Watercolour tends to flow all over the place without much rhyme or reason, especially if you’re a beginner. You can, however, be incredibly precise with it once you practice enough and know the right techniques!

If you can paint hair, you can paint a lot of other things realistically as well, so let’s follow Fiona Di Pinto’s Live Demo for painting dark-coloured hair.  

Brown Hair  

Step 1: Lightest Colour 

To paint realistic hair, it’s important to get the highlights and undertones right before moving on to the dominant colour. For brown hair, these colours will be a range of light, warm browns, and a slight amount of rosy colour. Let’s start with a light brown like Burnt Sienna. Don’t wet the page first, just let the lines be crisp.  

If you want to use a smaller brush than I’m using, go right ahead! Painting hair requires decisive, precise, and quick brushstrokes.  

Step 2: Layering 

Now for any layer in this project, the layer underneath it must be complete, 100% dry. Feel free to use a hairdryer for this if you are in a hurry, or you can use a heat tool made for drying paint. Fiona has one of these heat tools.  

Take a warmer, slightly darker brown, like Umber Brown in the Watercolour 24 Half Pan Set. Paint over the first layer with the same quick, precise motions, leaving plenty of room for that first layer to show underneath in places where the light shines on it. Already you have light values, and it’s only been two layers!  

Step 3: Deepening Contrast 

Now, add a cooler, darker brown the same way you did the second layer, allowing the layers underneath it to show in lighter areas. The more layers you add, the more precise you’ll want to be with your brushstrokes because you’re going to be getting closer and closer to painting individual strands of hair. 

Step 4: Enriching the Colour 

In the reference photo Fiona uses, the model’s hair has a reddish undertone. We’re going to go in with some pink (I used Etchr’s Sweet Red) and very lightly paint over some of the hair with it. We’re not painting pink strands, we’re just covering all the layers with pink in places where the lighting is appropriate for it. 

Step 5: Darkest Shades 

To finish this piece of hair, take the darkest brown you have and add it in the shadow areas and anywhere you think needs to be a bit more defined. You can also add little strands on the side to show more texture.  

Step 6: Optional Finishing Touches 

If you have white paint, you can paint over your work and add some strands of hair that the sun is shining on. This can add more dimension. It won’t look the same as the white paper, so don’t overdo it.  

There you have it! A lock of dark brown hair. The key to making it so realistic looking was making sure those lighter layers stayed visible the whole time. Whenever you look at people’s hair in public, you’ll notice how the light makes huge portions of it look a lot lighter than its actual colour.  

Black Hair  

The secret to painting any pitch-black object is to start with blue! In this context, it can be counterintuitive, because nobody has blue hair naturally. You just need to trust the process here, even when the painting looks odd in certain stages.  

Step 1: Blue 

I have made the blue a bit darker than it needs to be so that you can see it better, but not by much. You’ll want to use a cool blue, like ultramarine, and water it down to make it light. Leave some white too! You never know when some bright highlights will come in handy. 

Step 2: Brown 

Black hair tends to also have a brown undertone, so let’s add that now with a nice cool shade of brown. The technique is the same as for the brown hair: only add new layers when the previous paint is dry, and leave all previous layers showing to some degree so that there’s dimension and light in the image.  

Step 3: Blue-Grey 

Mix some blue and brown until you have a bluish-grey that you like. Paint over the brown in a new layer. You’ll see the result look more like black hair now!  

You can even paint over some of the sections with the blue from the beginning, in the same way, that you used the pink on the brown hair! It will make the layers all blend cohesively. Just don’t overdo it, because you still want to be able to see distinct layers.  

Keep adding blue-grey and brown where you see fit until the colours have layered together into a nice shiny black. You’ll notice that layering colours make black look so much nicer than using black straight from the paintbox because this way you have more light effects and richer depth.  

Once you’re happy with painting individual sections of hair like this, you can add the techniques to complete portrait paintings! The reason we practice in small samples like this is to lower the stakes because if it’s a huge portrait painting you might feel more anxiety about messing up. Practice on as big or as small of paintings as you feel comfortable with! 

For a more in-depth painting session with Fiona Di Pinto, I highly recommend checking out her 90-minute class! Also, if you subscribe to our email newsletter, you’ll get new updates anytime there’s another helpful lesson! I hope you enjoy it!

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator/writer living in the south Idaho hill country. She  loves to create cozy, homey pictures and populate them with funny little creatures  having surreal little adventures. Her biggest inspiration is the music and comedy that  came out of England in the late 60s. When she’s not busy making art, she goes for long  hikes, plays a few instruments, and collects vinyl.

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