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An Introduction to Painting Realistic Hair in Adobe Photoshop

This post is part of a series called How to Paint Hair.
How to Paint Realistic Hair in Adobe Photoshop: Short Hair & Beards
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Realism is tricky, but if you can master it you'll bring your art to a whole new level.

In this tutorial, I'll be showing you how to paint four different hairstyles varying in texture and curl patterns. Learn the step-by-step process to achieving realism by being strategic with Layer Blend Modes.

1. Know Your Brushes

We can't start these paintings without first arming ourselves with the proper tools. And in order to paint digitally, I'll be using a Wacom Intuos 3 graphics tablet. There are so many brush options available online that it can be difficult to know which ones to choose. Let me make this process simple by telling you that you already have incredible brushes waiting for you in Adobe Photoshop CC.

Just hit F5 on your keyboard to bring up the Brush panel. Click over to Brush Presets and choose from the list of brushes already provided for you.

Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush

The main brush I'll use is my all-time favorite, the Hard Round Pressure Opacity brush. Because of its faded edges and its reliance on pen sensitivity, this brush is versatile enough to draw our sketches and paint flowy hair texture.

Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush Adobe Photoshop CC

Dry Brush

The second brush I'll need is a textural Dry Brush. To achieve that hyper-realistic effect, it's always good to add a little grit and texture to your work. Later on I'll use this brush to help recreate the texture of coarse, curly hair.

Dry Brush Adobe Photoshop CC

2. Use Photo References

Many beginners make the mistake of starting a painting without collecting references first. They see their favorite artists jumping right in, so they assume they should just follow their lead.

Realism takes time, so don't get ahead of yourself. There's no better way to understand how things look in real life than to study photography. Professional artists spend thousands of hours painting, re-creating, and studying certain lighting conditions so they're more familiar with common scenarios than the average person.

I'll be using these four pictures to help guide me along the way:

  1. Straight, Short Hair (Pixabay)
  2. Straight, Long Hair (PhotoDune)
  3. Wavy, Long Hair (PhotoDune)
  4. Curly, Coarse Hair (PhotoDune)

To Sketch or Trace?

There's always a debate war over the topic of tracing. I know it seems like cheating, but this is just practice and I don't want your feelings about your drawing ability to get in the way of picking up some other great tips. So even if you're not confident and feel as if you "can't draw", I promise you can still follow along. Simply trace over the image to get the sketch you need.

3. Understand Layer Blend Modes

Painting on layers set to different blend modes can save you loads of time when working in Photoshop. Here is the process I'll be using to paint each hairstyle. I don't necessarily follow this order every time, but I definitely start with layers set to Normal.


Set the document for your canvas at 300 dpi to make sure you're painting at a high resolution. You should always use the Normal blend mode for the initial sketch, to fill in the base colors, and for general painting.

Draw Hair Sketches on a layer set to Normal

Soft Light

Is your sketch annoying you? Dark black lines don't always look the greatest, especially if your sketch is a little messy. To make your sketch blend well into the colors of your painting, set the blend mode to Soft Light. Adjust the Opacity to your liking and you'll see a huge difference in the realistic effect you get.

Blend Black Sketches with Soft Light


Every time you need to work with a different blend mode, add a new layer.

Layers set to Multiply should always be used for shadow so you don't have to go digging through the color picker. Simply hover your brush over the area you want to be in shadow, and hold the Alt key. This will pick up the color from that area and it will automatically be multiplied to get a darker result.

Add Shadow on Layers Set to Multiply


Whenever I think of Overlay, I think of light. On a layer set to Overlay, you can paint both warm and cool light to brighten up the hair in a way that simulates natural lighting. However, be careful with this blend mode because you can overdo it.

Add Warmth and Light with Overlay

Linear Dodge (Add)

Create a new layer for Linear Dodge to instantly add bright highlights to your hairstyles. And all you have to use is nearby colors that you select with the Eyedropper Tool (E).

Paint Highlights and Details with Linear Dodge Add

Now that you know the process that I typically use for painting hair, let's try out some different hairstyles.

4. How to Paint Short, Straight Hair

Step 1

Let's begin with an easy "bob". Sketch the short hair, making sure it has body and movement. Paint some flat colors for the hair and skin on a new layer and set your sketch to Soft Light.

Draw the Sketch and Paint Base Colors for Short Straight Hair

Step 2

Add a new layer and set it to Overlay. Use a bright yellow color to paint radiant light where the sun may be hitting the hair. This will cause the dark brown hair color to turn into a warmer shade.

Paint Warm Colors Using Overlay on the Short Straight Hairstyle

Step 3

Set a new layer to Multiply and use the same brown color from your base to paint shadows for the hair. If you're painting starts to look a little patchy, clean it up and make sure that the Hardness of your brush is at 100%.

Paint Shadows on the Short Straight Hair with Multiply

Step 4

Continue painting more strokes of hair using a smaller brush size. Let your reference guide you until you're confident enough to experiment on your own.

