Colored pencils seem ideal for drawing hair, don’t they?
Stop and think about it. Hair looks like it should be drawn with lots of lines and colored pencils are perfect for drawing lines.
But is that all there is to drawing realistic hair? Just making lines?
The short answer is no. There’s a lot more to it than just making lines. But it’s not as difficult as you may be thinking.
Tips for Drawing Hair in Colored Pencil
The best way to draw realistic hair is by matching the strokes you use to the length and type of hair. Longer strokes for long hair, shorter strokes for short hair. If the hair is moving or wavy, use curving strokes instead of straight strokes.
Super sharp pencils or pencils with harder pigment cores are also helpful for drawing hair. Prismacolor Verithin pencils or Caran d’Ache Pablos have thinner, harder pigment cores. They sharpen to a finer point, and hold that point longer, which makes them ideal for drawing hair.
Beyond that, here are a few other tips for drawing hair that looks touch-ably real.
Don’t Get Bogged Down in Detail
Starting with big shapes and drawing toward details is a good drawing rule of thumb no matter what you’re drawing. It’s especially important with hair.
To draw hair, block in the large masses first, then break them down into smaller details. Don’t draw every hair. That’s not only frustrating, it’s unnecessary. A few shadows and middle values in the right places, and a few highlights are all you need. Get those right, then add other details.
This detail of Blizzard Babe makes it look like I drew every hair. I did draw a lot of hairs, but what makes these shapes look like hair is the movement in the lines, the shadows, and the few “stray details” along the top of the neck, and toward the ends of the hair.
Notice the hair groups falling over black straps and blue straps. I drew the larger shapes in each area, then added the details that made the hair look like you could run your fingers through it.
Pay Attention to Values
It’s more important to draw accurate values, than to draw accurate color. If the values are right, the color looks right. If the values aren’t right, it won’t matter how accurate the colors are. The drawing will look dull and lifeless.
Healthy hair is glossy. The highlights should be bright, almost intense; especially in direct light. Against bright highlights, shadows appear deep and intense, too.
In the sample below, the highlight is nearly white (it’s the color of the paper, which is a light ivory.) Bright highlights combined with dark shadows give this horse’s mane a high-gloss appearance.
Sharp edges between highlight and shadow also enhance the glossiness of long hair. You don’t need extremely hard edges, but you also don’t want extremely soft edges.
Note also that the shape and placement of the highlights gives movement to the hair. It’s not just hanging there; it’s blowing in a strong breeze.
Include a Few Well-Placed Flyaway Hairs
Even the neatest hair has a few flyaways—those hairs that refuse to stay in place without a lot of hair spray. In the illustration above, most of the hairs form large shapes and groups that stick together.
But there are also some that are separate. These flyaway hairs make for more natural looking hair, and also enhance the sense of movement.
Try Impressed Lines
Impressed lines are a great way to add accents and random highlights to hair. Just don’t do too many.
This detail comes from an old portrait. There are too many impressed lines near the top of the illustration. They’re too distracting. The fact that the impressed lines move in different directions also detracts from the overall effect.
But that doesn’t mean impressed lines don’t have a purpose. Used sparingly and in the right places, they are a great aid in rendering believable hair.
Impressed lines denote highlights if you’re working on light-colored paper. They should ideally occur only where you want random highlights, so they should move in the same general direction as highlights you draw.
So use impressed lines, but be very careful where you use them, and how many you use.
Use Multiple Colors
Always use a minimum of three colors: light value, medium value, and dark value.
But even for white or black hair, you want more than just shades of gray. For this black mane, I used different values of blue and brown in addition to black. Those colors are not obvious, but they provide depth for the black, and create a more lively black. Hints of them are visible in the actual drawing, and they provide the illusion of sparkle.
To see the colors in hair, look closely at the highlights. Secondary colors appear most closely where the highlights transition into middle values and shadows. Add those colors throughout the rest of the hair.
It’s helpful to look at hair in natural light. Strong sunlight is best, since morning or evening light often produces a golden glow.
Pay Attention to Your Reference Photos
When it comes to drawing hair, we all too often set our reference photo aside and wing it. We all know what hair looks like, after all. We see it every day in one form or another.
But what your brain tells you hair looks like, and what the hair looks like in your reference photo may be two entirely different things. If you want to draw hair that looks real and that looks like your subject, pay attention to the large shapes, the values, and movement of the hair in the photo.
Then draw what you see; not what you think should be there.
A lot of factors play a role in drawing hair that looks real, but if you get these basic things right, you’re on your way.
Interested in Learning More?
I describe how to draw four basic types of hair for an EmptyEasel article. Specific tips and illustrations show you how to draw short, neat hair; long, neat hair; long flowing hair; and wild hair.
So if you’re constantly having bad hair days when it comes to colored pencil, you definitely want to read How to Draw Realistic Hair in Colored Pencil.