The Challenge of Painting Hair

I have always found the unique texture of hair, somewhat challenging to replicate with a paint brush.   Below, is an update of my portrait of Emily, who has thick, lustrous locks of hair (a very distinctive attribute in achieving her likeness).  I’ve been working on this piece off and on for several months, becoming absorbed in those dense, silky waves of texture that flow across her delicate cheek, and onto her shoulders.

I use several different methods for replicating hair.  The detail below, displays a method which requires a thorough understanding of the layering process.  It starts as a solid mid-tone, and slowly becomes darker and darker. Rather than thinking of the hair as individual strands, I look for shapes which describe masses of light and shadow.  These shapes can be large and general, or extremely intricate.  Ultimately I aim to depict every shape that helps to reveal the dimensional qualities of her hair.  High-lights are added selectively after an adequate density of dark shapes are developed, mainly to bring out areas that have become too flat.  The hair alone has been a laborious process that has proven to be much more time-consuming then I had anticipated, but it’s a labor of love!

One of the challenges in painting dark hair in general is that the value range is very close.  Most of the actual strands of hair, with the exception of high-lights, are in the dark to mid-tone range.  Without exaggerating the tonal contrasts, one must pay close attention to the subtle variations of color.  In Emily’s hair, there are numerous ranges of warm reddish-browns, ochres and cool blue-grey high-lights.  Typically I will over-exaggerate the tonal contrasts, and in the final stages, use several large body glazes to integrate everything back into the whole.  As you can see, I still have a ways to go with this one.

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