This is a detailed guide on painting hair and fur—whether that be human hair, artificial hair, animal fur, whiskers, etc. I’ll broadly refer to all this as “hair” from hereon.
- Big, Simple Shapes
- The Underlying Form and Structure
- Highlights and Dark Accents
- Utilizing Visible Brushwork
- Feature Details
- Multicolored Strokes
- Different Hair, Different Approach
- Other Techniques and Tips
- Key Takeaways
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
Big, Simple Shapes
One of the most common mistakes beginner artists make when painting hair is getting caught up in the tiny details. They paint every single strand of hair whilst overlooking the big-picture aspects. To break out of this, you must first observe and paint the hair as big, simple shapes. Once you have that right, you can move on to the more particular details, but no sooner. The foundation must be right before you add any frills.
I’ll show you an example. Here’s a photo of Kobe (thanks Kobe for being such a great model for this post!). Notice all that detail and noise.
To paint this photo, you would need to simplify all this noise into something more concise. Observe Kobe as an abstract arrangement of colors and shapes. Here’s what I see:
This simplifies and flattens the subject and gives a starting point for the painting. From here, you can add structure, form, and movement. Or you could leave it there if you’re painting in a more abstract or impressionist style. If you get the basic shapes and colors right, particularly the light and dark shapes, the subject will appear somewhat realistic. See the dog in Valentin Serov’s Portrait of Felix Yusupov.
The Underlying Form and Structure
You must paint the hair in a way that reflects the underlying form and structure. Hair does not float in space; it grows or extends from something.
The following questions will help with your observation of the subject and its form and structure. No prerequisites are needed to clearly observe, other than your eyes and an open mind.
Where are the major planes?
What planes are in light and what planes are in shadow?
Where are the major edges and contours?
Is the surface curved or flat?
Where is the form stretching or pinching?
It also helps to have an understanding of the subject and anatomy. If painting a portrait, you cannot expect to paint the hair well if you don’t know the basic shape and structure of the skull. The same goes for painting a cow, dog, cat, lion, or any other subject with hair.
Take a look at the painting below, Lying Lioness by Frans Snyders. This is a complex subject, with the lioness twisting, stretching, and flexing. Observation would only take you so far with a subject like this. You would also need to understand the lioness’ anatomy, skeletal structure, and how her muscles contract and relax. With this understanding, you could paint the hair to reiterate the lioness’ form and structure rather than guessing what’s beneath the surface.
Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut here. Study and practice are needed. It also pays to spend time focusing on a particular subject or genre so that you can develop a deep understanding and familiarity of it. The best paintings are rarely one-offs. It’s often the case that the artist becomes enveloped and fascinated by the subject and studies it in and out. Look at Claude Monet with his Water Lilies series; John Singer Sargent with his countless sketches, studies, and paintings of wealthy individuals who could afford a commission; or Rosa Bonheur with her animal paintings.
Highlights and Dark Accents
Highlights and dark accents are small but powerful. You must apply them carefully and strategically. Some tips:
- You must earn your highlights. Set the stage before you apply them (unless using watercolors, in which case you typically start with the highlights and then work back to the darks). Getting the highlights right is all about contrast. The mid-tones and shadows are what make the highlights “pop”. More titanium white is usually not the answer.
- The late Richard Schmid suggests that dark accents are typically warm in temperature relative to the surroundings and regardless of the light source. But this is just a rough guideline and it does not override observation. In my Kobe painting, the dark accents in the reference photo were indistinguishable in color. This is often the case with photos: the darkest darks tend to be underexposed and lack the nuances you would see in life. Instead of using black for the dark accents, I drew on Richard Schmid’s advice and painted them warm.
- You can use highlights and dark accents to reiterate structural points or to draw attention to your focal point. In Charles Barber’s A Special Pleader, notice the highlights that run along the dog’s side and how they reiterate its form and structure.
- The position of a highlight is influenced by: the position of the light source, the position of the object reflecting the light, and the position of the viewer.
