Learn how to paint hair with Ann Witheridge as she shares her top tips for painting hair.

Watch Ann as she paint a pastel portrait of Caroline below.

Considerations for painting hair:


Think about how the hair can help you enhance or explain the sitter or the mood of the painting.

The large shape

Think of the overall shape of the hair as it sits on the skull and moves over the shoulders. Before we think of how to paint the detail of the hair we must first think of the shape of the head.

Long hair

If the sitter has long hair, think of the way it falls over their shoulders. I think it works to put the hair over the shoulder in the light side to frame the portrait and behind the shoulder on the dark side to see the shape of the neck.

The values: the lights and darks

The value patterns on the hair also help describe the form and turn the planes of the head.

Jordan, oil on linen board, (28x23cm)

The edges and transitions

Think of the edges; are they soft or hard, clear or melted? This really helps describe the fact that you are painting hair. Don’t soften the hair by just blurring the edges, don’t be tempted to soften the transitions. It is better to paint the transitions – by this we mean that you look for the small shifts in value and colour.

Keep your colours clean

With every brushstroke, load up the brush again with a fresh amount of paint. The colour steps can look muddy if you don’t work with a clean brushstroke each time.

Colour and temperature

You do not need to paint the exact hair colour. The value and colour of the hair is only seen in relation to where it sits on the head. Is it in the light source or in the dark? Is it clearly defined by a varying background or flesh tone, or does it melt into the same value pattern?


I think it is really fun when the model has done something with their hair such as tied it in plaits or piled it on top of their head. It can really add character to the portrait. Even a fun bandana can help – see Jatinder (below).

Jatinder, pastel on Strathmore paper,  (45.5x30.5cm)

For this portrait I left the hair loose and sketchy and borrowed the colours in the bandana to help me find more colours in the portrait.

Look for angles and shapes

As you would with fabric, try to find as many geometric angles as possible as it gives more stability to the structure.

The S curve

Hogarth spoke about the line of beauty, which is a gentle S curve. Look for this shape along the hair line and in the rhythms of the hair.

Figure Painting, oil on linen, (45.5x35.5cm)

In this painting the model had her hair piled on top of her head, which gave a really lovely shape and pattern and I could easily describe the top and bottom planes of the hair. The shadow patterns are simplifi ed and the lights balance with the background colour and the darks with the chair

Look for edges

The hairline seems softer by the forehead and lower cheek, but as it hits the cheekbone (zygomatic arch) it appears harder. Look for this change in edge.

Check for tones

Along the hair line by the forehead there often appears to be a greyer or cooler tone as we transition from the light of the forehead to the depth of dark of the hairline.

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Manipulate the paint

Rembrandt often drew accents of the hair with the back of the brush. Use paint to apply shapes and values, but remember the process of painting is not just in the application but also in the manipulation of paint.

The highlights

The highlight on the top of the head is higher in value than the highlights down the side of the hair as it is both closer to the light source and on an upper-facing plane.

How to get started with painting hair:

Discover tone and form

Try a charcoal or pencil drawing so that colour is not part of the equation; this will make you really focus on the values to create the form.

Likewise, when you move onto paint, do a value study before you dive into the full colour painting. Painting or drawing thumbnails is always a good idea, as when we draw on a very small scale, we have no option but to ignore the detail.

Try different brushes for different effects

Left to right: hog-hair flat, hog-hair filbert; mongoose flat, mongoose filbert.

The type of brush you use can really help with your painting effects.

  • A soft mongoose brush leaves softer marks; this doesn’t mean that you should soften the shape.
  • A filbert creates clear shapes but because of the rounded edges also lends softness.
  • The flats create a more geometric look, which I don’t think works so well with hair, but some people love the crisp look.

It is fun to consider that you are painting hair with hair, as many brushes are made from animal hair such as hog, mongoose and sable.

Play with different hairstyles

I think it’s really fun to draw the hair without the portrait. See if you can make sense of the portrait likeness by just drawing the hair (see plait above).

Owen, oil on copper, (30.5x25.5cm)

When looking at historical paintings we often joke that painting a man was so much easier as they all had half their portrait covered with a beard. It does make it simpler to create a dynamic portrait when we can have such strong rhythms in the beard. In my portrait of Owen (above) I had a wonderful time painting the beard and the fun curl of the moustache. It was so much easier to characterise this subject with his fantastic moustache; I was also able to soften around the lips and along the cheeks with the side burns.

Discover more on painting hair in the February 2021 issue of The Artist, order your copy here.

Learn classical drawing techniques with Ann Witheridge by clicking here.

See Kathy Barker's demonstration on how to paint eyes by clicking here.

See Kathy Barker's demonstration to draw portraits in charcoal by clicking here.

See Kathy Barker's demonstration for painting lips for portraiture by clicking here.

See Kathy Barker's demonstration on how to paint noses by clicking here.

See Kathy Barker's demonstration on how to paint ears by clicking here.