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Haptic Habit: The Art and Science of Hands

Before I took my first drawing class, I thought I was pretty good. I could even draw hands pretty well. And as every artist knows, they’re the most difficult of our lovely human parts to render. Even the good ones had to work for thousands of hours before their drawings of hands went from crumpled ginger […]

Robert Gober, Untitled, etching on paper, 1999. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Robert Gober, untitled, etching on paper, 1999. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Before I took my first drawing class, I thought I was pretty good. I could even draw hands pretty well. And as every artist knows, they’re the most difficult of our lovely human parts to render. Even the good ones had to work for thousands of hours before their drawings of hands went from crumpled ginger roots and flaccid udders to anything resembling the graceful instruments of dexterity that separate us from (most) other animals.

As weeks passed in class, I realized I had been looking at my hands all wrong. I’d been cheating, taking a shortcut:  I was outlining the hand when I should have been looking at the sum of shapes comprising the whole. That‘s how an artist thinks. Lo and behold, as soon as I started seeing the world around me in its constituent bits, my hands got better. More realistic. And this is why it’s so easy to get hands all wrong:  The very moving parts and counterintuitive facets that make them so hard to replicate on paper are exactly what make them so useful, so expressive.

Hands serve as the seat of the only one of our five senses we can actually see at work. Hands are, literally, an extension of ourselves.

Unknown artist, Australian rock art (Hand stencils and flying foxes), 7000 - 2000 B.C.E.

Unknown artist, Australian rock art (Hand stencils and flying foxes), 7000 – 2000 B.C.E.

Not only do our hands help us express the things we have learned, says linguistic anthropologist and learning expert Shirley Brice Heath, these appendages actually help us learn things in the first place. Research has shown that when humans learn language, we aren’t just learning what to call the things around us, we’re actually learning how to comprehend  our environment. In a similar way, when we use our hands to interact with the world, they build for us a sort of tactile vocabulary, a different way of apprehending the world around us that’s three-dimensional, spatial, structural.

“Our fMRI technologies enable us to learn what happens to our internal visual images when we grip, hold, or touch what we see,” says Heath. “We know that the haptic or hand-guided feedback that children gain when they grip the crayon, pencil, or charcoal enhances the act of mentally visualizing, of envisioning what lies behind or within the surface elements of what they view with their eyes.” Heath calls this “hand work,” and points out that it  not only proves useful for art, but is also of benefit to work in science (just one of the many ways in which art informs science and can strengthen scientific thinking, she says).

Let’s take the benefit of “hand work” a step further:  When you have a tactile experience of the world and then challenge yourself to represent that three-dimensional experience through the power of your hands, the cycle of learning is complete. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again:  Art-making is, like science, an attempt to understand, interpret, and explain the world.

Does that sound a little touchy-feely? Exactly.

Christian Marclay, From Hand to Ear, cast beeswax, 1994. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Christian Marclay, From Hand to Ear, cast beeswax, 1994. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Postscript: If our hands serve as an extension of our-selves, and tools are an extension of our hands, it kind of makes sense that we see tool-making in apes. That said, they have hands, but apes have yet to draw a convincing one.

Post-postscript: Tool-making has also appeared in “smart” animals like corvids (crows and ravens) and dolphins. But those animals use their tools as extensions of their beaks, which they use like hands. Same idea, minus the thumbs?