Monday, August 1, 2011

Painting Hair

I've been painting hair! It has not been as painstaking or difficult as I thought it would be.  I'm not finished yet, there are a few highlights I still want to put in the hair, but I'm happy with how it is coming along.  Below are some progression images of the painting at various stages, It has changed a fair bit throughout the painting process, as most of my painting do.

There is plenty of good advise and suggestions for tackling hair that I've stumbled across online which has helped me immensely. The most helpful advise would have to be:

'Too often painters get lost in detail, 
trying to paint every last strand or curl 
instead of concentrating on a unified, 
overall effect'.  1

Capturing an overall effect and not painting everything little detail is something that I learnt while painting my first MPC painting of a plant in a Glass Jar called 'Plant Cutting from Mum'. To begin with I was painting every little root in the glass and as a result it looked like a jumbled mess of lines instead of what is actually was, roots in a jar. To resolve the painting I had to be more selective as to which roots I choose to depict and had to give a more generalised indication of the subject matter. This knowledge can be (and was) transferred over to painting hair. As a matter of fact, the whole idea of capturing an overall effect when ones paints is something that I will keep in mind when painting in general.

Below is some really, really helpful advise from Nicole Pellegrini over on ehow. Nicole says 'Whether you are striving for classical realism or a more modern, impressionistic portrait, a few specific techniques will improve your oil painting results for painting hair'. She List them as followed:

Color Palette

  • Unless a subject's hair has been dyed an unnatural color, use the same color palette for painting the hair as you did for painting the flesh. Warm earth tones such as burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna and yellow ochre, which are often used for skin tones, also work extremely well for hair color. Using the same color palette will also help the transitional areas between skin and hair blend more realistically and unify the portrait's color scheme.

Form and Value

  • Lay down a unifying hue and value over the areas of the painting to represent the hair before adding any shadows or highlights. A common problem in many paintings is that the artist becomes too focused on details before defining form, value and volume first. Choose a mid-tone which represents the average color and value, light or dark, for the hair. You can then define shadows and darker sections of hair, as well as begin to add highlights, but only once the mid-tone has been established.


Highlights and Shadows

  • Paint darker, shadowed areas of the hair thinly with transparent glazes of oil paint. Build highlights with thicker, opaque paint applied heavily and with little painting medium. Making the shadows recede and the lights physically emerge from the surface of your painting will enhance its realistic appearance and dimensionality.



  • When adding highlights to the hair, ensure your brushstrokes follow the contours of the hair itself. Soften the ends of the brushstrokes into the underlying color of the hair but leave the brightest areas of highlights thick and not blended. A fan brush can be useful in applying highlights and capturing the textures and curls of human hair.



  • Paint the background surrounding the hair before adding finishing details, and allow the background to blend and bleed into the hair itself. Do not leave bare spaces or hard lines between the hair and the background, but blend them in smoothly to achieve "sfumato," a sense of air and lightness around your subject. This technique was developed by artists in the Renaissance and can be seen in the works of masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Peter Paul Rubens.

Selective Detail

  • Do not attempt to capture every single strand of hair or curl on your subject's head. Squint to blur your vision as you look back and forth between your subject and your painting, and concentrate only on the most prominent areas of detail in the foreground of your painting.

Another helpful source I've found for painting hair is from this wonderful book I borrowed from the library called "Color Mixing Recipes for Portraits" It's a fantastic guide for mixing the colours for all things portraits, below is the section from the book on mixing dark brown hair.

Here is my pre-mixed palette, following the above suggested colour mixes. I thought to myself "really orange highlights? Her hair is going to look orange and so, so wrong." but I turns out my doubts were unjustified.

 Palette before

Palette After

And now for the most helpful video I found on painting hair. This guy () uses acrylic and a very limited palette, he is also painting a red head, but his principles for painting hair can be transferred to painting in oil. If you get a chance, head on over Youtube and have a look at Lance's channel, he has fantastic instructional videos.

How to Paint Hair Part Two.wmv

And now for some inspirational artwork I've been looking at for examples of how other artist tackle hair.

 Scott Burdick

John Howard Sanden

  E Phillips Fox


Further Link of interest that I have looked at recently:


  1. It was really helpful to watch your video of you painting and the advice today is really helpful as well!
    I recently started a portrait of a little girl in acrylic ( for an underpainting) and then am planning to use glazes of oil paint to add in color.
    It's so great to read these posts. Thank you!!

  2. Glad that you are finding my posts helpful. I enjoy reading your blog too!

    I'd love to see your painting when it's done.

    Tracey xxo