How to color hair realistically - it is easier than you think

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

So you want to draw or color a portrait, but you come to your senses and stop because you believe that the hair is just too daunting. Well, it's time to realize that you can get out of (or into) any hairy situation!

Many of you know that I enjoy drawing portraits. I constantly hear from people who say they could never draw or color portraits because hair is too hard. Or they say when they do the hair it comes out looking like spaghetti. I giggle to myself and tell them that hair is actually the easiest part of the portrait.

Yes, you read that right. I just said hair is the easiest part when doing a portrait, because the simple fact is that it doesn't have to be perfect. Hair just needs to look realistic, and guess what, it is easy to make hair look realistic. I know 90% of you reading this right now disagree with me but if you try it I bet you will understand hair in a new way and see just how easy it is to create realistic hair.

Here are the only things you need to really know about making hair look realistic: 1) creating volume. and 2) creating texture. That is it.

Yeah yeah, now you’re saying, "Frankie it is not that easy". Ok, I know it sounds complicated but it is not. I will show you. Go to the internet (silly me, you are already on the internet to be reading this) and search for your favorite hairstyle. Doesn't matter if it is short hair or long hair, just find a picture of a hairstyle you love. It needs to be one that you love because you are going to stare at it for a long time.

I want you to notice a few things about the hairstyle. But first, you need to get all of those anxious thoughts out of your head that there is no way you can draw or color this. I just want you to think about shapes—not hairs. We don’t color all the individual hairs because that would be insane - did you know that the average person is born with 100,000 hair follicles on their head. Actually blondes have an average of 150k and red heads have 90k black or dark brown hair is an average of 110k - weird facts but bottom line we are not going to draw or color 100k hairs. Instead we focus our attention on shapes within the hair style and add volume and texture. Ok, going back to the hair style you picked out. Are you looking at it real close. Do you see sections and shapes. Some shapes are S shaped some maybe a half moon and if it is a braid it could be a half curve. So look at one of those shapes. Zoom in if you need to just to focus on what that shape really looks like. Stop thinking it is hair and instead start thinking in terms of the shapes that make up the overall shape and of how would you create that shape.

To create volume, in any object, is basically creating the form out of the shape. As an example, to create volume out of a shape of a cup you would darken the sides to make it look as if it’s round. There is no difference here when you are putting volume into your hair shapes. You are creating form of the shapes. Now looking back at your reference photo, do you see the darker areas where shapes dips deeper than the other shapes or maybe slopes to the side? How do you recreate that in your hair shapes? You use different values to create the forms.

The reason to create texture is to define highlights and shadows in your (hair) forms. Adding texture is the details that trick the eye into believing that it is hair. Remember, you don’t draw every strand of hair but clumps of hair that have defining edges that can be illustrated. When you put the forms (shapes) together—Bingo, it looks like hair!

Now, of course, there are lots of details you can add like strands of fly away hair or side burns, etc. And I am sure you are still on the fence about your ability to create realistic looking hair. You might even be concerned about the amount of time that it takes to really create hair. Well, I can admit that long hair will take longer than short hair, but really it is just a matter of breaking down your hair style into recognizable shapes and then turning those shapes into forms one section or clump at a time.

I have been drawing hair for about six or seven months now and as a result I am way past the fearful stage. It got past that stage when I decided to do nothing but draw hair styles over and over until I figured it out. It all clicked for me when I finally saw the shapes and not the hair. So for all you who draw or color hair like spaghetti there is hope for you too.

Let me know if you start to see hair differently now. Every picture you see with people in it I am sure you will start to notice the different shapes in their hairstyle. Once you see the little shapes you too will have the confidence to be a "coloring" hairstylist.

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