How to Paint Hair in Portraits

Written by lucy mcgregor
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How to Paint Hair in Portraits
Using a variety of sizes of brushes helps you acheive different tones and textures for hair. (Two isolated brushes for painting. image by Saskia Massink from

Painting in hair is a part of completing a portrait, which is a likeness of person created by the painter. Many people find this confusing and are not sure how to begin. You can draw hair in acrylics, oil paints, watercolour and watercolour pencils whether the hair be fair or dark. Using the correct brushes to achieve the style of the hair is essential. A rake brush or fan brush with its strong tips at the end can be used like a comb painting through the hair. A very thin brush is useful in painting strands of hair.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Rake brush
  • Fan brush
  • Thin brush

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  1. 1

    Scribble along the direction of the hair over the entire area of the hair until it is fully covered. Wet the area with wet brush in small areas working quickly to avoid hard edges. Follow the lines of the direction of hair. After one to two minutes once this has dried add a second layer following the direction of the hair with your pencil.

  2. 2

    Scrape a pencil of a lighter colour through the area in direction of the hair while the paper is still wet to create extreme highlights on the hair. The remainder will be done in dry pencil. Draw in individual hairs with a dry pencil onto dry paper. You can always wet the paper again to create a more solid look or to add more tints.

  3. 3

    Draw in the hair thinly with appropriate colours and wet with water to soften and blend the edges using a small brush following the direction of the hair. Use a range of three colours per hair -- dark at the root, light in the centre and mid range at the tip. Once dry, draw in the long hairs, not wetting them to leave them well defined. Use highlight colours to add shiny parts of the hair.

  1. 1

    Paint in the flesh colour above the hairline. Use three tones when painting dark hair being the darkest, mid-tone and the lightest. Paint in a block of colour first, using the darkest colour in the direction that the hair growth follows.

  2. 2

    Put in the mid-tone colour where the light hits the hair, not completely covering the dark hair colour but rather creating strokes on top of it to mimic hair texture.

  3. 3

    Put in highlights where the light touches the hair, using the mid-tone colour mixed with white or the lightest colour in the range. Once dried you can go over the hair again with a glaze or further tint the hair.

  1. 1

    Paint in a block colour of the lightest colour of hair there is then add the darker colours later. This is the technique used for fairer hair. Use the dry-brushing technique, in which there is little water on the brush and just a small amount of paint. The dry brushing technique gives the impression of many little brushes painting at the same time.

  2. 2

    Look for darker areas and paint them in to tone up the hair. Define the lighter block colour with darker tones in the direction of the hair in the portrait.

  3. 3

    Add individual strands of hair with a thinner brush.

Tips and warnings

  • When painting red hair, never use orange paint as this can appear fake. Start by painting green undertones, add shading, then add a yellow ochre colour on top. Add white to lighten it further.
  • Use quality brushes. Especially in watercolour pencil painting the action of rubbing the brush against canvas over pencil to create paint can cause friction that ruins cheap brushes quickly.

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