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How to Draw Hair

December 4, 201233 Comments

Assignment: Draw the Hair

Find some good photos online (get some with clear light and shadows). Don’t use photo taken with a flash. Many magazine photos of hairstyles have flat lighting that you should avoid drawing from. Follow my step-by-step lesson to complete the drawing. Capture the major forms of the hair before you add the strands.

Post your work for feedback in the facebook group and help other students improve their drawings. A great way to learn is to teach someone else. Explaining something forces you to organize the information in your mind and helps you remember it.


I feel like hair is one of the most difficult things for people to draw. A lot of us approach it in the wrong way. We just jump in a start scratching away. Drawing hair takes patience. There’s a lot of little shapes, lines, highlights, and its easy to get impatient and sloppy. But we really need to slow down and approach it one step at a time. And when you get to the details, you need to focus on designing, not just copying as you see it.

sculpted hair volumes
The approach to drawing hair should be the same as sculpting hair. You don’t sculpt hair with individual strands. You find the volumes of the groups. Think of the hair as a 3 dimensional form, just like, the nose. and lips. It has mass. And it has all the same elements of light, although slightly hidden by the texture and all the strands. Ignoring the form and going straight for the texture results in spaghetti hair. it just looks like a bunch of lines coming off the head.


So, the first volume we need to think about actually isn’t even the volume of the hair. It’s the volume of the head. Or, whatever it is that the hair is on. If you’re drawing a Dog, you gotta think about the rib cage or the legs.

The groups of hair wrap around the form underneath and inherit the same light patterns. In this example, I made sure to shade the large group of hair to resemble the rounded form under it, before I added all the texture on top. The left side of the hair mass is all shadow, then it transitions and has a bunch of halftone shapes, and then all the highlights are on the right.

forms underneath the hair

Now we get to the part where we draw the locks of hair. And everybody’s hair type is different. If it’s straight, you’re just gonna get a cylinder. If it’s curly, you’re gonna have a lot of little locks, and that design problem becomes a bit more difficult. But whatever the hair type, figure out what those shapes are and design them as volumes, not strands. So, for example here’s a lock of hair. It’s like a ribbon with some thickness to it. This ribbon has shadow, halftone, and a highlight.

It doesn’t look like hair, but it does look 3-dimensional. To make it look like hair we need to add a 4th element – Texture.

basic forms of hair strands


This includes the separations between the smaller groups of hair, a few lines representing strands, and breaking up the contours. There will be stray strands that soften and break up the edge between hair and background. Make sure to add variation along the edges to make it more interesting and believable. The connection to the skin shouldn’t be outlined.

Show some gradations, otherwise it will look like a wig or clip-on beard.

skin to hair gradation

When adding the texture part, its all about the design. Don’t get too repetitive with the strokes.

Try to create organic and interesting shapes with the overlaps and groupings. There needs to be a good balance of simple areas and complex areas with a lot of detail. Get the illusion of the strands. Don’t try to draw every single strand.

Have confidence with every stroke. It’s better to draw a quick confident strand slightly out of place, then a wobbly ugly stroke in the right place. Don’t be timid. This happens when drawing strands that drop down the forehead. People don’t want to mess up the face. But, it doesn’t matter if it’s in the perfect spot… Hair moves.

Usually you want to start the stroke at the root and let it taper towards the tip. But if you have good control of the pencil, you can taper correctly from either side. make sure you’re holding the pencil like a brush and use the length of the charcoal to get thin lines, and the side to get soft thick lines. Transitioning from one to the other gets you a nice taper.

Designing Shadows

I like to approach shadows as flat graphic shapes. It’s important to get an attractive, well balanced separation of light and dark before beginning to render/shade. Try to find ways to connect as many shadow shapes as you can. Even with curly hair, where you have a lot of little shapes, it’s important to connect them. Otherwise you’ll have too many floating shapes which can be distracting. This goes back to good design. Inside the shadows, keep the texture and contrast to a minimum. You want the focus to stay in the lit areas of the hair.

Designing Halftones

The areas that will have the most visible texture is the halftones. These areas get a little bit of light from the highlight side and some darks from the shadow side creating the most contrast and detail in these areas.

Don’t forget that halftones are mostly gradations. They gradate towards shadow on one side and towards highlights on the other.

gradate halftones

Designing Highlights

Highlight areas should still appear light after the texture is added. That means strand texture should be thinner, lighter, and sometimes remove texture all together. Have the highlights glow. Try to connect them as much as possible only leaving a few lonely highlights. And try not to make each highlight the same. Give them variety in length, thickness, edge, and value.

So, let’s take a quick look at how I broke down this drawing into steps.