- The appearance of the highlight is influenced by the nature of the surface reflecting the light. Smooth, glossy hair tends to have sharper highlights than messy hair. Greasy hair tends to have sharper highlights than matte hair.
Utilizing Visible Brushwork
Visible brushwork is one of your most valuable tools for painting hair. Below are some close-ups of my Kobe painting. Look at how each strand of my brush leaves a tiny indent and how my strokes follow the broad contours.
You can vary your brushwork by varying your brush. Firm-bristled brushes will produce the most visible brushwork. The finer brushes, such as those made with Kolinsky hair, leave finer indents in the paint.
A good rule of thumb is to match the nature of your brushwork to the nature of the subject. For example, if I were painting a portrait of a woman with neat and glossy hair, I might opt for the more subtle brushwork of a Kolinsky brush (Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X comes to mind). But for a more rugged subject like Kobe, a firm, hog-hair brush is more suitable.
Instead of trying to paint every strand of hair, narrow down on a few key details to feature and simplify the rest. The feature details will give context to the simplified surroundings. This is an efficient way to paint.
The key is deciding on the right details to feature. Ideally, you should choose details that have some kind of inherent strength and are close to your focal point. A stray cluster of hair that flows gracefully down the side of the model’s face has a natural aesthetic and can be used to draw attention to her facial features. The painting below is a great example, Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val D’Ognes by Marie Denise Villers.
You can use multicolored strokes to convey hair with variance and depth without it appearing labored and tedious. To do this, pick up multiple colors with a medium to large-sized brush and leave them partially unmixed. Then, make a single, decisive stroke. Avoid blending if possible.
You can vary the appearance of your multicolored strokes in many ways: the size and type of your brush; the colors you use; whether you paint on a wet or dry surface; and how unmixed you leave the colors. For a more subtle approach, use low-contrast colors and gently mix them together on your brush whilst keeping them somewhat distinct. Circled below is an example from my Kobe painting.
This is an advanced technique that has unpredictable results. You never really know what will happen when you pick up several colors on your brush and lay them down. That’s the exciting part. The Russian Impressionists do it best. Artists such as Bato Dugarzhapov (featured in my Exploring the Masters series), Slava Korolenkov, and Chirun Ilya.
Different Hair, Different Approach
Hair comes in infinite variations. It could be thick, fine, curly, straight, dense, thin, orange, green, bright, dull, short, long… you get the idea. This means there’s no one approach that applies to hair in general. You shouldn’t paint thick and matted sheep hair in the same way as short and fine rabbit hair. You must tailor your approach to match the subject.
That’s why I focus on fundamental principles that you can apply broadly across subjects rather than specific techniques and tactics than have limited uses.
Other Techniques and Tips
Below are some other techniques and tips for painting hair:
- Use scumbling to give the hair depth and color variance. Heywood Hardy did this in A Lions Head.
- Can you link parts of the hair with the underlying subject or the background? If you’re painting a portrait, perhaps you could link the hair in shadow with the dark background. If you’re painting your dog in the backyard, perhaps you could create a subtle link between the grass and the dog’s legs. This is all about making the parts work together as a cohesive whole.
- Can you combine different mediums to convey different aspects of the hair? For example, gouache to capture the general colors and shapes combined with pen and ink for detailing and outlining.
Here are some of the key takeaways from this post:
- Start by breaking the subject down into big, simple shapes and colors. Then move on to the more particular details.
- You must paint the hair in a way that reflects the underlying form and structure. Hair does not float in space; it grows or extends from something.
- Highlights and dark accents are small but powerful. Use them to reiterate key structural points and gestures.
- A good rule of thumb is that dark accents tend to be warm in temperature relative to the surroundings.
- Visible brushwork is one of your best tools for painting hair. Combine it with multicolored strokes to convey realism without it appearing labored.
- Feature details allow you to simplify most of the subject whilst retaining a sense of realism. The feature details give context to the simplified surroundings.
- Hair comes in infinite variations. There’s no one approach to painting it. You must tailor your approach to match the subject.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends. Let me know your thoughts on the painting in the comments.
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