Don’t Split Hairs

Lifelike hair is an indispensable feature of a natural-looking portrait. Hair is not only a key indicator of how skillful a realist the artist is, but it’s also one of the most expressive parts of a person’s body. Perhaps because it’s both so adaptable and so prominent in our appearance, the way we wear our hair can reveal a lot about our character, whether we want it to or not. So if you really want to capture the essence of a person in a portrait, try starting at the top.

At first glance, the hair may seem like one of the most difficult parts of the human figure to draw, with its multiple layers and textures and colors. But if you learn to view it not as an endless collection of individual hairs but an overall unit made up of a series of shapes, you’ll find it much easier. Here are a few pointers for focusing on the whole head of hair that will keep your drawings from getting all tangled up.

The Big Picture
The most important thing to understand for drawing hair is that it’s futile to try to draw all the individual hairs on a person’s head, or even to draw half of them. There are simply too many for even the most patient and persistent artist to render, but even if this weren’t the case a single hair is thinner than the narrowest pencil line you can draw. You may have seen drawings in which the artist seems to have meticulously drawn a head of hair in very fine detail, but if you look closer you’ll find that the artist has merely created the illusion of having drawn each and every hair.

To create this illusion yourself, ignore all those thousands of separate shafts of hair and concentrate instead on the major shapes in the body of hair. You must see the hair in this simplified way before you can draw it this way, however, so a good way to begin is to close one eye and squint while looking at your model’s head. What do you see? Is it one distinct outline containing an even distribution of mass? Or is it a major shape with several smaller shapes protruding from it? Or is it a roughly consistent series of waves? Also, don’t just note the positive shapes but the negative ones, too. Are there any significant gaps in the hair? Where are the major shadows? Answering these questions at the beginning allows you to bypass all the superfluous details and go straight to what’s most useful for you as an artist.

The Specifics
Once you’ve identified the shapes that define the hair you want to draw, go ahead and use them to begin your drawing. Lightly sketch in those shapes in the proper relationship to the head so that you’ll have a context to work within, but don’t expect these edges to be permanent. Experiment a bit with the arrangement and proportion of the hair, and remember that sometimes even the most realistic results don’t come the way we expect them to.

As with almost any subject, establishing effective contrasts between lights and darks is one of the most important aspects of drawing hair, and the best strategy for getting this contrast is to identify the darkest areas and shade them in first, as I’ve shown in my demonstration. The lightest areas are already there, in a sense, in the white space of your paper, so it’s best to work your way around them. After you’ve done the darkest parts, continue shading progressively into the lighter patches, and this way you’ll best be able to keep your range of lights and darks consistent.

To build a sense of texture into your shadings, use directional strokes, which both indicate how straight or curly the hair is and give the appearance of individual strands. For most hairstyles your strokes should be largely consistent because the hair will all be falling in generally the same direction, and even the smallest variations can be enough to give the hair a natural or tousled look. (Again, however, don’t fall into the trap of trying to draw individual hairs.) Finally, when you get to the outer edges of the hair, don’t be afraid to let the hair fade into the background. Rarely does a person’s hair have a hard visual edge to it, and letting the viewer see the hair get thin and wispy can be a great touch of realism.

A Little Variety
Although there seem to be plenty of different types of hair in the world (almost as many as there are types of people), don’t be intimidated by this notion. The styles may change a great deal, but in all but the most extreme and artificial cases the fundamental properties of human hair don’t change much. The most visible differences are in color and curliness. To draw curly hair, try using circular shading instead of the one-directional or back-and-forth methods, and be sure to do this from the very start. It’s more painstaking and often time-consuming, but it’s worth the effort if you want a naturally curly look. For extremely curly hair—African-American hair, for instance—you may want to forego directional strokes altogether and stick with either a variety of smooth shadings or tightly circular ones.

When you’re working in black-and-white, the lightness or darkness of the hair is just a matter of how heavily and consistently you shade it. Sometimes, however, bright light can be falling on the hair, and dark hair in this situation can be indicated by heavier contrast between these areas and those that aren’t in direct light. Also, when you have the occasion to draw facial hair, keep in mind that it doesn’t differ all that much from other hair. It’s usually a bit thicker and sparser, though, and you’ll want to pay special attention to blending around the edges. As before, avoid hard edges except in unusual cases.

One last tip: Throughout the process of drawing hair, don’t ever forget that there’s a cranium beneath it. This is what provides the hair’s essential shape, so pay attention to the shape of the head and how the hair naturally falls around it. If you can remember this and remain focused on the entire body of hair instead of getting caught up in each separate strand, you’ll draw beautiful heads of hair no matter who your subject is.

Artist and instructor Jerry McClish of Bradenton, Florida, is a contributing editor to The Artist’s Magazine.

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