Learn to paint hair


In this tutorial you will learn to paint the four basic hair types through a process of 16 steps in Photoshop. This technique can be applied to your digital paintings and illustrations and can be used in textures for creating both stylized and realistic looking hair.

I am using the latest version of Photoshop CC, but as this tutorial largely focuses on techniques rather than tools you can use any other digital painting software. It is also essential that you have a drawing tablet of some sort; I am using a Wacom tablet.

digital painting hair. Straight hair, Wavy hair, Curly Hair, Coiled hair

Step 01: Brushes

I will be using two brushes throughout this tutorial. On the left is a brush that simulates hair, the other is Photoshop’s default Round brush without any setting adjustments. You can download the brushes used here.

Step 02: Sketch and base color

To begin, I roughly sketch out the shapes for the hair and apply a quick base color underneath my sketch. It’s worth doing some research and making sure that you have reference for the hair type you are drawing so that you can take a look at how the pieces of hair fall. Most hair clumps together in some sort of way and it’s usually quite specific to the hair type.

Some close-ups of the references I used

Step 03: Darks 01

Add in some dark areas, roughly following the lines of your sketch. You will want the color you choose here to be a darker version of your base color but with a higher saturation value so as not to let your colors become muddy. I concentrate the dark color around a small area at the top, where the hair will attach to the scalp, and towards the bottom to start creating a nice gradient.

digital painting hair. Straight hair, Wavy hair, Curly Hair, Coiled hair

Step 04: Highlights 01

Next I add in some dotted highlights using a lighter version of my base color with a higher saturation value. Be careful not to overdo it with the highlights if you are going for a more realistic approach, as too much gloss will quickly make your hair look fake.

Step 05: Blending 01

Next I start to blend the highlights into my base color a little bit. I do this by simply color picking my base color and painting into the highlighted area. Remember to use a brush with an opacity fall off or you will not be able to blend your colors.

digital painting hair. Straight hair, Wavy hair, Curly Hair, Coiled hair

Step 06: Darks 02

In this step I choose a color which is much darker than I’ve used previously, and start to paint around the pieces of hair that will be situated in the foreground (in other words the hair on top) so as to create definitive layers within the hair.

Notice that I am working very roughly at this point, using big brush strokes and without worrying about being neat. It is important to use big brush strokes because this will allow you to paint layers over the areas we are darkening now which will create a sense of depth.

Step 07: Blending with the Hair brush

I am now switching from my default Round brush to the Hair brush.

Similarly to what we did before when blending with the Round brush, I am now color picking from the colors i already have and starting to blend them together lightly. My primary objective here is to smooth what I’ve already painted so I am not introducing any new colors at this point. When blending hair it’s important to remember to always paint in the direction following the flow of the hair. Use your original sketch as a guide and follow those lines while you work.

digital painting hair. Straight hair, Wavy hair, Curly Hair, Coiled hair

Step 08: Adding volume and extending outwards

Continuing to use my Hair brush I now lightly add some volume to the hair by softening all the edges. You don’t really want this part of the hair to be too solid as we are essentially creating a nice falloff which will help make the hair feel lighter and more natural.

Step 09: Highlights 02

Time to add in some more concentrated highlights. For this round of highlights I’m again using a color with a higher saturation value than previously. It’s important not to use white or anything too close to white. If you do some research you will see that white highlights don’t occur in the real world and will make your hair look unnatural if you add them. If you want to you can always add in some hot spots in small areas that are close to white later on, but for now steer clear of anything too bright.

digital painting hair. Straight hair, Wavy hair, Curly Hair, Coiled hair

Step 10: Blending by Erasing

For this step I blend the new highlights into the hair by erasing into the areas I painted in the previous step. I’m not using anything fancy here, just the standard Photoshop Eraser which should be set to use an opacity falloff by default.

Step 11: Darks 03

Similar to our previous dark layers I am switching back to my Round brush and using a much darker version of my existing colors. As before, make sure you use a color with a higher saturation value as we don’t want to be steering towards grays or blacks because this will make your hair feel muddy and dull. Even if you’re creating hair that is black or grey in color, I would still suggest using a color over something that's purely grayscale.

In this step we want to use a big brush size and start to create concentrated areas that are dark, such as where hair overlaps or clumps together. We can also use this step to add in some larger dark strands that will help show off the flow of the hair later on.

digital painting hair. Straight hair, Wavy hair, Curly Hair, Coiled hair

Step 12: Lighter strands and hair clumps

With a lighter color, still using my Round brush, I start adding in some lighter strands to help break up the dark strands I added in the previous step. At this point I also want to start adding in some hair strands that clump together into points at the ends of the hair. Note that my brush is small but not so small that it will look like individual strands of hair, we are still painting in thicker pieces here.

Step 13: Highlights 03

Switching back to the Hair brush, I add in another layer of highlights. This time far brighter and more saturated than before, but still not pure white. You may ask why I’m adding in all these highlights and dark areas in various stages as opposed to just doing it once; the answer is that to be able to create hair that looks natural, we must create layers. Various layers of lights and darks are what’s going to give our hair depth and a realistic feel in the end.

digital painting hair. Straight hair, Wavy hair, Curly Hair, Coiled hair

Step 14: Highlight Overlay

Unlike previous layers I’m going to add a Layer Blend Mode to this one. You should have a similar setting in whatever software package you’re using.  As I’m working in Photoshop I’ll be selecting Overlay from the Layer Blend Mode drop-down, and setting the Opacity to 76%. Play around with the opacity settings here and select something that works for you.

Additionally, I am also erasing into the highlights I painted here to make them blend better with the rest of the hair. Depending on how shiny you want your hair to appear, you may want to erase more or less of the highlight in this step.

Step 15: Light falloff

On a new layer and with the Layer Blend Mode set to Overlay again, I paint in some lighter areas onto the ends of my hair clumps. I have this layer set at 100% opacity and am using the same color I used in the previous step. If you are after some even stronger highlights you may want to add them into this step.

digital painting hair. Straight hair, Wavy hair, Curly Hair, Coiled hair

Step 16: Loose strands

Selecting my Round brush again and using a very small brush size, I now paint in some loose strands of hair. For this step it is important to understand the hair type you are painting. Straight hair and coiled hair will tend to have thinner, loose strands, while wavy or curly hair will tend to be thicker.

I am painting in the hair strands using a mix of both light and dark colors picked from my existing colors. Make sure that the strands follow the same flow as the rest of your hair and that they connect nicely to the end of your hair clumps. For the coiled hair I’ve added in a lot more hair strands than with the other hair types, this is to give it an extra feeling of frizz and messiness.

Step 17: Final refinements and bigger clumps

You will notice that I've not really added anything to the straight hair for this step as I was fairly happy with the result as is. For this step I found that the wavy hair needed less attention while the coiled hair needed quite a bit.

I am using my standard Round brush again here and am painting in some thicker strokes following the flow of the hair to make everything blend together a bit more seamlessly. For the most part I am using lighter tones and am not introducing any new colors to the hair at this point. Don’t be afraid to paint over those dark areas you painted earlier so that only small portions of the darker bits shine through. This is the layering we spoke about earlier on and will give the hair you’re painting an added sense of depth.

You can also chip into the highlights a little bit by having bigger brush strokes cut right through a highlight to make it feel like there are different layers in the hair and everything is not just sitting on a flat plane. This final step should really just help to make everything feel a bit more unified, but remember not to overwork it or you’ll lose all those nice details we already painted in. And that’s pretty much it!

digital painting hair. Straight hair, Wavy hair, Curly Hair, Coiled hair

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