Ask the Art Professor: How can you learn to draw hair?

Welcome to “Ask the Art Professor“! Essentially an advice column for visual artists, this is your chance to ask me your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, a technical question about a material, etc.  Anything from the smallest technical question to the large and philosophical is welcome. I’ll do my best to provide a thorough, comprehensive answer to your question. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by posting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously. Read an archive of past articles here.

Here’s today’s question:

“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, a 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 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.

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.

Related articles:
“What is the best way to practice my drawing skills?”
“How can I learn to shade objects in my drawings?”

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