Hair—Something I Love To Sketch

September 13, 2017
The looseness of this hairstyle caught my eye. I wanted to work in watercolor with only a quick graphite sketch to start. The focus here for me became blending the three primaries and through that blending create a sense of volume. Then by creating by some curling strokes on top of that volume I hoped to sell the idea of hair.

One of the things that attracts my eye to a possible face to sketch is the hair of that person. I like it when people get inventive with their hairstyles. It’s a little bit of living vicariously for me, because as you might know I haven’t changed my hairstyle since I was in my twenties! 

Once my eye is focusing on hair I have to decide how I want to handle the hair. In that there are all sorts of questions and preferences and choices of tools and media to consider.

Originally the whole week was going to be about hair, but frankly my whole blog is about hair when you really stop to think about it (hair that includes fur on dogs, sheep, goats, etc. and feathers of course). All those lovely extrusions of keratin.

On the blog you’ll have seen me sketch so many lines in hair that it might seem I sketching every detail. I’m not. I haven’t had the eyes for sketching every detail for 15 years or more. But with a Pentel Brush Pen in hand I’ll sketch enough of the hair curls and structure that you get the idea, as I did in this sketch of actor James Frain in an historical drama. I’ll get going and almost be helpless to stop. What I find fun about that particular image is that the wardrobe the actor wore included a fur collared cape. That gave me the opportunity to sketch not only individual hairs but play with the idea of negative space around the fur which would be taken up in some cases by the white hairs in the fur, and also the sense of volume shown through those hair lines created just with watercolor strokes. What I was looking for throughout that portrait was a vocabulary for each type of hair. I find those types of puzzles fun.

Here I wanted to capture the looseness of the hair so I elected to work with a very minimal graphite sketch (simply the position of the head and minimal positional lines for the features). Then I worked wet-in-wet with watercolor to get the looseness I wanted.

For me the decision on how to render hair in any given situation begins with the choice of sketching medium and an understanding of whether or not I want to move on to paint.

In the image at the left I wanted to keep the looseness of the subject’s hair and avoid any distracting ink lines so I used a minimal graphite pencil sketch and wet-in-wet strokes of watercolor. When the initial colors were laid in some drier strokes were placed to create more contrast. It still retains softness. Ink lines would simply have been in the way of what I wanted to accomplish.

Of course just because you start with a plan doesn’t mean you can’t change it half way through—that’s one of the beautiful things about gouache as a medium. You can start a sketch thinking that you’ll add light washes to it and live with the ink lines as part of the painting, but something might hit you part way through the sketch and you can decide to use gouache opaquely to hide those ink lines. (Or let some ink lines show and others disappear.)

Testing pen and gouache on Fabriano Artistico HP 140 lb. Watercolor paper. I began with a Uniball sketch. See the text for more details.

That’s what happened when I worked on this final sketch.  I began with a Uniball sketch on a piece of watercolor paper I was testing. I was going to simply apply some loose washes of watercolor, but the gouache was out from a previous project so I pulled the plate of paint over and started putting down some washes.

I wanted a little modeling on the face, but what I was most interested in was the hair.

With gouache you have the ability to lay light colors on top of darker colors, so I got to play with that aspect of the paint as well.

While the subject really did have beautifully styled hair, my result is not a realistic portrayal of each individual hair beautifully coiffed. My goal was to create a mass which had “decorative” elements generated by the use of color and line in a more stylized way.

Is it too fussy? Yes, especially the beard, in which I made several contradictory choices—something you can do with gouache and then work through. But this was an experiment from the beginning so I like to let myself be fussy and see what comes of it.

Why Discuss Hair?

I do like to have a point to my posts. Today I just wanted to show you some different ways I’ve been playing with rendering hair, in the hope that you will start thinking about hair as something that can be super fun. It can be a solid that in some way recedes from the main focus of your subject’s head, it can be something you labor over and provide even excessive detail for. From suggestion to fussy is a wide continuum. Where you decide to land on that continuum will be influenced by the tools and media you elect to use.

Think of hair as a great way to stretch your sketching abilities. You’ll need to show dimension and volume, detail, texture, color, line, value…

Check out how I dealt with the issue of value in this dog portrait.  (I used a Uniball with green black in to sketch and then went to watercolor; saturation of the dark values helps the eye to see the form.)

Think of hair as a great way to experiment with a new tool or medium.

Think of hair as a great way to test a new paper, or to test a familiar paper’s ability to handle different tools and media.

Start thinking about how sketching hair can help you find new ways of rendering volume and detail. This can lead you to breaking habits which hold back your experiments. Sketching hair can also lead you to discovering what matters to you in your sketches and how that relates to your style. (Yes, it’s that important.)

There are so many possibilities with hair. I hope you explore some of them today.


  1. Reply

    I buy it – this is totally hair for me, in all three of the works! I especially love the blending the three primaries, it’s beautifully vague, in a positive way!

    1. Reply

      I’m glad you enjoyed this!

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