Watercolor hair painting tutorial | 21 tips for realistic hair

Watercolor hair painting tutorial | 21 tips for realistic hair

I wanted to make this video a how to guide
for painting realistic hair in watercolor because over the past weeks I spent some time
working on that, I made mistakes, I failed, I started over several times, I made adjustments,
and in the course of all of that, I identified no less than 21 tips that helped me paint
this piece. I compiled everything into this step by step video and I’m sure there will
be things that can help someone else step up their painting game so if that’s what you’re
looking for, keep on watching ! You’ll find tons of value in this video, especially because
I’m breaking it down through a beginner’s eyes by writing everything down as I progress
with the medium myself, and I find that most times, tutorials overlook simple yet essential
tips and things to be aware of or do that are really going to help a beginner get past
difficulties and make progress at watercolor. Hi, I’m Françoise, welcome to my channel !
I segmented my 21 tips into 4 main stages and I’ll be illustrating them and also showing
you the speed painting for this piece as I go through the tips.
Stage one is all about how to prepare for the painting by picking the right supplies
and paints rather than just start painting unprepared.
My first tip for this is to take a good look at your reference, and identify how many shade
variations you see between the darkest and lightest parts. If you don’t have a reference
I’d suggest to find one that you can use as a guide for this tip.
For me, I see dark brown as my main color in the reference I used for this but it’s
not everywhere the same. I see four shade variations of this brown color, a very light
shade, one a bit darker, one even darker, and lastly a really dark shade. So now I know
I should probably work with 4 washes of paint to which I’ll add more or less water in order
to match the intensity of the shade variations I spotted in my reference. The number of washes
also determines the number of layers I’m going to apply, so here I’m planning on 4 layers.
The first one will be the lightest wash, and the last one will be the darkest wash. I’d
say that roughly, 3 to 5 washes should do for any watercolor hair painting, at least
3 for good contrast, but no more than 5 otherwise you may end up feeling distracted and finding
it hard to get your contrast on point through way too many layers.
One thing I do after I make my washes is to swatch them, just to make sure they look increasingly
darker, just like what I’m demonstrating here. Tip number two is to try and keep your color
scheme as simple as possible and avoid mixing too many colors or using washes of different
shades. Having too many colors to mix may not help if you run out of your washes and
need to make new ones and having to find the right mixing ratio again. And on the other
hand, using washes that don’t come from the same shade will complicate things even more
and the hair won’t look natural. What I mean by that, is, unless you’re looking at someone
with a fancy and elaborate hair color, most people’s natural hair is mostly one shade
that appears more or less dark depending on the lighting. This is the goal with my watercolor
technique, finding the shade you want, for me here, a dark brown, and adding more or
less water to it to make a really saturated wash, a really light one, and some washes
in between. Tip number three is to experiment with your
paints to recreate the hair shade you see in your reference picture and prepare a few
washes of it. If you don’t have a reference, at least figure out what color you want to
use and get the paint ready. For this painting for instance, I used a mixture
of burnt sienna, sepia, paynes gray, plus a bit of black and by the way, I’ll link my
paints along with everything else I’m using in the description below.
When it comes to finding the right shade, you may wonder how did I come up with this
color scheme ? I used an app and a technique that I already detailed in the video popping
up here, if you want to check it out next. I’ll link it again at the end of this video
and in the description if you’re interested in learning how to find the right mixes to
achieve a very specific shade. Now the « picking the right shade » matter
is out of the way, we need to focus on the other supplies you’ll be using for best results.
Tip number four is to pick not the best brush but your best brush for this watercolor hair
painting. There are paintbrushes out there that are great for painting fine lines, line
the one I own here, the Silver black Velvet round brush, size 8. Before I got it, I practiced
hair with what I had available to me and it worked because I did have a few paintbrushes
that get to a fine tip and remain that way while painting, I’m thinking of my Raphaël
natural hair fiber paintbrushes for instance. What I’d recommend you to do is to test out
