UART Tip #17: Drawing Short Hair in Colored Pencil with John Middick

“How can I draw short hair that looks more realistic?”

I’ve heard this question quite often from new and seasoned artists alike. It seems there’s a bit of mystery surrounding the process, so I want to offer my own perspective on achieving realistic hair in your portraits.

In this demonstration I’ll show you how to draw short hair with lightfast colored pencils. I’ll be using UART Sanded Paper in 800 grit for my drawing.  This subject’s hair is light brown with some blond areas as highlights.  The subject is looking in the direction of the early morning sun, so the light is mostly horizontal.

Let’s give it a go!

First Things First

Start by creating an outline where the hairline begins and where it ends to help identify the size and shape of the head.  Take the time to go back and measure this several times throughout the drawing process.  If the hairline is inaccurate, the entire head may appear too small or too large–and no one wants that! A little extra attention to detail at the beginning can save your finished piece.


Determine the Overall Shape

Next, look at the overall large shapes of the hair.  Think of these shapes as blocks or forms rather than individual strands.  You’ll add in individual strands in the final stages, but keep those out for now. Instead, work slowly on individual chunks. This will help you achieve a convincing, organic look.

If you’re having problems seeing the areas as these unrecognizable shapes, you can turn your drawing upside down in order to see the direction and shape of the hair.

A Few Guidelines

Here are some general guidelines for drawing realistic hair:

  1. Make your pencil stroke angles the same direction as the hair.
  2. Rather than creating hard angles, shoot for more fluid, tapered angles. Otherwise, your hair may look like plastic or straw.
  3. Make the hair appear soft or more fuzzy in order to avoid a harsh unnatural look.
  4. Always work in layers, just like you do with anything else in colored pencil.
  5. Preserve highlights by penciling in the lighter colored areas first, even if you go over these areas later with a darker pencil. It’s always better to have too many lighter colored areas– you can always darken their value later if you need to.
  6. Don’t be afraid to make your shadows very dark. I used a deep indigo blue in the darkest areas of this hair to create a very dark recess in color.


A Note on Color

When using colored pencil, it is important to preserve lighter areas.  In this demonstration I created some areas where the lighter cream colors would be needed later on.

One mistake I often see new artists make is using bright yellow to depict blond. Don’t do it! In most cases, you can use cream to depict a blond highlight. You can even use grays or reds and purples depending on the temperature of the colors surrounding the hair.  Shadows, on the other hand, may still be very dark–even in lighter hair.

I try to work in with one or two pencils at a time and move around the hair with those same two pencils to make sure there is consistency in the color.

Let Go of Perfection

The nice thing about drawing hair is that the tiny details can vary somewhat from your reference; after all, everyone’s hair changes day to day.  The overall shape, general direction, values, and texture need to be accurate, but there is actually a great deal of freedom. We don’t typically have that luxury when drawing other parts of a portrait.

Hair can be tricky to tackle, and it will not look very accurate for a long time while you’re working on it.  Keep your vision of how you want it to look in the end, progress slowly, and keep reestablishing the highlights and the dark areas.  Your end result will be worth it!

John Middick

For more tips and techniques in colored pencil, be sure to check out John’s weekly podcast at