What to do when you can’t draw with your right hand anymore?

Losing one of your hands is quite inconvenient. Not being able to draw, you know?
You can sprain your hand , get a fleshwound or face the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s tough being an artist without a functional hand.  Or when you’re a student or a plumber, or a housewife, or a doctor, or… Yes, not being able to use your hand is a downer for everyone.

I got a little problem with my shoulder. Every now and then, my shoulder goes like “I’m done with this!” and pops out of its socket. I am not against strikes every now and then – after all shoulders don’t have unions. However, it doesn’t work well with my drawing ambitions.
My shoulder has improved a lot, but it still tends to dislocate. Last time this happened was when I did a biceps flex on Skype. (Needless to say, I didn’t impress the guy 🙁 )
When it dislocates, I can’t move my arm for about two days and it keeps hurting for a while. A perfect excuse to take a break!

Or not.

Knowing myself, that’s the beginning of the end. I will slip back into my old habits of laziness and procrastination. So after the bicep flex accident, I got thinking: how can I keep drawing despite not being able to use my arm?
The answer is obvious. I still got another arm. Yes! I can just draw with my left hand (i.e. my non-dominant hand).

Have you ever tried drawing with your other hand?
It’s not easy. You are drawing a head and you want to put the nose in between the eyes and the mouth, yet the nose ends up outside the page and not looking like a nose anyhow.

Because you don’t use your other hand, the fine motor skills are not developed. Your brain tells it what to draw and it just won’t cooperate. Precise lines and details are impossible.
Step 1:   find a replacement hand. Done!
Step 2:   draw with it. Eh… this one is quite the challenge.

Are there types of drawing that don’t need clean lines or precision?

Yup, there are plenty! I got two exercises for you: gesture drawing and shadow massing. 😀

1. Drawing gestures with your non-dominant hand

Iris Hopp - digital gestures ref subtitle banner

New to gesture drawing? This video explains it in 10 minutes:

 I love you, Proko <3

With gestures, you express movement or emotion using simple marks. You try to capture it without trivial details. Hey, no details needed? Sounds doable even with the sloppy left hand!
Here’s an example of my gesture drawing, with my right hand:

Iris Hopp - right hand gesture drawings

And this is what I managed with my left hand:

Iris Hopp - left hand gesture drawings

Do the lefties look worse? Sure. Yet I got great practice out of it, because gesture drawing is a mental exercise: find the flow of the figure. Find the action line. My lines being wobbly?  That doesn’t matter!
I used the Posemaniacs tool, but you could also draw gestures from your imagination.

2. Shadow massing
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Shadow massing is another exercise where the key is simplification.

What is shadow massing?
You take a reference and try to divide it into light and shadow. One of my weaknesses is dividing small areas into shadow and light, while missing the big shapes.  I can’t be the only one!

This exercise helps. It isn’t called “find the shadowy parts” but “shadow massing” because you are looking for the big groups and you ignore details. Master paintings are great to study shadow massing with, because they often have a value composition. The focus of the painting is bright and centered, and the unimportant parts are left in the shadows, like in these examples:

Colourcow - Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein

Colourcow - Lama Giulia - Fondazione Federico Zeri


First, I lightly sketched with a pen to get the proportions down. Then I used a marker to fill in the shadow areas. With my left hand, I couldn’t work digitally because a tablet is so smooth. The pen was constantly slipping! Using pen and paper, I had a little bit of grip. However, with the polygon lasso tool, you could practice shadow massing digitally and much more efficiently by filling large areas at once.

Now you might ask me:
Since drawing with your left hand is so difficult and your shoulder dislocates often, … why don’t you learn to draw with your left hand?
I’ve seen a similar question in art forums: “Should I practice with my other hand, in case I ever lose my drawing hand?”.

Should we all learn to draw with our other hand too?
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I think we shouldn’t.

Yes, ambidexterity can be learned. Yes, it has advantages, like switching hands to prevent repetitive strain injury. So why don’t we?

Your non-dominant hand is slow and clumsy. You better spend your time drawing with your usual hand, instead of preparing for an accident that might never happen. In my own situation, I lose one or two days in a year, that’s it. In short, it’s not worth the effort. You lose more opportunities to practice efficiently than you gain benefits.

Drawing knowledge is in your head – not in your hand. Your fine motor skills alone don’t determine how good your art is. Focus on improving your art and the fine motor skills develop on its own, just because you draw everyday.
Got carpal tunnel? Broken bones? An amputation? Nerve paralysis?
If you ever lose your dominant hand, you just continue drawing with the other and it will become your new drawing hand. The two exercises I suggested, gesture drawing and shadow massing, they focus on knowledge and skill, not on mark making. Drawing precision comes naturally over time. There are paraplegics (paralyzed in all their limbs) who paint better with their mouth than I do with my right hand!

Let’s sum it up!

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Situation: for some reason, you can’t use your good hand. So you decide to draw with your non-dominant hand.
Challenge: that rusty non-dominant hand has a lack of precision and motor control.
Solution: select exercises that don’t need precision 🙂

Gestures and shadow massing are the two exercises I chose, but there’s more! How about studying composition and colour pallets? You could also watch tutorials, go to a museum, read art book – it all helps to learn and expand your visual library.

Happy drawing!

– Iris