Hands Full

Reexamining old photos

I’ve been looking through my old photos with the idea of finding expressive and meaningful hand gestures. The photo below is a frame from one of the home movies that my father must have taken. We were on vacation in the late 1950s or early 1960s. I’m pretty sure of the date since Mike was still at home. Mike is my older brother who is autistic, nonverbal and very low functioning. Mike went to Willowbrook, a large mental institution in Staten Island, New York around 1962.

Mom and Mike in a frame from old home movie

You can see that Mom had her hands full. Mike did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. Below is a sampling of some of the other frames of the movie, which might give you a better idea of the difficult time Mom was having. The blurry images and static pattern of a paused video player emphasize the chaotic situation.

Contact sheet of stills from home movie with Mike and Mom

Today’s study

I chose the last frame in the strip as the subject of my watercolor sketch. In that image, my mother is trying to control Mike while holding on to her purse. The study below is my shorthand way of illustrating my mother’s split responsibilities. She had to care for Mike on the one hand (literally) while taking care of day-to-day matters (represented by the purse) on the other.

Watercolor study of Mom's hands with Mike and Purse

Hands Full
7″x10″ 140# Rough Watercolor Block

The sketch without backstory

I like to try to imagine the reaction to my hand gesture sketches if no other information is presented. Looking at the watercolor sketch as gestures, the hand in rightmost image appears to be gentle. It isn’t a hand that is feeling a forehead for fever; the position is wrong for that. One can tell that the person to whom the hand belongs, is behind the foreshortened face. The hand doesn’t seem to be restraining.

The leftmost image of a right hand is not interesting by itself. It is just a hand holding what looks like a rope or a strap. Taken together, there is a contrast between the two gestures. The impact of both images taken together is greater than either gesture separately.

Next task

I have mentioned my interest in abstracting gestures to their simplest form, eventually constructing an iconography of gestures. My ambition is to use the fewest number pencil or brush strokes to convey the essence of the gesture. However, perhaps it would be a good exercise to study the anatomy of the hand and portray it more realistically before embarking on the road to abstraction.

3 thoughts on “Hands Full

  1. Everybody else says the eyes are the windows to the soul. Yet, when the eyes are closed, the hands continue to speak. Neuro-motor ennervation of muscles of the eye and orbit; and of the hand are equally complex and enjoy rich layers of interconnectedness.

    Your approach to your watercolors fascinates. Following the breadcrumbs of emotional history to decode and recompose archetypal gestures is a powerful and healing exercise. Your approach is inspiring. — The Healing Garden gardener


    • Thank you, HGg. Interesting juxtaposition – eyes and motor gestures. The eyes take in information and gestures express in outward communicate, for the most part.

      I appreciate your kind words. It’s nice to know that my approach has meaning and inspires.



      • Among those elements we consider, in the Healing Garden, of any hypothesis, is the conservation of intelligence (okay, my choice of words, “intelligence” is slightly tongue-in-cheek). In life, there is a balance. Up with down, in with out, sound with interval of silence.

        The hands are our feelers. Everybody else has feelers. Ents (entymologies) have feelers. Feelers appear to be an ancient and universal attribute. Plants sense changes in air pressure. Bugs. Leeches rise to the surface before a storm. Our ears use ancient biological principles to sense change in pressure.

        Part of my point is that the hands are similarly rich. The signals come. And go. Afferent and Efferent paths are of similar capacity, some less developed than others. Certainly, many paths less utilized by most of us in the brain for conscious cognition and neuro-sensory processing.

        Who are we, in our snug shells of interpreted cognition, to pass judgement on the neuro-sensory world, organized in whatsoever unique manner, into a distinct intelligence and language by the individual? It is the wonder of life. If our earth were completely explored and cataloged, remaining are the internal wonders of every creature. There remain worlds we have yet to explore in the Healing Garden. — THGg


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