all of your paintbrushes if you need to, to determine which one will get you the prettiest
and finest strokes for hair. Unless all you own are flat paintbrushes or really big ones,
you should be fine and not have to invest into a specific paintbrush. If you need to
or just want to get a new paintbrush that’s great for details, I’d recommend to try those
Silver Velvet round brushes, again you’ll find the link in the description.
Tip number five is to pick the right paper. This one is going to be easier than you think
because I tried the most common ones, both cold pressed and hot pressed paper for hair
painting and both work great. I personally usually dislike hot pressed paper for the
rest of my projects because I find it handles water poorly, which brought me to the conclusion
that hair painting allows a lot of flexibility when it comes to paper. I can see why, it’s
probably because for hair painting, we’re using very little water and tracing thin lines
all the way through, which makes it hard to see problems happening such as blooms or other
unwanted marks an excess of water would create in most watercolor projects. I used the Arches
hot pressed paper here, but I’m confident that other less expensive brands will work
just fine, for the reason I just gave you. Less water, much less limitations when it
comes to watercolor paper ! For me this is a big plus for painting hairstyles in watercolor,
it’s also a pretty repetitive exercise, so once you get the process, how to trace nice
strokes, once you figure out your colors and know how to get your contrast looking good,
you can easily replicate this kind of project and improve on it with basic watercolor supplies.
Tip number six is to practice one lock of hair on a separate sheet of paper, mainly
to practice the strokes, the layering process, contrast, to see how you washes turn out once
dry, and generally, to avoid disappointment and having to start a whole piece over and
waste supplies. I did this here for instance, I experimented with different techniques,
paintbrushes, colors and when I was ready to go I felt a lot more confident that I could
pull off this project. We’re getting into the second stage of the
painting and it’s the sketching part. Tip number seven is to outline the hair style
first, then draw main locks. The key here is to focus on the bigger picture, not the
tiny details ! Tip number eight, and I quickly found out
at my expense, is to press enough with the pencil that your sketching lines remain visible
throughout the first layers. If the lines are really light, they will fade with the
very first layer and all the work you did on the sketch goes to waste. Painting within
the outline alone gets really confusing really fast, I tried it and it was a mess. These
locks really help focus on small parts of the hair and keep contrast in sight.
Tip number nine is to take off odd parts of the reference, if you’re using one and if
it’s just the hair you’re drawing, like i did here, so the overall look of the piece
looks balanced. Doing this is also a way to simplify the locks and the work as a whole.
Now all this is set, we’re off to a great start to begin painting. This is stage three
of my process, the painting technique to paint realistic hair in watercolor. Of course this
is just my way of doing it, what I came up with and what works for me for this style
of watercolor, so feel free to take away only what you need.
Tip number ten is to paint from top to bottom and left to right if you’re right handed for
instance. This may seem like an evidence, but who hasn’t ever smudged their watercolors
when they were first getting started ? One thing I noticed by the way is that with hot
pressed paper and the very thin strokes we’re making for hair, things will dry really fast
and I find it all the more enjoyable to paint hair, very relaxing and easy going overall.
Tip number eleven is to make your first layer with a solid base of your lightest wash, not
lines yet, since most of this first layer will get covered up anyways so why bother
getting too much detail there. There’s really no need for it here, unless you want to preserve
the white of the paper in places, if white is your lightest color, I’ve never tried that.
For my first layer I proceed wet on dry, only my brush is wet and loaded with paint and
I apply the paint directly on a dry surface. You can also do it wet on wet, but personally
I find I’m able to maintain a clean outline for the hairstyle with wet on dry since there
is a lot more control of the paint. On hot pressed, you will most likely see nasty stains
forming and start and stop points showing because things dry so fast, but it’s totally
fine since like I said we’re going to cover up so much of it you won’t even know the difference
later on, so don’t worry if the first layer looks awful !
Tip number twelve of the painting technique is to let every single layer dry completely
before moving on to the next one. If not, your clean hair strokes will turn into a hot
