Painting & drawing blog


Drawing hair can feel difficult, even if your observational drawing skills are really good. That’s because however accurate your drawing may be, if you don’t want to attempt to draw every single hair (which would be impossible anyway, since a hair is much finer than even the thinnest pencil lead) you still have to find a way to somehow ‘abbreviate’ your marks so that they can represent the hair as a whole body. Over many years of drawing I’ve evolved a technique that I use for hair and here I’ve broken it down into stages to show you. Although this little girl has curly hair, the technique also works for wavy or straight hair.

Original photo
Pencil portrait of a child

When drawing hair I use a very different technique to when I draw skin. For areas of skin tone I try to avoid smoothing the graphite into my paper as much as possible because I think that it makes for a dull and lifeless effect. Even for areas of quite dark shadow on skin, or for darker skin tones, I stick to a technique of building up soft layers of hatching or cross hatching to create dark tones and shading, and use only a minimal amount of smoothing. This allows tiny little specks of the white paper to shine through, conveying the natural luminosity of skin in both shadowed and un-shadowed areas.

Hair, in contrast, benefits very much from smoothing in order to achieve a sleek appearance. When drawing hair I use a ‘layered’ technique employing all variety of erasers to rub highlights back in top and ‘drawing’ with my erasers as much as with my pencils. Let’s work through the layers in this drawing by way of demonstration.

Stage One

As you can see, before commencing on the hair I’ve taken a preliminary pass at drawing the face of my subject. However after completing a certain amount of facial detail I like to complete the hair before returning to and finishing the face. This is because getting someone’s hair right in a portrait affects the likeness of a face to a surprising degree! Sometimes the face that I’ve drawn really doesn’t look quite right initially, but once I add in the hair the likeness often seems to come together.

Another benefit to finishing the hair before finishing the face is that creating the various tonal values of the hair first helps me to then judge the skin tones of the person correctly. For example, if I draw a face in isolation the tones may look reasonable to me, but once I’ve added dark hair on top, the facial tones may appear too pale and need some darker shading. If you draw the face in first, cut yourself a piece of thick paper (I like thick cartridge paper) to lay over it so that when you rest your hand on the paper to draw the hair, the face doesn’t smudge.

Drawing hair preliminary stage

This first layer is what I call my ‘orientation’ layer where I fill 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 see the ‘flows’ in the direction of the hair.

I’ve used an B grade pencil (B stands for blackness) and added some shading with a softer 3B for the darkest areas of tone. I have left the lighter areas as unshaded paper. I’m following my golden rule, which is that I make every pencil mark in the same direction that the hair is lying so that the lines can stand for the hairs themselves.

Stage Two

Drawing hair second stage

Here I have begun to smooth down the marks that I’ve made. I use a little bit of tissue for this but you could also use a drawing stump that you can buy in an art supplies store or online. These are made from paper sheet rolled tightly into a pencil shape.  Sometimes I also use the rubber on the end of my drawing pencil to softly smooth smaller areas of graphite. However I NEVER use my hands because the skin’s natural acid can stain your paper and cause smudge marks that won’t rub off. Smoothing down the paper had given the hair a bit more sleekness and a more consistent tone for the lighter shades, but the darker pencil marks have been partly rubbed off, so next I’m going to define the darker tones some more

Stage Three

Drawing hair third stage

You can see that here I’ve taken a couple of darker, softer pencils (a 5B and an 8B) and worked back in 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 be lost. I’ve also added in more detail of individual hairs.

Stage Four

Drawing hair fourth stage

Once again I’ve taken a piece of tissue and smoothed my pencil marks and now I’m starting to get closer to the effect I want, which is of large areas of smooth tone but with some visible individual hairs picked out as single lines. It’s these directional lines that help me to convey the bouncy, springy quality of the curly hair.

To achieve a sleek appearance I’m now looking fairly broadly at wider areas of dark and light tone in my reference image and I have used my electric eraser sharpened to a point to erase back in some highlights right on the top. For this drawing I have used an electric eraser made by drawing company Derwent, although more recently I’ve actually made a wonderful new discovery of a battery-powered eraser which can do even thinner lines, ideal for individual hairs. It’s a Chinese make and I bought it online.

Electric eraser

The final image

Final image

Having cut my highlights in with my electric eraser I’ve now softened them by rubbing them down with both tissue and the rubber on the end of my pencil and re-drawing in some pencil lines over the top, because I don’t want the hair to look excessively shiny. Lastly I’ve used a little bit of putty eraser dragged gently over larger areas of the brighter patches of hair to smooth them together, before taking a fairly faint HB pencil and lightly drawing a few more hairs on top.

The portrait is now finished! In summary, I find that drawing hair is a constant balance between picking out individual details, but then returning to your reference to look at the broader areas of dark and light and to convey these accurately. I try to prioritize a reasonably, but not excessively, sleek finish and therefore would rather err on the side of less detail (in terms of drawing individual hairs) than more.

Looking back at the original reference photo you can see how naturally wispy and ‘flyaway’ most people’s hair is. I’ve tidied up and smoothed this little girl’s curls in this respect, but not too much. Again it’s a balance between achieving the very slightly idealized portrait that most people will prefer, but still retaining a reasonable degree of naturalism.

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









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