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How to Illustrate Dynamic Hair Using Adobe Illustrator's Paintbrush Tool

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Read Time: 14 min
This post is part of a series called Vector Portraits.
Using Stock References in the Creation of Vector Art
Create a Monochrome Portrait in Illustrator

This tutorial will show you how to create a dynamic hairstyle from a reference image. You will use the Paintbrush Tool, basic skin shading and transparent gradients.

Step 1

I'm going to use a stock image by the wonderful NikxStock, specifically Nervosa. The reason why I've chosen this image for the tutorial is because of her wonderful neck definition and her hair is tied up.

Open the image in Photoshop. In order to see the shadow and the highlights on the skin, it's handy to increase the contrast of the reference. So go to Image > Adjustments > Curves and apply the settings shown below.

If you're using another image, you may need to adjust the contrast so you can see these areas.
Now save the image by going to File > Save for Web & Devices > change the width to say 800 and click Save. The reason for this placing, is to leave enough room for some crazy hair!

Step 2

Open Illustrator and start a New document by going to File > New > select the Basic CMYK and click on OK. Go to File > Place and locate your reference image. Using the Free Transform Tool (E), resize the image equally by holding Shift + Alt and grabbing a corner to move the reference image into a place you feel comfortable with on the canvas.

Step 3

I like to keep my layer folders organized, so double click on "Layer 1" rename it "Reference" and lock it. Click on the Create New Layer button and double click on "Layer 2" and rename it "BG".

In this layer folder, using the Rectangle Tool (M), draw a white rectangle to cover the entire canvas. Lower the Opacity of this to 30%. I do this as it mutes the colors of the reference image and makes it quicker to hide the "BG" to see the original in it's true colors by clicking the Toggle Visibility of the layer on and off. Lock the "BG" layer for now.

Create a New Layer and rename it "Lines". This is the layer we're going to work in to draw the basic lines of the reference. Below is what your layer palette should be looking like.

Step 4

Before I begin to draw the lines on this piece, I'm going to need to create 2 handy brushes which can be found in a previous tutorial , Create CS5 Width Profile Brushes in any Version of Adobe Illustrator CS. The ones specifically that I'm going to use are "Width Profile 1" and "Width Profile 4".

Step 5

Now we have our 2 brushes, I'm going to start drawing the basic line art for the girl. I'm going to use the Pen Tool (P) and with the fill color as null and the line color as black, I'm going to start from just past the top of her hair line.

Draw where the shoulder outline should be but don't worry, because if it doesn't look right, you can always draw some crazy hair over it later on. Once you've taken the line down her arm, click on the "Width Profile 4" brush, repeat on the other side and apply the same brush.

Step 6

Zoom into the ear. Again with the Pen Tool (P), draw the following areas for the ear and apply the "Width Profile 1" brush.

Then draw a further line; making sure it starts on the line and draw outwards for the side detail of the ear. Apply "Width Profile 4" to it.

Change the initial line around the ear to Stroke Weight 0.75pt and the inside lines to 0.5pt.

Step 7

Now draw the following for the nose and apply "Width Profile 1" to it.

Change the Stroke Weight to 0.5pt.

Step 8

Next, draw lines along the collar bone. These will be "Width Profile 1" and a Stroke Weight of 0.5pt.

Step 9

The next line may need a little trial and error, placement wise. Starting your line on the main line of face, you'll need to draw along the bottom of the jaw line and slight definitions in the neck with the following Stroke Weights.

Step 10

Zooming into the lips, I'm going to draw the outline and use "Width Profile 4".

Now using the Direct Selection Tool (A), I'm going to click then click drag on the point where the lips meet and reposition it. The reason why I'm doing this is to avoid having to draw a detailed look to the lips and open mouth and to also give the lips a more plump look. I'm also going to move the point below it to plump up the bottom lip.

Then I'm going to draw a line for the parting of the lips with "Width Profile 4" on.

Step 11

I'm going to work on the eye now, so zoom into that area. First draw the initial lines and shape for the eye as follows.

Note that the outline of the eye and lashes is "Width Profile 1". Next, draw the eyelid with "Width Profile 4" and on 0.5pt Stroke Width. I've colored one of the lines to show you it was done with 2 lines.