blurry mess and we will lose the realistic look and the definition of the hair in general.
Tip number thirteen is to use the wet on dry technique when you start making these fine
lines that stand for the hair. This tip links to the previous one in the sense that the
paper must be dry when painting the hair. The only exception I see to this is if you
were to go for a loose hair style, then it wouldn’t really matter if the paper was wet.
Tip number fourteen, is to paint in the direction the hair goes. Start on the top of the hair
lock and move down towards the middle of the strand. Do the same from the bottom of the
strand moving towards the middle again. Mimicking the hair direction really helps with it looking
more realistic and preserving the highlights. Tip number fifteen is to leave some parts
of the previous wash visible with each layer to build up contrast effectively. For instance,
once your first solid layer is dry, start on the second one by tracing hair everywhere
but on the very lightest parts you can spot on your reference. With the third and fourth
and maybe fifth layer, repeat and make sure to only work on the areas your layer is for
and to keep those highlights and the color gradient visible until the end.
This is the process I use for painting hair realistically, but there are ways to amplify
your technique for better results. This is what I’ll call stage four of my tutorial,
extra tips to make the most of your paintings. Tip number sixteen is to trace the hair lines
in chunks by overlapping them thickly on top of each other rather than creating stripes
that wouldn’t look so natural. You can clearly see the difference here. The chunks will get
thicker as you layer, so don’t be alarmed if the hair looks scarce and bland in the
early stages of the painting. Tip number seventeen is to keep your strokes
loose, not stiff and relax your hand as much as possible. Since hair don’t look stiff in
the first place, it will help with achieving realism to keep this detail in mind and mimic
it through the way you paint. Practice on a scrap piece of paper and it will come as
you get more comfortable. Tip number eighteen is to work with a brush
that’s wet enough to produce nice steady lines. When the paint you dip your brush in is a
bit too dry, this may be the case with the last and most saturated wash, it will be hard
to make clean and smooth lines. Just add a little bit of water if that happens.
Tip number nineteen is to be patient and wait for the last layer to reveal the beauty of
your painting. I find that first layers don’t often look too good with watercolors and I
know how easy it is to feel like giving up. If you ever have experienced this, it’s totally
normal, just keep going because the last layers are the ones that bring everything together,
but until you experience it for yourself, it can be hard to be persistent, so don’t
give up. Like I said at the beginning, I’m often having to start over or experiment but
the reward is great so it is really worth it to be persistent.
Tip number twenty is to take a step back, observe the reference and the painting and
assess if contrast looks good enough or if it needs more work. There are always small
things you can improve, but overall, if the hair looks a little bland, all you need to
do is to adjust contrast by adding a bit of a darker color to your last wash to accent
the shadows. For instance, in my painting, I added black to my last wash to make it a
bit darker and I reworked the areas I felt weren’t dark enough.
Tip number twenty one is to trace loose hair here and there, I love this step because it’s
fun and it really makes the hair look great. In my painting I added some throughout the
process because I wanted some to look light like they were farther back, or thinner, and
others to look darker, but you can keep this as a very last step if you prefer. Make sure
to use the previous tip of keeping it loose and relaxed to produce beautiful natural curves
in these hair. Start anywhere on the mane you have created and make hair of different
lengths, curves and directions. And even if not a lot of loose hair is visible on the
reference, don’t be afraid to add some. If you enjoyed this tutorial, check these
ones out and don’t forget to like, share, comment, subscribe and hit the notification
bell to see more of this portrait series ! See you in the next video !


  • lovepartypaint says:

    Great tips! Hair is so hard!

  • Blayac Fine Art says:

    What are you struggling with when it comes to portraits?

  • Geoff Rogerson says:

    I always appreciate your detailed voice-over explanations as you construct the artwork Francoise. Can you tell me if there's any way to recover highlights in the hair if you've inadvertently lost them as you apply the multiple layers of colour? Is it possible to use far lighter colours, say like the very first couple of washes, to re-crate the highlights, or is the damage irreparable? Or would they look to "added on" and unrealistic?

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