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How to Draw Hair: Step by Step with Lord Gris

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Lord Gris (aka Griselda) is a video game asset designer and self-proclaimed hikikomori queen who lives in Portland. Her drawing tools of choice are Autodesk SketchBook and a Microsoft Surface Pro. We love the way she draws hair so much we asked her to show us her process. If you love her process as much as we do, you can download this How To Draw Hair PDF and keep it handy. You can also watch the YouTube speedpaint video if you want to see her drawing in action. 

Hair has a voice. Hair that is neat or hair that is messy can speak volumes about a character before they even open their mouth. In a way it has its own body language. Hair can give a powerful presence when it is flying away from the character, or a vulnerable presence when it clings to the body. You can use it to create movement in your piece if it blows in one direction or the other or even giving it a zero gravity effect by having it float upward. Remember, art is a world where physics does not need to play a role in your piece. Be creative!

the different hair types
Straight, wavy, curly? Decide ahead of time and work toward it.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Does your character prefer long hair or short hair?
  • Do they like to ornately decorate it or keep it simple?
  • Do they favor bright colors or plain colors?
  • Do they cover parts of their face with it or keep it out of their face entirely?
  • If your character had to pick an updo, what would it be?
  • What kind of bangs, if any, does your character prefer?
  • Where do they part their hair?
Six types of hairstyles
Decide ahead of time whether your character’s hairstyle will be long and flowing or pinned up in some way.

Creating negative space

Ways I like to keep hair interesting is by using it to incorporate negative space in the drawing. Negative space is a fancy term to describe the undrawn space of your page. There can be a lot of elegance found in empty spaces. I often prefer to choose short hair cuts because it allows the delicate region of the neck and shoulders to pop while framing the face.

hair as body language

However, long hair can dance around the character, touching the body and bouncing away creating all kinds of elegant empty pockets around the character. Instead of drawing your hair as just one big shape on the page look for ways to separate the strands from one another and create space between them.

Step 1: Setup

For this tutorial I rely mainly on this inking brush and the round blender tool. I rarely keep my brushes set to full opacity unless I am laying down base colors or shadows. Typically my brush setting looks something like this:

Brush choice for drawing hair

Step 2: Create the Base Shape

First thing I do is draw myself a little baldy. This helps me determine the size of the head so I can draw the hair proportionately. Next, I’ll map out the hair line on a new layer determining if I want to include things such as sideburns or a widow’s peaks. I typically like to use a bright blue for my sketch lines because I feel like it shows up best on skin tones.

step one
I like to use a bright blue for sketch lines. It shows up well on skin tones.

On a new layer, sketch out the general flow of the hair. Don’t stress too much. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The main things I aim for in this stage is creating strands of hair, making sure I create interesting spaces between them, and making sure I create bits that overlap or go in separate directions instead of all moving the same way.

step two

Create a new layer, and color your hair by shaping it out in one solid base color. Once I’ve done this, I turn off the visibility of the sketch layers. Feel free to play around with lots of different colors here, the joys of digital art are that you can try things out endlessly.

step three

To avoid harsh lines around the hairline, I use the blending tool to soften the intersection of forehead and hair.

Step 3: Add Shadows and Highlights

I then create a new layer and set it to Multiply. I use this layer to separate the mass of hair into chunks. For this particular sketch, I used an indigo color. This is not where your darkest colors come from, so don’t worry if it appears too light.

step four
I always try to use colors in my shadows instead of greys. My favorite color choices for shadows are blue, purple, or red.

Create another layer and set it to Multiply. Use this layer to shade the hair according to the light source of your choice. I try to see hair as one large shape at this stage, and I typically add shadows on the undersides of the curves. I prefer these shadows to be very soft. In the previous step I used a full opacity brush to create the hair chunks, but I use a low opacity brush and blend it out on this layer.

step five

Create a new layer and add your highlights on this layer. When it comes to choosing highlight colors I almost never use true white in a piece. True white is a very rare color to encounter even in real life. I try to choose vey light versions of whatever color I’m working with, but depending on your lighting, using a bright color (such as bright blue or green to highlight dark hair colors) can serve as an interesting highlight color.

When highlighting hair I like to create H shapes on the strands, making the highlight longer and thicker on the edges and narrower in the middle. I often place my highlights directly above areas where I added shadows.

step five
For highlights, I like to create “H” shapes. Make the highlight longer/thicker on the edges and narrower in between. Place highlights directly above shadows.

This is the layer where I start defining areas that need to be darker, typically the spaces around the neck and the part of the hair. I decided the highlights would pop more if I darkened the entire piece so I created a new Multiply layer and added a flat shadow across the hair. I also added a shadow from the bangs across the forehead. Don’t ever stress that the way you work is messy or unorganized. Most of us do not work as neatly as we like to present ourselves.

step six
I started making shadows dark but realized they needed to be even darker.

Don’t get the idea from this tutorial that every artist works extremely straightforward like this and has an exact idea of what they’re doing. I certainly don’t. Hair is a lot of tedious building up of layers, and as I’m going along I often redo things entirely. Even after choosing a color for the shadows, I went back and re-did that layer a handful of times because I couldn’t settle on a color. At this point, I decided the highlights would pop more if I darkened the entire piece so I created a new Multiply layer and added a flat shadow across the hair. I also added a shadow from the bangs across the forehead. Don’t ever stress that the way you work is messy or unorganized. Most of us do not work as neatly as we like to present ourselves.

Step 4: Add Finishing Touches

Now is the time to do some refining, adding more highlights, extra strands of hair, small lines to define the bangs, and generally tweaking anything that’s bothering you. For me it was the area on the left side of the face; it had an unnatural flow to me so I turned it into a loose braid.

step eight
Defining the shadows and highlights at this point makes a big difference.

I often enjoy adding a luminescent quality to my hair. Creating a Glow effect on hair is a lot easier than people might expect. Just keep in mind that glows are more effective the darker you make the surrounding background. For this effect, I create a new layer and set it to Screen. I then paint a bright color over the hair and the surroundng area (for this I used fully saturated aqua), and I use the smudge tool to soften the area that breaks away from the hair. I also lower the opacity of the layer to about 25-30%.

step nine

The final thing I like to do to finish a piece is to create a new layer set to Screen. I then use the gradient tool and overlay a gradient across the whole piece and reduce the opacity of this layer to about 10%. This creates a subtle fade and uniformity of colors that I feel like pulls the whole piece together. It also softens any colors that may have been too dark.

step 10
Try adding a very subtle screened gradient to the final drawing to make all this work more uniform.

And You’re Done!

final drawing

For more of Lord Gris, follow her on Instagram or check out her Etsy shop for prints and charms. Or, watch her work in this speedpaint video: