Painting Realistic Hairstyles: The Ultimate Guide

Cover image by David Belliveau

👷‍♂️ This Ultimate Guide is currently a work in progress. Read on for a collection of hair-related tutorials, and check back in the next week or two for updates!

Creating a realistic, touchable-looking hairstyle to top off your digital portrait is absolutely within your reach!

Ever spent hours trying to get the hairstyle on your digital portrait to look realistic and touchable, but not knowing how to fix it? We’ve all been there! 
 

Learning to paint hair gets a lot easier (and faster) when you have a set of steps you can follow and practice. In this Ultimate Guide, I’ll walk you through the  process that I use to paint hairstyles on all of my digital portraits (except the bald ones 😁). 

After we’ve got hairstyles down, we’ll move into painting beards/stubble, eyebrows, and eyelashes. 

Follow along, and have fun!

Start with a Sketch of Your Hairstyle

Before we can begin painting our hairstyle, we need a sketch of it. And in order to create a sketch, we need an idea of what kind of hairstyle shapes we’re aiming for.

In this first video, I walk you through how to create your sketch, starting with finding a reference picture to inspire you, and then breaking down the shapes within the hairstyle.

(This video is part of the Sketching Hairstyles module within the Digital Painting Academy. That module is where I teach the 3 Pillars of a good haircut, which I mention in the first minute of this video.)

Here are the Pinterest boards I show in the video:
📌 Hairstyle With Style artworks
📌 Examples of hair blowing in the wind

👉 Want to skip the sketch of the head, and go straight to sketching the hairstyle? Try out the downloadable worksheets in this lesson:

Practice with Texture Brushes on a Lock of Hair

If you’re new to experimenting with texture brushes that can be used to create realistic locks of hair quickly, watch this video. 

You’ll see the different texture brushes I use, and how I use them with the mixer brush to blend colors and add details. Follow along, practicing on small locks of hair, and experimenting with different texture brushes to see which ones work best for your style.

After perfecting locks of hair, and getting used to different brushes and techniques, you can move on to your full hairstyle.

👉 You can download the brushes I use in the video for free here.

Render the Hair in Values

Once we have the basic shapes of the hairstyle defined in a sketch, we can begin rendering. For beginners, it’s often easier to learn to render using values  (grey-scale) before figuring out what colors will achieve the effect you’re looking for in your artwork.

Watch this video to get started rendering hair in values- the example here is a beard, but the techniques are applicable to hairstyles too. 

☝ This is an older video so bear with me here. 😁 The steps are still relevant and can help you up your value-rendering skills!

5 Steps to Perfect hair (coming Thursday, June 25th)

Once you have a sketch of your hairstyle, and have practiced rendering locks of hair, it’s time to render your hairstyle in color- the key here is to add colors in layers.

This video walks you through how to create these layers, each one adding more depth and dimension to the hair:

  1. Start with a base of the darkest color.
  2. Design the shadows and light by adding the major areas that the light will hit the hair. We talk about the different tools to use in this step.
  3. Paint each lock of hair on the next layer, using a texture brush (examples given in the video).
  4. Add hue shifts to make the hair glow. I show you a few different hue shifts that you can experiment with- try a few to see what works best for the effect you’re after.
  5. Add details in just the right places using finer texture brushes and overlapping highlights. I give you some tips on how and where to do this to achieve the illusion that details are everywhere.

You can download the brushes that I use in this video for free here:

Beards, Eyebrows, and Eyelashes

Once you have some hairstyle painting basics down, you can move on to painting other types of hair. 

Stubble beards, 5 o’ clock shadows, eyebrows, and eyelashes are all similar to painting hairstyles, but take a slightly different technique and tool-set.

This video walks you through the steps to create a realistic stubble beard. Using the right brushes will make this really quick and easy- I show you which ones I use.

Creating eyebrows that don’t look “pasted on” was a bit mystifying until I discovered this technique to blend the skin into them properly. Take a look at this quick tutorial, and you may never paint brows the same way again!

And finally, eyelashes can make or break the eyes on your portrait. I used to just paint little lines for the lashes and wonder why they looked fake- there’s a super easy and quick way to improve the look of your lashes.

Watch this video to see how.

Great Examples of Beautiful Digitally Painted Hairstyles

You’ve covered a lot of ground in this Ultimate Guide to Painting Hair! Take it slow, focusing on improving just one step at a time, and you’ll be looking back at how far you’ve coming in no time!

For a bit of inspiration to help you set your own goals, check out these beautiful examples of creative hairstyles by amazing artists.

Keep practicing, and happy painting!

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