How to Digitally Paint Hair

-By Serge Birault

I had a lot of requests for this tutorial, so let's go...

First, you have to know there's no magic trick; just time, patience and very small brushes. As always, organization is more important than anything else. It's not complicated, it's just long and it's not the same thing.

If you're not familiar with realistic hair, use photo references. This one is a little bit difficult because of the curls and the light, so try with straight and dark hair first.

Here's my method ... I try to do separated locks of hair, then I do a flat tint of color, then I do the hair one by one, with a basic soft or hard round brush (alaways use the same size of brush) with low opacity. The colors depend on the type of hair. Keep in mind your palette has to be influenced by all the lights, so you will probably need to do several ones.

As I said, very dark hair is quicker to paint. You just have to do a very dark area than add the reflections. Use your ambiant light and your dirst light colors. Start with big locks then paint all the hair on the edge.

Add the reflections on another layer. I use to work on a lot of layers, one for each color. Don't forget that hair cast shadows too, the separation beetween the hair and the other parts is sometimes hard to paint.

Very straight hair is quite easy to do. As a flat surface is more reflective, your reflections have to be stronger. On this one, I did several strokes with the soft round brush (with very low opacity, about 5%). I used the background color on the edge and white on the front (ambient and direct light).

The hair very close to the skin are more saturated so I did two different palette. You can emulate this transparency with an overlay type layer with the skin color.

Blond haircuts are usually a real nightmare, because it's more difficult to cheat. Think about your palette and your contrast first. The method is exactly the same but it usually takes more time. On this one, the hair was straight... Hopefully.

Dark red hair works like black one. Of course, you have to add more color to your palette. For bright red hair, I use to start with a flat area of middle tone, usually orange; I add the darkest and the brightest tones later. On the second one, I have another light on the left side but the palette and the gradients are still logical, from yellow to red/brown.

If you want to add some retro lights, you have to paint very saturated hair on the edge. Depending on the color of the light and the color of the hair, of course. Don't use overlay layers on the edge, it's not a good idea, you would need to merge those layers with the background.

If you really want to to impossible stuff, try curly blond hair with a strong light a retro light. It's just hell.

It's not the only way to paint hair but it's mine. I use to paint very detailed pictures so I have to paint hair accordingly. If you're looking for good references, try hairdressers websites or try to define the haircut's style you want to paint (retro, dark, long, curly, ...) and use google.

If you want to do more painty look like hair, a lot of pre-raphaelite did very convincing hair and could influence you. The idea is the same : Think about your palette first then add the light, think about the locks and the volumes, think about the reflections.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Frederick Sandys
Frederic Leighton 
John William Waterhouse