Painting & drawing blog

HOW TO DRAW REALISTIC HAIR

Drawing hair is difficult, whatever your level of drawing skills! The reason is that unless you want to attempt to draw every single hair, you have to represent it in some kind of slightly abbreviated way that instead gives a general ‘impression’ of what the hair looks like. You also need to distinguish the tones and shadows within the hair from the texture, as well as from the hair colour.

Over years of drawing portraits I’ve evolved a mark making technique for drawing hair, and here I’ve broken it down into stages to show you. Although this little girl has sightly curly hair, the technique also works for wavy or straight hair.

Original photo
How to draw hair example

Stage One

Before commencing on the hair you can see that I’ve taken a preliminary pass at drawing the face of my subject. I always begin a portrait with a bit of work on the face, establishing the darkest tones and the brightest highlights I can see (here I found them in the pupils, and the bright spots of light reflected in her eyes) so that I can assess all other tones in relation to them.

Drawing hair preliminary stage

However after filling in a certain amount of facial detail I like to complete the hair before returning to the face. This is because getting the tones of someone’s hair right in a portrait affects the likeness to a surprising degree! Sometimes the face doesn’t look quite right initially, but once I add in the hair the likeness seems to come together.

Another benefit to completing the hair before I return to finish the face, is that filling in the tonal values of the hair helps me to judge the skin tones of the person correctly. If I draw the face in isolation the tones I have created may look reasonable to me, but once I’ve added darker tones for the hair the face may then appear too pale and need some darker shading.

This first layer that I’ve drawn for the hair is what I call my ‘orientation’ layer, where I fill in the whole area with sketchy lines and shapes. At this stage I’m just ‘finding my way’ around what I’m drawing; locating the broader areas of different tone and shapes in a blocky manner so that I can refine them further later. I’m trying to define not each individual hair but just to draw the shapes made by all the locks of hair, showing where they are and which direction they are flowing.

I use an B grade pencil to lay in these initial shapes, and then reinforce the darkest areas a bit using a softer 3B pencil. I leave the lightest areas of the hair as unshaded paper. I’m always careful to follow the golden rule that I make every pencil mark in the same direction that the hair is flowing, so that the lines can stand for the hairs themselves.

Stage Two

Drawing hair second stage

In the next stage, I first smooth down the marks that I’ve made. To do this I use a little bit of facial tissue. I NEVER use my hands, because however clean they are the skin’s natural oils can cause smudge marks if they mix with tiny particles of loose graphite.

Then I start to really gauge the overall tones, and contrasts of light and dark. Hair is generally extremely shiny and even the darkest hair can show very bright highlights, whilst even very fair hair can have surprisingly dark shadows. Therefore whatever the hair colour, you’ll see a very large range of tones. However at this stage I want to block in large areas of tone without getting caught up in smaller details, which I can add in later.

I find the best way to assess large areas of general tones and to avoid being distracted by smaller variations, is to screw up my eyes and squint at the reference photo. Comparing with my reference photo, the smoothed-down graphite has given me an overall shade that is about right for the mid-tones of the little girl’s hair. I’ve then added some more darker shading for areas of shadow.

Stage Three

Drawing hair third stage

Here, I’ve taken a couple of darker, softer pencils (a 5B and an 8B) and worked in even darker tones. I’ve made them darker than they really are in the reference, because I know that when I smooth them back down again some of the graphite will rub off onto the tissue. I’m shading in long flowing lines, to suggest individual hairs.

Stage Four

Drawing hair fourth stage

Once again I’ve taken a piece of tissue and smoothed my pencil marks to make them softer. I’m starting to get closer to the effect I want, which is of large areas of fairly smooth tone broken up by those directional lines that help me to convey the bouncy, springy quality of the hair.

Now I want to introduce another layer of finer detail, so I use my electric eraser to erase some highlights into the dark shading. For this I use a really great Korean eraser I bought online which has an attachment to hold tiny 2.5mm erasers, ideal for individual hairs.

Electric eraser

The final image

Final image

Having cut my highlights with the electric eraser I then soften them back again by gently blending them with the tiny eraser on the end of my Faber-Castell pencil. I want the highlights to look subtle and the hair to look sleek but not excessively shiny.

Lastly I take my kneaded putty eraser,mould it a bit and drag it gently over the patches of highlights, creating broader areas of light. Lastly I take an HB pencil and lightly draw more individual hairs on top of the highlighted areas, toning down any excessive brightness.

The portrait is now finished! Looking back at the original reference photo you can see how naturally wispy and ‘flyaway’ most people’s hair is. Here I’ve tidied up and smoothed this little girl’s curls a little, but not too much because I don’t want to loose the naturalism of the image, but just to achieve a very slight degree of idealisation.

Read about drawing the face for this portrait step by step in this tutorial on Drawing People 

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