Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Hair on My Portrait Painting Looks Wiggy

Painting hair on a portrait could cause dismay if previous results look too perfect or uniform. In some cases, a head of hair may look more like one object rather than thousands of strands that yield to the touch. In others, the hair may look as springy as nylon where each root appears rather too abruptly at the hairline. How does the artist paint realistic hair?

Problems When Painting Human Hair

How to Paint Human Hair
Rachel Shirley
In order to paint hair with realism, the artist must first identify painting practices at fault and make changes. Culprits to painting unconvincing hair could be any of the following:
  • Using the same brown, white, beige or black colour to represent a whole head of hair.
  • Trying to illustrate every strand of hair with fine linear brushstrokes.
  • Painting the hair in accordance to an idealised root pattern, such as one that converges from one point at the top of the head.
  • Treating the hair as a separate entity to the rest of the portrait.
  • Using the same tone or colour to represent whole strands of hair from roots to tip.
  • Using only white to represent the highlights on hair.
  • Trying to illustrate eyebrows and eyelashes in a purely linear fashion or using the same colour throughout.
  • Using black dots to represent stubble or shaved hair.
How to Paint Human Hair Realistically

Whether the artist is painting from a photograph or from life, it is important to make sensitive observations when painting hair. This means not making assumptions about how hair should look like and to paint what the eye sees. In order to paint convincing hair in portraits, the artist can make improvement by the following tips.
  • Not every strand of hair will be visible from root to tip. Some will tuck under or undulate at various points. Others will stray from the head, due to static.
  • Human hair often contains strands of different shades and even colours. Blond hair, for instance often contain darker strands in the lower layers. Dark hair will often appear bleached on the upper layers due to sun exposure. Some heads of hair contain flecks of salt and pepper.
  • Hair will often contain the most unlikely colours. Black hair, for instance, may appear blue at the highlights. Brown hair often contains crimsons or even violets. Blond hair often contains honey shades.
  • The tonal value of hair will often appear to vary according to the thickness of the hair layer. Areas around the hairline, edges of the eyebrows or at the nape will appear paler than where hair is thicker.
  • Good photographic reference will help when painting hair. This means working from a sharp photo in order to maximise realism.
But one of the commonest mistakes when painting hair is to illustrate each small strand in a linear way. Stubble, for instance should never be illustrated as dark dots. From afar, it will often appear as a tone between the flesh colour and the colour of the stubble, which may be grey. The same rule applies to eyebrows and hairlines.

Techniques for Painting Hair

Various oil painting techniques are suitable for painting hair, depending upon the effect desired. It is often better to suggest detail than illustrate every strand, or the hair could end up looking harsh. Begin by blurring the eyes to get an overall impression of the hair, breaking it down into basic areas of highlight, shade and colours. Apply large areas of colour and tone first. Using glazes will help achieve a high finish by smoothing gradations and creating rich colours in the hair. This can be done by mixing a little linseed oil into the oil paint and applying the colour in layers, allowing each to dry. Blending is also important.

If realism is the goal, picking out selected areas of the hair and illustrating them will help give the impression of overall detail and avoid the hair becoming an unwanted focal point. After glazing, drag neat paint over a selected area with a fine sable. This can be used to illustrate flyaway hair or hairs that stray over the face.

Oil Painting Materials for Painting Hair

I personally use the following oil colours for hair: burnt umber, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, pthalo blue, permanent rose, cadmium red, cadmium yellow and white. Fine sables sizes 6 for applying glazes and 1 or 3 for detail are ideal. Linseed oil or alkyd medium is ideal for thinning the paint for glazes. Of course, good photographic reference or a patient model is essential.

Related Links on Portrait Painting


aline said...

Great post with lots of really good information!
Portrait Painting

Irish Erin said...

Thank You. I am a beginner and have only painted landscapes because the thought of painting people was horrifying! But, I decided to tackle the challenge because the longer I wait, the less practice I get. All of your info. from hair to eyes to noses is very helpful and makes me feel alot better about this new adventure. I am very excited to get started and with all of your tips and knowledge I know with determination and practice I can do it. I will be purchasing your books for is difficult to find books so detailed and books about oil painting are few. Especially portraits. THANK YOU ERIN Altoona, PA

Rachel said...

Thank you for your kind comments. Yes, painting portraits can seem intimidating at first. I have published problem solving books on oil painting (mostly landscapes and still life) but have yet to publish one on portraits. This is on my 'to do' list.

Dee said...

Thanks your help. I am working from an old black and white photo that has intense sunlight on windblown hair. Because it is a black and white photo, I am having trouble deciding what colors to use in the brown hair and how to represent the sunlit hair. Any suggestions will be appreciated.