Add a line with the "Width Profile 1" brush with a 0.5pt Stroke Weight and then start adding the eyelashes to the top and bottom lid at 1pt with the "Width Profile 4" brush.

Step 12

I want to enlarge the eye, so with the Direct Selection Tool (A) select all of the lines for the eye. Then using the Free Transform Tool (E), hold Shift + Alt and grab a corner and pull out to increase the size in equal dimensions.

Step 13

Now lock the "Lines" layer folder and Create New Layer and rename it "Hair". What I find useful with doing hair is to hide the outline of the artboard. The reason I do this is so I'm mentally not limited by the boundaries as this can always be altered. So go to View > Hide Artboards (Shift + Control + H). Hide the "Reference" layer by clicking on the Toggle Visibility eye on the layer palette.

Step 14

Time to draw a rough outline of where you'd like to place your hair. I tend to draw this with the Paintbrush Tool (B) and use a lot of Undoing (Control + Z) to make sure I get the look I want, I actually have one of my tablet pen buttons set to undo! What I find helpful is drawing a rough outline to where the hair line would be and the skull. This is so I know that whatever I draw, this is the main area where hair must be present.

If you've got an area of the line art where you've guessed where the shoulders are going to be, draw in the direction of where you think the hair should be lying. So for example, if I was uncomfortable with the shoulder, I could roughly sketch the following:

Another helpful tip is to draw where the hair parting could be. With this you can judge the direction of where the hair would lie.

Don't worry about how messy it is, this is just a sketch and will help you when we get to the next stage. For this illustration however, I've decided I'd like to go for the following style.

Select All (Control + A) and Group them together (Control + G). Then lower the Opacity of the group to 30% and then lock the group only.

Step 15

To make sure we have clean lines for along the side of the face and to make it easier in later stages, I'm going to draw a shape for the shape of the face.

Open up the "Lines" layer and Select All (Control + A) and Copy (Control + C). Lock the "Lines" layer again. Create New Layer below the "Lines" layer and rename it "Face". Paste in Place (Control + Shift + V) the lines you've just copied. What I now want to do is combine the lines for the overall shape of the face. To do this I'm going to use the Pen Tool (P) and just click on one of the points which will then allow me to connect it with the point opposite it by clicking it.

Now lock this shape and Select All (Control + A) and delete. This will leave just the outline of the face within the "Face" layer folder.

Unlock this shape and change the fill color to White and the stroke color to null. Then lock the "Face" layer. We'll come back to this later on.

Step 16

Create New Layer under the "Face" layer folder and rename it to "Hair Behind".

I'm going to start drawing the hair and it's a lot easier than you think. By using the "Width Profile 4" brush in a variety of Stroke Weights, you can make smooth, clean strands of hair. I'm going to use the Paintbrush Tool (B) with the fill as null and stroke as black. First the initial strokes in the "Hair Behind" layer with the Stroke Weight of 40pt.

As you can see, the white face shape we created in the "Face" layer is ensuring we have a clean line along the face. I've just followed the lines of my sketch in the placement of the lines.

Step 17

Go into the "Hair" layer folder and using the Paintbrush Tool (B) with "Width Profile 1" brush and the Stroke Weight of 1pt, I'm going to draw the hair line. You'll need to draw in the direction of where the hair is flowing. Now Select All (Control + A) and Object > Expand Appearance and click on OK. Using the Pathfinder options select "Add".

Step 18

Using the Pen Tool (P) with the fill as black and the stroke as null, use the hair line you've created as a guide. I'm going to fill in the gaps on and create a shape to cover this side of the face/skull. Select this shape you've made and the hairline shape and select Add on Pathfinder. You should be left with the following.

Step 19

Still in the "Hair" layer folder, using the Paintbrush Tool (B) with "Width Profile 4", fill null and the stroke black with the Stroke Weight of 40pt, add the larger pieces of hair. As you can see, I've added pieces of hair over the shoulders as I'm not 100% confident with their lines.

Step 20

Reduce the Stroke Weight to 20pt and start drawing finer strands of hair in the "Hair" and "Hair Behind" layer folders.

Reduce the Stroke Weight again to 10pt and draw further strands.

