Ask the Art Professor: How Can You Learn to Draw Hair?

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Charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent


“How can you learn to draw hair? How can you add texture to hair?”

Hair is one of those subjects that many people freak out about when they have to draw it. Hair is especially tricky because we understand hair as being comprised of millions of individual hairs.  However, it doesn’t make any sense to draw every single hair that you see, the same way that it’s impossible to draw every single leaf when drawing a forest.

You have to first see hair as a mass.  View hair as a sculptural form that has weight and substance.  Don’t focus on individual hairs at all, in fact, try to completely see past them.  You have to observe hair, see how it divides into groups, and then how those groups subdivide into even smaller forms.  Look for the direction of the hair groups, whether they’re moving upwards, to the side, or downwards.

I actually think the best way to learn to draw hair is to first look at sculptures, or even better, to sculpt a portrait head with hair. This sculpture below, Portrait of a Flavian Woman from ancient Rome has probably one of the most dramatic hairstyles in art history. In sculpture, you cannot sculpt individual hairs so one is forced to see and sculpt the hair as a series of forms. You literally transform the hair into a mass in sculpture.

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Portrait of a Flavian Woman


The best drawings that show hair have an excellent balance of the larger masses and small details. In this John Singer Sargent drawing, (see below) you can see how bold and concrete the main mass of hair is. He uses large areas of shadow combined with contrasting highlights to create form and mass.  At the same time, he also adds just a few very small details that suggest the presence of individual hairs without literally drawing every single one. The area to the left of the nose has some highlights that show the texture of individual hairs. What makes the texture of the hair effective in this case is that the mass beneath the texture is well developed.  Establish a strong sense of form first, and then add energetic, playful strokes to suggest texture.

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Charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent


Another key point when drawing portraits is to never draw the hair separately from the face. Many people when they’re drawing or sculpting a portrait make the mistake of finishing the entire face first and then adding the hair in last minute.  This always fails, as the hair ends up looking like a wig, and feels too physically separate from the face. Always work all of the parts of your portrait together, so that both the hair and the face progress at the same rate of development. In this way, you’ll be able to make a smooth transition from the face into the hair, connecting both masses successfully.

This charcoal drawing tutorial I did on the Art Prof Youtube channel shows the entire process of creating a portrait drawing in charcoal from direct observation (see below) I wrote this article which provides detailed explanations of the numerous tools needed to make charcoal drawings.

 


ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. artprof.org features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks


Related articles
“How would I go about studying the human figure?”
“How do you draw the human face?”
“How can I learn to draw noses?”
“What is the best way to simplify the human figure?”

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One thought on “Ask the Art Professor: How Can You Learn to Draw Hair?

  1. I have seen tutorials on drawing/painting hair and they are so detailed! Adding shadows to some individual hairs that may wander off against the background etc. This is a very talented artist, but it just portrays here that beauty is not necessarily in refinements. Hair, like anything in painting, can be quite gestural or very literal. Gestural requires more of “chance” making regarding the outcome, but literal requires painstaking patience (and that doesn’t guarentee anything either).
    Look, but don’t dwell too much!

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