

Painting Highlights onto the Skin and Hand
Highlights make or break your painting. Study environmental light and create beautiful shine.

Go through your painting and create nice hard edges for important details like the wrinkles, fingers, and fingernails. This will help to ensure they don't appear blurry. When you're finished, here is the final hand.

How to Paint and Draw Hands Art by Melody Nieves

7. How to Paint Hands Without Stocks

Hate stocks? Don't worry, I've still got you covered!

Studies are a good way to prepare you for tackling paintings that aren't so heavily referenced. As long as you keep in mind what you've learned from the previous steps, I assure you that taking on a hand from scratch is much easier than it seems. Let's tackle another hand in the next part of this tutorial, starting with the sketch.

Since I don't want to run into any problems with anatomy, my best bet is to draw a hand in the easiest position imaginable―straight on. And one of the ways you can avoid relying on stocks is to use yourself as a model.

Hold your hand straight in front of you and try your best to sketch what you see. Begin drawing the major shapes using a Hard Round Brush. Remember, the hand is broken down into several components with the main square pad for the hand. Then, each finger extends outwards as they decrease in length.

How to Draw a Hand With Shapes
Use simple shapes to understand hand anatomy.

Fingers get a little tricky, so just remember that aside from the thumb, each finger is broken down into three sections. Finish the rest of your drawing, and don't forget to add the fingernails as well as some wrinkle lines.

Drawing a Realistic Hand From Scratch

8. Set Up the Base Layers

Step 1

I always like to get the background out of the way as soon as possible. The easiest way to do this is to create a Radial Gradient Overlay. Right-click the white background layer and select Blending Options. Create a royal blue Gradient Overlay with the following settings.

Creating a Radial Gradient with Blending Options

The awesome thing about this background is that it'll provide a rich contrast against the skin for the next steps.

Creating a Blue Radial Gradient Background

Step 2

We're going to organize the layers the same way as before. Start with a nice flat base with the skin color of your choice, and then anchor New Layers onto that base by setting them as Clipping Masks. Since I'm referencing my own hand to understand natural colors and details, I'll be using a medium tan color for the base.

How to Organize Layers for a Digital Painting
As you add new layers, make sure they are still clipped as masks to the original base.

9. Paint Shadows and Warmth

Step 1

Set the sketch to Soft Light so that it blends perfectly into the base color. Make sure that initial base color is still set as the Foreground Color. The beauty of organizing our layers this way is that we don't have to worry about any of the paint going outside the borders of the hand. 

Keeping this in mind, use a large Soft Round Brush to paint the first layers of shadow on a New Layer set to Multiply.

Paint Soft Shadows for Realistic Hands

Decrease the size of the brush to make sure you get shadow on both sides of each finger. Keep in mind that the lighting in your own room will dictate the lighting of the hand if you are using your own as a reference.

Since the light source is coming from the upper left corner, I concentrate the shadows on the right side of the hand.

Continue Painting Shadows on the Hand
Don't worry about how dark it looks initially; we'll brighten it up soon!

Step 2

The undertone for my complexion is warm, so I'll need to add some warmth to make the colors more realistic. Create a New Layer and blanket the hand with the same tan color from the initial base. Set the layer to Overlay to make sure this warmth is applied to the hand.

Adding Realistic Warmth to a Hand Painting

Step 3

Let's push the colors even further. Select the Gradient Tool (G) and set the Gradient to the Foreground to Transparent mode with 50% Opacity. Choose a light pink color and drag the cursor downward to create a quick Linear Gradient. Set this layer to Overlay and get ready for the highlights!

Use the Gradient Tool to Paint a Hand

10. Add Highlights and Texture

Step 1

Time to get rid of those pesky lines with some highlights! Set a New Layer to Color Dodge. Now paint highlights with white on the left side where the light is most present.

Paint Highlights with Color Dodge

Step 2

Take a quick break from the highlights to paint some realistic texture. Using the same Triangle Pastel Brush from earlier, paint white texture all over the hand as evenly as possible. If the texture seems too intense, simply adjust the Opacity to 60%.

Paint Texture with the Triangle Pastel Brush

Step 3

Before moving on to more highlights, take this opportunity to smooth the skin even further with a Soft Round Brush. In my initial digital study, I used a brush with a harder edge so it took me longer to paint it. This time around, I want to save myself the hassle of blending, so I gravitate towards a brush with 0-30% Hardness.

Close up of Skin Texture for a Digital Painting
Blend, blend, blend for ultra smooth skin!

Step 4

Now let's add some more highlights by showcasing the subtle changes in tone across the hand. Use the Eyedropper Tool (E) to set the Foreground Color to a medium tan color. Then go to the Color Picker, set it to Brightness, and move the slider up to create a lighter tan color. Continue to use this method to create new highlight colors for your painting whenever you need them.

Changing Color Tones with Color Picker

I hope you're still looking at your hand as a reference! The key to painting the fingers realistically is to remember that they're separated into three sections. The top and bottom sections will typically be lighter, while the middle remains a darker tone.

How to Highlight Fingers for a Painting
Before and After. Notice the incredible difference these highlighted sections make!

As you continue to refine the highlights, don't forget to clean up those nails! Smooth the base out and then paint a white nail extension. Then swipe a clean stroke of white on each nail to make those babies shine!

How to Paint Finger Nails
Polish those nails with some shine and make sure to add highlights on the knuckles!

11. Finishing Details

Step 1

There isn't too much left for this painting other than to finish up the remaining details. These details include tightening up the shadows for the knuckles and creating wrinkle lines for each finger.

How to Paint Finger Lines and Wrinkles

Next, use a Hard Round Brush to clean up the edges of each finger as well as the rest of the hand. Continue to paint bright white highlights near the wrinkle lines and along the edges of the fingers for a definitive contrast against the background.

Refine Your Custom Hand Painting

Step 2

Last but not least, you can easily color correct your digital paintings by incorporating Adjustment Layers. Although my hands are warm, I want to incorporate some bluer tones. Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance and adjust the following settings for the Midtones and Highlights.

Use Color Balance to Color Correct Paintings

Continue tweaking the colors until you're satisfied with the change. Try to keep the changes subtle so that they don't take away from your great work. Here is my final result!

How to Digitally Paint Hands in Photoshop Art by Melody Nieves

You've Made It! Give Yourself a Hand!

The key to mastering anatomy over time is to not become discouraged after your first few tries. Constant practice helps to train your mind and build the proper muscle memory to translate what you see into incredible realistic art.

And once you've mastered small studies like this, you can move on to other details like faces and hair.

I hope these tips have helped you build more confidence in your digital painting ability. Feel free to leave me any questions in the comments below!

And for more digital painting tips, check out some of my other tutorials:

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