Paint More Hair on the Short Straight Hairstyle in Photoshop

Step 5

Work on the shape of the hair. Add wispy hair strands to show more movement, and then soften the edges with white or by slightly erasing them. Include a quick blue collar for character.

Paint More Detail for Short Straight Hairstyle in Photoshop

Step 6

Fill a layer underneath all the others with a baby blue linear gradient.

Add a Linear Gradient Background behind the Short Straight Hairstyle

Step 7

Finish off by setting a new layer to Linear Dodge (Add). Paint the remaining highlights on this layer using a brush size of 1-5 pixels. When you're finished, this is how the short, straight hairstyle looks.

Painting Short Straight Hair in Photoshop Final Result by Melody Nieves

5. How to Paint Straight Hair With Bangs

Step 1

The next style we'll tackle is still straight hair, but this time with bangs. Draw your sketch and pay special attention to how the bangs fall across the forehead. 

Even if you're going for a darker hair color, select base colors that are lighter than you would expect. Paint them on a new layer and change the blend mode of the sketch to Soft Light.

Draw and Paint Straight Hair with Bangs in Adobe Photoshop

Step 2

Let's add some shadows. Set a new layer to Multiply and paint the darkest shadows first. Try to keep the shadows soft and let the base layers peek through.

Paint Shadow on for a Straight Hairstyle with Bangs Using Multiply

Step 3

Paint warm light on the outer edges of the hair using a layer set to Overlay.

Paint Warm Highlights for the Straight Hairstyle with Bangs

Step 4

Fill in the background with a beautiful peach gradient. Paint more details for the hair by experimenting with color and using a tiny brush to mimic the hair strands. Even though it's a straight hairstyle, it should still have some movement.


Step 5

Continue working on the hair. When you're ready for highlights, add a new layer and set it to Linear Dodge (Add). Paint the final highlights and add shine across the bangs. Here is the final result.

Paint Straight Hairstyles with Bangs in Adobe Photoshop by Melody Nieves

6. How to Paint Wavy Hair

Step 1

Now that we're painting wavy hair, we can break down the structure of curls. Study how curls twist together and draw the hair in blocks to understand how the curl wraps around. For the most part, this simple "S" shape will be the basic curve for the hair.

Draw Wavy Hair with S Shape in Adobe Photoshop

Step 2

Paint the base colors for your wavy sketch. Set the sketch to Soft Light, and then start painting shadows on a new Multiply layer.

Paint Shadows for Wavy Hair in Adobe Photoshop

Step 3

Generally speaking, the process is still the same from the straight hairstyles. Keep painting more shadows before painting highlights on the new layer for Linear Dodge (Add).

Paint Realistic Shadows and Highlights for Wavy Curly Hair in Photoshop

Step 4

To finish this look, add a tan Linear Gradient for the background. Use a small brush again to paint bright highlights. In order to get the texture down, allow yourself to be kind of messy with this step, since curled hair is a lot less tame.

Paint Realistic Wavy Curly Hair in Photoshop by Melody Nieves

7. How to Paint Coarse, Curly Hair

Step 1

The last hairstyle we'll cover is coarse, curly hair. This is typically ethnic hair that is rich with texture but requires more steps than the previous hairstyles.

Start a sketch like the others using a Hard Round Brush.

African American Afro Curly Textured Hair Sketch

Step 2

Paint the base colors, but this time use a blonde Linear Gradient for the hair. This will gradient will help us understand more about how the hair should be layered. Then set the sketch layer to Soft Light.

Paint a Gradient Blonde Afro Curly Hairstyle in Photoshop

Step 3

Try to visualize how the different layers of hair sit on the head as you concentrate on the shadows. The colors will vary depending on the dye job. In this case, the original reference has an "ombre" hairstyle, so you'll need to experiment with different colors on new layers set to Overlay and Multiply.

Paint Shadows for Afro Curly Hair in Photoshop

Step 4

As a woman with wild, curly hair, I'm very familiar with its texture. But in order to paint it, you have to incorporate other brushes.

Paint texture using the dry brush from earlier. The dry brush will simulate the frizzy nature of afros, so make sure to sprinkle texture throughout the hair.

Paint Texture for Afro Curly Hair using a Dry Brush

Step 5

Continue expanding the curly texture of the hair. These curls are very different than the wavy ones, so use squiggly lines all throughout the hair to simulate tight curls.

Paint squiggly strokes for afro textured hair in photoshop

Step 6

Finish up by setting the hair against a pink background and adding warm light to make the hair pop. Set a layer to Linear Dodge (Add) to add bright spiral curls that should look as if they're popping forward.

How to Paint African American Afro Curly Hair in Photoshop by Melody Nieves


And that's it! Learning how to paint realistically can be a rewarding experience. You learn so much about different lighting, textures, and colors, as well as what you're capable of creating with Photoshop.

If you're wanting to kick it up a notch, why not try my next tutorial in this series, how to paint realistic hair: dreadlocks and braids

I hope you've enjoyed learning how to paint these four different hairstyles. Do you have a favorite? Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

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