The Key Steps to Modeling a Hand In The Fastest Amount of Time
If you've tackled modeling a character before, one of the most difficult things to get correct are the character's hands. It's rather strange, because they are really a very small part of a character, but their complexity can sometimes be difficult to get right. Whether you're trying to model a realistic hand or a cartoony mitt with only 3 fingers, either way, the same challenges are going to arise. When it comes to modeling a hand, once you've gotten the proportions down it becomes much easier.
The biggest challenge is to get the hand, to look like a hand. When you've blocked in the basic shape, the only task left is to begin to detail it as much as you need. In this article we'll go over some of the key steps to successfully blocking a hand so you'll quickly be able to get the proportions correct and then the small details will come naturally. While this is going to be done in Maya, you should be able to understand the points being presented whether you're using 3ds Max, Blender or any 3D application.
Step 1: Find Good Reference
You may have your orthographic views that you're modeling the character off of, but this isn't always the best reference you can get for the hands. Sure, you can get the basic shape down, but it's much better to pull up some extra reference to make sure you're getting the shapes correct. Another excellent place to find reference is in your own hands! You're using them to model, so take a moment to study them if you run into any road blocks.
A very important anatomical feature of a hand is the fact that the thumb doesn't extend out directly from the side of the hand. This is one of the things that can make a character's hands feel off, even if you can't pin point the problem, something about it will just look strange to you, and the people viewing your model. Instead, the thumb actually extends from the palm of the hand. Take a moment to look at your own hand right now, keep it in a relaxed position, while it does connect to the side of the hand, it actually starts from the palm.
When searching for reference it's typically easier to model a hand in a relaxed position than a perfectly flat hand. The reason for this is because it's much easier to actually see how the thumb is positioned on the hand. If you're modeling from a hand that is outstretched it can be difficult to see how the thumb is positioned, and often times it appears the thumb is coming directly from the side of the hand, which it isn't.
Step 2: Blocking in the Thumb
Your first instinct when beginning to model the hand is to drop in a cube and shape it around the palm, while this can work, there's actually a much easier way to model the palm that will always ensure that you're modeling the thumb correctly.
Drop in a cube and shape it roughly around the palm of the hand; however you want to make sure that there is an edge directly above the top of the thumb, and an edge directly below the thumb, this is going to act as the face you extrude to create the shape. Next do another extrusion to reach roughly at the base of the fingers. Do another extrusion to reach the base of the wrist. Finally take one edge on the cube and translate it over like you can see in the image above, this establishes the shape of the palm, and where the thumb should extrude from. There's really no need to add any extra resolution right now, you just want to get the basic shape.
Now take the face for the thumb and begin to extrude out, creating the basic shape for the thumb. You can see that the thumb is part of the palm, and is not coming directly from the side of the hand.
Step 3: Shaping the Palm
Now it's time to block in the rough shape for the palm. For this there have been two more edge loops placed vertically along the palm of the hand to give more points to manipulate. Following along roughly with your reference to get the correct shape down. You should notice that at the base of the fingers actually slants downward. It's not a perfectly straight line from the index to the pinky. This is another thing you'll want to make sure you get correct because it's an important feature of the anatomy of the hand that if incorrect can make the hand look weird.
You can see from the image above how not to block in the shape of the hand. The thumb has been extruded directly from the side of a cube, and the palm has been shaped roughly in a straight line at the base of the fingers. This is what gives you that infamous "pancake" hand that just looks weird.
Step 4: Give the Palm More Shape and Resolution
Now that you have the rough shape for the palm and hand take this time to begin to add some edge loops in the places that need more definition, like the thumb. We've added a couple more edge loops just before the finger nail would be, as well as the joint for the thumb because that is where the thumb will need to rotate from when it's rigged.
Also, look at the shape in the side view and make sure the proportions are correct there. You may need to scale the width of the palm down if necessary. You can also begin to shape it in the side view. If you have side view reference loaded in use that as your guide for how to shape the hand.
Step 5: Smoothing the Model
Now that you've gotten the basic shape down for the palm the next step is to apply a smooth operation to the entire hand. Keep in mind, smoothing the model isn't the same as pressing "3" on your keyboard and applying a smooth preview. Instead, go to Mesh>Smooth. This is going to basically subdivide each edge loop once. This gives you more resolution to work with.
Step 6: Modeling the Fingers
A hand is not complete without some fingers, right? There are a couple of different ways you can approach this. The first way is to model one finger individually and copy that finger three more times and spend sometime shaping each finger one-by-one. The other method, which is the one used in this article is to simply extrude the fingers directly from the palm. Either method will work fine, which ever you're more comfortable with.
Once the mesh smooth was applied to the palm it gave us the perfect amount of resolution on the top to extrude each finger. You can start from the pinky, and by following your reference begin to extrude the finger out. Think about where the finger is going to bend when animated, so make sure you're putting the edges where they are needed.
Step 7: Finishing the Fingers
Continue this step for all of the other fingers. Getting the correct proportions by following with your reference. We've also added some fingernails to the thumb and fingers as well as added a few edge loops around the joints of the fingers to help the deformation once the hand is rigged.
That was pretty simple, right? It only took a few steps and you've already got a hand blocked in and ready for the smaller details. The key is to get the anatomy and proportions correct before going in an adding in more resolution and detail. The brunt of the work is finished and depending on what your character is going to be used for you can use this as the base mesh in a sculpting application and keep it like this if you're using it in a game with a strict polygon budget.
If you want to learn how to correctly model in all those small details and create a finished hand be sure to check out Modeling Realistic Hands in Maya and Mudbox and learn step-by-step how to model a complete character at the Digital-Tutors library.