An exercise in drawing and looking. By Genevieve Swifte

By , 22 November, 2016


An exercise in drawing and looking.

From Genevieve Swifte’s Eye to Hand drawing workshop.

Eye to Hand Workshops are taught regularly at the Belconnen Arts Centre by Canberra Artist Genevieve Swifte. The next Intensive Workshop is coming up December 10 & 11.

After the face, our hands are the most expressive parts of our bodies, which might explain why they are so difficult to draw. For some strange reason, unless a person has been trained, the face is almost always drawn distorted. This might be because we do not really look at a face, we interact with it – the face is not an object, it’s pure communication, and it’s the same with the hands.

One of the most useful drawing exercises can be found in Betty Edward’s well known book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The Blind Contour Drawing exercise brings a sensibility of blindness to the drawing process by forcing you to draw for five minutes, ten minutes, or even longer, without looking at the marks you are making on the paper. Despite its name however, the exercise also requires you to really, really look at what it is that you are drawing. By maintaining consistent and active eye contact with your subject, this kind of looking establishes a heightened visual awareness that is difficult to maintain if you are continually looking away and/or continually looking inwards at a preconceived idea of what it is that you want to achieve. Below, I’ve written about how I have adapted this exercise for the drawing workshops I teach at the Belconnen Art Centre.

Part One, How to Begin:


Use a sharp pencil and, if it makes it easier, tape your paper in place on the table. Hold your hand, palm open, in front of your eyes. Shifting your body away from the paper will prevent you from accidently looking at your drawing.

Use your eyes to trace the intricate network of lines that characterise the skin of your palm. Things to notice include the branches and chains of the heart-line and the lifeline, and the spirals at the tips of your fingers. Notice the way the lines of your skin correspond with the form of your hand, and how the deepest furrows describe the way the hand will open and close. Notice the half moons of the inner knuckles and the way your fingernails peak up over your fingertips.

Let the drawn line be continuous, don’t worry about lifting the pencil or where your pencil is located on the page. If you go off the edge, just come back to the centre. As your eyes follow the lines – and it is fine to go over the same ones again and again – use your pencil to make an intentionally incomplete and incorrect map of your skin.

Incomplete and incorrect is your only goal. However, if you look closely at your drawing once you’re done, you might notice a perfect detail: the shape of the thumb or the space between fingers may well be accurately described despite the tangled state of the drawing.

In the photographs you can see drawings I’ve made over periods of five minutes, ten minutes and twenty-five minutes. Use an alarm or listen to music to mark the time and see how far you can take it. If your drawing looks as though it was made by a small child you’ve got it right.

Part Two, Where You Can Take It:











Notice the way your hand rests half curled. One of the challenges of drawing is to describe a three dimensional form on a flat surface, but don’t think about how this is done, just keep drawing as though the paper has depth that the pencil reaches into. Place your hand side by side with your drawing. Keep your attention on your hand but at the same time, begin to use your peripheral vision to bring the drawing together.

You can see in the photograph that my sketchbook opens to the length of my arm and I’ve used its dimensions, which are similar to my hand, to help me locate my drawing on the page. I begin to take regular but fleeting glances at my work and this allows me to draw a recognisable image out of what began as a mess of lines.

Allow your eyes to move along the outline of your hand, notice how the fingers relate to one another, how they work together as opposed to the thumb. Don’t think of them as separate, keep everything as a whole.

Up to this point everything has been about line and abstraction, but now the drawing becomes about shadow and light. I use a softer pencil for the outlines, and my fingers to smudge the marks. This gives a sense weight to the picture and all of a sudden the drawing of my hand becomes chubby and round. The fingers still look stubby and so I use an eraser to rub off the smudged pencil and pick up the light at the fingertips. The lightest part of a drawing will tend to move outwards and this gives a sense of three dimensionality. I give the same treatment to the base of the thumb and those parts of the palm that are raised up like little hills. I even pick up the tendon below my wrist.


To make the drawing easier to photograph, I’ve painted the background black. This gives to the drawing a deep sense of form and it’s a striking effect. However, these finishing touches – the rubbed out highlights and the black paint – are really only afterthoughts. To my eye, the abstraction of the first tentative lines are endlessly fascinating and, even though they appear to have been swallowed up, like the muscles and bones of my hand, they are still very much active within the drawing. Like a skeleton, they hold the whole thing together and they also maintain a connection with the texture and contours of my skin.

This way of drawing helps to develop two important skills. First of all, it trains your eye to use peripheral vision whilst maintaining eye contact with your subject. The second skill is basically a sense of trust in your own hand to translate what you are seeing into marks made on paper. These skills are endlessly useful and this exercise forms the basis of my all my drawing classes.

For more Eye to Hand Workshop information.

Or please visit:—master-classes/394

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