How To Paint: Realistic Hair In Watercolor

I love to share the hints and tips that have made all the difference in my painting career. As windows of time come free – I love to post articles that will hopefully inspire artists and lift their skills and knowledge to the next level. Please do share them and invite your artist friends to enjoy them too. They will be time consuming to write and post – so I would love to help as many artists as possible with each post. I hope to continue to create an invaluable reference for you all:


Hair needs to be soft and flowing rather than painted in strips. This often gives a stringy-looking appearance. Having soft edges is the key to the success of realistic looking hair.

If you want soft blurred edges you need to lay your colors into damp paper.

First of all lay in your darker colors being sure to keep your colors from flowing into your lightest areas.

Practice first as mentioned below:

Wet a strip of paper. Let the water soak in, until the sheen has just gone from the surface. Now lay in a fine line (or even a larger area) of your the hair color you wish to use. For blonde hair I use a variety of mixes and I use cool – warm color temperature to help me describe and mould the form.

When you lay in your color – watch how your paint flows – if you find the paint spreads too far – then you know you have too much water either on your paper, your brush or in your paint mix.
If the paint leaves as hard line – then you know you need your paper, brush or color to have a little more water in them.

Block off a section of hair – a long strip. Work on one section at a time otherwise it can seem like a maze.

Above is a close up look at hair that I painted for two studies some time ago. They are using similar colours to those you will use for blonde hair. You will notice the strands are blurred and you will also notice the colors often tend to be in blocks of color. Establish these blocks of color and you will have a map of where you are going.

See how the strands are soft-edged and the colors vary from one part of the strand to the other as they come in and out of the influence of the daylight and shadows.
Look closely at the little boy’s blonde curly hair. Look at the strands on the side of his face. Look at the different colors and the waves weave in and out of the light. See the yellow, the dark, the light. All of these things are important. Observation is the key to success with hair. Have fun!

In the cool light areas I often use pale washes of a variety of colors or color mixes – depending on the color of the hair: Phthalo Blue tempered with a tiny touch of Translucent Orange can be ideal for the areas around the highlights. (keep the brightest highlights white) Other times Aureolin Yellow can be ideal to help you describe the color next to the cool highlights. You will need to observe what you see in the hair color you wish to paint. But in general – it is good to note that in natural lighting conditions: highlights are cool and shadows are warm.

Lightest Highlight colors: White

Colors next to highlights colors: Pale washes of Phthalo Blue and a touch of Translucent Orange. (Or possibly Aureolin Yellow). You need to look closely and determine what colors you see in each area of hair.

Shadows: Phthalo Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Translucent Orange.Aureolin Yellow.
Allow the shadow color to favor the warmer colors.

Local color: Generally blonde hair is a light brown color. I often create a light brown using Translucent Orange, Aureolin Yellow, Scarlet Red and a touch of Phthalo Blue.

Do remember every hair color will vary with the light source. Create a variety of color mixes and keep note of them for future reference. These will be invaluable for all the different colors you will encounter over the years.

Have fun! And do invite your friends to follow this blog too. I will return as often as time allows to bring many more hints and tips to help you to reach your full potential with watercolor – or any other medium for that matter. Much of what I will share can be applied to any medium!

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