You can keep on going as far as you wish by reducing the Stroke Weight to give more detailed hair. However I'm going to stop at this. Remember to scroll to the bottom of your "Hair" layer and hide the sketch so it doesn't show. Lock the "Hair" and "Hair Behind" layer folders.

Step 21

Create New Layer above the "BG" layer folder and call it "Background". Choose a color to fill a shape to cover the canvas. Use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw the shape, making sure that you give enough space around the vector so it looks balanced at all edges. I'm going to choose a brown shade from the default Basic CMYK swatch which is C=40, M=45, Y=50 and K=5.

Lock the "Background" and go into the "Face" layer folder and select the white shape used to block the hair in the background. Color this the same color as you have the "Background" shape. Then lock the layer folder.

Step 22

As you may have noticed, the edges of the black lines are crisp, so go into each one of the folders containing the black strands. Select All (Control + A) and set the Blending Mode to Multiply. Then lock those layers after use.

Step 23

Create New Layer above the "Face" layer folder and call it "Gradients". Create the following radial transparent gradient with a color complimenting the background color. I've chosen another color from the Basic CMYK swatch of C=25, M=25, Y=40, K=0. Remember to drag and drop this gradient into your swatch palette.

Step 24

I'm going to use this gradient to show the highlights in the skin. You will need to use the Pen Tool (P) to draw the initial shapes.

Then the Gradient Tool (G), to modify the gradients source and shape to suit the highlight area.

Repeat this for each of the areas which have highlights on the skin.

Step 25

I'm then going to Select All (Control + A) the gradients and change the Blending Mode to Screen and the Opacity to 50%.

Lock the "Gradients" layer folder and go into "Face". Select the shape within there and Copy (Control + C) and Paste in Front (Control + F). With the new shape still selected, fill it with your highlighting gradient. Using the Gradient Tool (G), modify the source and shape of the gradient so it's off set the shape and giving a slight shine to one side of the face. Lock all your layer folders.

Step 26

Create New Layer above the "Gradients" layer folder and rename it "Details". Creating the same sort of gradient we did for the highlighting gradient, I'm going to add 2 shapes to emphasis the eye and the lips. For the lips I'm using C=0, M=95, Y=20, K=0. For the eye I'm using C=100, M=0, Y=0, K=0.

Step 27

Using the Paintbrush Tool (B) with the fill as null, stroke as black, Stroke Weight as 0.5pt, Blending Mode as Multiply and "Width Profile 1" I'm going to start to draw the eyebrows in the "Details" layer folder.

Step 28

I want to add some moles to the skin so it doesn't look completely perfect. So using the Ellipse Tool (L) with the fill as black and stroke as null, I'm going to start to draw them around the skin and face. Not too many, enough to give it a little character. Lock the "Details" layer folder.

Step 29

Create New Layer below the "Hair" layer folder and rename it "Details 1". Using the Ellipse Tool (L); draw two circles as a reflective light source on the eyes. I'm filling it with a white to white transparent radial gradient. Using the Pen Tool (P), with the fill of black and stroke null, I'm going to add a bold eyeline on the top of the eyelid.

Step 30

Using the Ellipse Tool (L) with the fill as null, the stroke as black and the Stroke Weight as 5pt, draw a circle for the earring. Then go to Object > Expand and click on OK.

Step 31

I now want to cut away some of this shape so it looks like the hoop earring is going through the ear. To do this I'm going to draw a shape on top of the hoop using the Pen Tool (P). Selecting this shape and the hoop, and then using Minus-Front from the Pathfinder options.

Step 32

Change the fill color to a bold color, in this case I'm going to use yellow (C=0, M=0, Y=100, K=0) and change the stroke color to black and the Stroke Weight to 0.75pt.

Then go to Object > Expand and click on OK. Drill down into the group this has created and select the yellow shape. Copy (Control + C) and Paste in Front (Control + F). Fill it with a White radial gradient and using the Gradient Tool (G), position it to look like a shine on the hoop. Lock this layer.


Create a New Layer at the top of your layer palette and call it "Hair 1". For the finishing touch, I'm going to add a few strands of color onto the hair. I do this with the Paintbrush Tool (B), using the fill as null, stroke as the same pink I used in the lips gradient C=0, M=95, Y=20, K=0 and "Width Profile 1".

Here is your finished image! You can use the same base image and experiment with different hairstyles. Enjoy!

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