When painting commissioned portraits, making people look their best is part of the job. It’s one of those unspoken requests that every client conveys to the artist in one way or another.
There are certain key areas of a head that an artist can focus on in order to help portray the mood or personality of a sitter. One area in which an artist is given a great amount of freedom is in the handling of the hair. When it comes to painting portraits and pleasing a client, there’s no such thing as a bad hair day. The hair helps to frame and showcase the face and can also be utilized to introduce the feeling of movement into a portrait.

You’re not given as much freedom when painting facial features and bone structure, so the hair helps to provide an oasis in which a variety of edges can be employed in order to help balance out this feeling of movement within the head. The direction of the brush strokes that you use in the hair can also help design and lead the viewer’s eye to other areas of the painting as well.

One of the lessons from great painters of the past such as John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn is to think of the hair as a single mass instead of individual hairs. By doing so, you will be able to more easily recognize the larger shapes that make up the hair by half closing your eyes and squinting down in order to simplify these shapes instead of seeing too much detail. Once these big shapes have been painted with the correct value relationships, all that is needed are a few wisps of hair in order to give the illusion of a full head of hair. Painting this way not only helps to give the hair more solidity, but also reads well from a viewer’s perspective.

Painting by Anders Zorn

Detail showing simplified masses to represent hair

If you attempt to paint every single hair on a person’s head, what you end up with is an excessive amount of unnecessary detail that is not representative of how the human eye actually sees things in nature. When looking at a painting for any length of time, there seems to be a limit as to how much detail your eyes can take in all at once before becoming irritated or uninterested. By bringing everything up to full focus and equal detail, the eyes don’t have the opportunity to rest between active and passive areas. Balance in these areas is important in representational painting because it’s how we see things in nature and how our eyes are accustomed to viewing the world around us.

Confidence plays a key role when painting hair, so don’t be afraid to put a stroke down and leave it alone. I find that the more I try to modify an initial stroke, the weaker it tends to become. The reason for this is because the first stroke was based on intuition and spontaneity while any subsequent modifications to that stroke were based on logic and reasoning. It’s very easy to “over think” a painting and, as a result, lose the fresh feeling of life that was once felt at an earlier stage, especially when it comes to the subject of painting hair.

Another aspect worth mentioning is that color temperature changes occur in hair just as they would any other subject. If the light source on your subject is cool, then your shadows will generally be somewhat warmer in comparison. If your light source is warm, then the opposite would occur and you would have shadows that would tend to appear somewhat cooler in comparison.

Example of using warm and cool temperature changes in hair

This constant interplay of warm and cool temperatures in the hair will add a greater sense of volume and create interest throughout. It’s amazing how many different colors can be used when painting hair in order to achieve the illusion of an overall color such as “blonde”, “brown”, “red”, etc.

In order to create a greater sense of volume and movement within the hair, I like to follow the direction of the form when it comes to brush work.


Never_A_Bad_Hair_Day_form copy

Following the form when painting hair

There are exceptions to this way of working that I use quite often when painting hair in order to help simplify values and have them read as a mass rather than breaking them up too much with unnecessary detail. In fact, I often go in the opposite direction of the form in areas such as highlights in order to help break up the monotony that can occur by using too many similar brush strokes in the same direction.

Example of going against the form

Once the large masses of the hair have been painted with the correct value relationships and color temperature, all that is left to do is to add a few wisps of hair in order to create the illusion of detail.

Areas where wisps of hair have been added to indicate detail

These final touches are most effective when painted confidently with as few brush strokes as possible. The direction of these strokes is also important.

If I want a brush stroke that tails off at the end, I’ll start the stroke at the opposite end of where I want it to tail off and then swiftly twist and lift the brush at the very end of the stroke. The twisting action produces an interesting brush stroke that is wider at one end while sharper and thinner at the other. The slight lifting motion at the end of the stroke leaves less paint on the canvas by reducing the pressure on the brush and resulting in a softer look. In order to get the results that I’m after in a situation like this, I like to use a dry brush that does not contain any mineral spirits or turpentine that would cause the paint to be too fluid and not produce the soft look that I’m after.

In addition to using brushes when painting hair, I also prefer to use my fingers in order to soften an edge or blend when needed. The result of working this way achieves an effect unlike any other that I can get from using a brush or palette knife.

Whatever tools you choose to use when working, be sure to have fun when it comes to the subject of painting hair. It will not only be more enjoyable for you as an artist, but will also likely produce a better result for the client as well.