As always, I started with the linear layin getting the major shapes and rhythms.

Then I separated the lights from the shadows focusing on the design of the graphic shapes.

step 1 layin
step 2 designing of graphic shapes

In this step I added dark accents inside the shadows to separate the reflected lights from occlusion shadows. And in the lights, I added gradations from halftone to highlight. At this point, the drawing should look 3-dimensional, since we’ve added all the basic elements of light on form.
step 3 dark accents occlusion shadows
step 4 texture of the strands

In the final step, I added the texture of the strands. The strokes should follow the rhythm of the locks we defined in the previous steps. Notice that drawing the strands is the last step, Not the first.

Check out the next lesson on Portrait Drawing in Graphite – Timelapse.


Want to learn more? Be sure to check out the Portrait Drawing Fundamentals course, which includes step by step instruction, real-time demos, 3D models & Full Demonstrations.

Filed in: Portrait / HeadVideos

Comments (33)

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  1. Pete luke says:

    Awesome video Stan. Would love to see the last step in greater detail. Thanks

  2. Kyle Webster says:

    Excellent, as always, Stan!

  3. Christine says:

    what great information…thank you so much…

  4. Hi Stan,

    I regularly watch your Video’s it is short but well informative,
    I Lerne lot of small but Very Important lesson about Drawing
    God Bless You…

    awating for next IMP Video…

    Many Thanks

  5. Allen says:

    Nice video, but not understanding how you draw in the highlighted strands……

  6. Josh says:

    Great tutorial. I especially like the confidence tip. That’s something that you could use for any stage of drawing (especially gesture).

    Glad I found this. 🙂

  7. jz says:

    Hi stan, nice videos , can you make a video for figure drawing?/

  8. Hayley says:

    This is a great tutorial but I was wondering if you could elaborate a little on what to do for dark hair. I haven’t seen very much on dark hair and whenever I try it, it ends up looking like a helmet. My hair is nearly black and has very little highlight in the light, so I don’t want the shadows to get lost in the darker parts if I draw myself.

    • Hayley, yes darker hair sometimes can look like a large black shape. Even the halftones can be so dark that all you see is the highlight.. However, there is still value variation within all that dark – its really subtle. You just need to stay clean and separate those values with clear edges. If your paper is showing too much texture, then the paper texture might overpower the texture of the hair in the shadows, so watch out for that. Make sure that highlight shape looks good, with attractive variety of edge because its the lead role in dark hair. You can always exaggerate the highlight to make the forms look better..

      btw, less value information in the hair can sometimes be a good thing. It can act as a nice frame around the face.. And an area of rest. check out these drawing by Lipking:

      It’s the masterful edge-work that makes this hair look good

      this is a hat, but its a good example of how a flat black can be a good design element×24.jpg

  9. Dona says:

    I’m actually an old woman, but I’ve never seen such a good and simple lessons as yours. Thank you 🙂

    PS. Sorry for my poor English and greetings from Poland.

  10. Mira says:

    Hi Stan,
    Great video as always. Could you tell me what pencil you’re using? I usually use dry charcoal pencils, but they are not as smooth on paper as yours seems to be. Also, do you use those pencils for sketching or just to create shadows and halftones?
    Thanks in advance!

  11. Carlos says:

    is there a way to buy the portrait on the video? i really love this drawing, and the black and white contrast

  12. Ginni says:

    Hey..I would learn a learn a lot if you could post video of actually sketching hair..could learn from your hand movement and other techniquies..i m kinda lost with verbal explations in this video..:)

  13. desi says:

    thank you very much for your tutorials!:D i have a question not related to this video (I don’t know where to ask it): how to draw freckles?

  14. rupi says:

    I learned so much more from your tutorials than i have from my teachers! How would I go about drawing a buzzcut? i find it hard to make it look like actual hair 🙁

    • For a buzzcut try to focus on the shape of the head first. The head defines the major form. Then you can add the texture of the hair. Without the form of the head it will just look like a mess of lines.

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  18. Joshua Taft says:

    Like my comment about the eyes, this is something that I also started learning from other videos, and also like the eyes, I like how you do shading first and then start adding details. Gonna learn to use this method from now on.

    • Joshua Taft says:

      And actually, could you actually show a video, even just a time laps, showing you actually draw a body of hair. It would help to have a visual representation in (sudo) real time to learn from.

  19. Isabelle says:

    None of these images are showing up for me…

  20. Andoman says:

    nice video, keep up the good work stan

  21. Sean Ramsey says:

    It will be out later this year. If you subscribe to the newsletter, you’ll get notified when it comes out.

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