How to paint curly hair

Painting curly hair was something I used to find hard. I'd spend hours working on it and end up with a result that was far from what I wanted. I recently found out how to do it in a few simple steps and here's the process (which can also be used for other types of hair 😉).

 This is how I do it:

 Step by step:

What you're going to need:

  • Your favorite digital painting software and pen tablet
  • Reference images
  • A color palette - 4 values for the hair from deepest dark to highlight

1. First paint the silhouette

After you finished the rough sketch and the line for the face, take a hard brush with 100% opacity and paint the whole shape of the hair. Erase as necessary to do the curls at the back and tips. Also paint the hairline using the airbrush tool.

2. Paint the loose curls & the shadow behind the top locks

Paint the curls at the back and tips using a hard or textured brush. They should be done softly and unevenly. For the highlights of the area that will be underneath the top curls, I chose a light value of the base color, and painted using the airbrush tool.

3. Paint the top curls

Paint the top curls using the airbrush tool. On the top right corner I show how I do the locks. I do them softly as spirals. What we're actually doing on this part is painting the light on the hair, that's why the painting must be uneven and soft.

As with anything we want to paint realistically, it's important to analyze a reference image and to try to reproduce not what we know it's in the thing but what we see. Something that has been helpful to me lately is to treat each element on a painting as abstract shapes that I must reproduce as I see it.

4. Add the highlights

Now add the highlights also using the airbrush, but only in areas where the light is brighter. The value I chose for it isn't much brighter than the one I was using for the general color. A shortcut to change it later is to tweak the saturation/lightness of this layer if you want to.

In painting hair, there's always a danger that it ends up looking metallic, if the light isn't bright enough to make that accurate.

5. Add the shadow

Here I added darker spots very sparingly as this was just a quick sketch. If I were doing a full painting, I'd paint more of these areas all over the hair within the curls.

6. Finish up!

Here is the final result. Because it was a hair tutorial, I painted the skin separately, but what I usually do after the line is done is to define the base colors and light direction.

The background and the base color for the characters are done on separate layers, and I do the whole painting on top of the base color on another layer.

That's the method that I've been using lately, but if you don't have your favorite workflow yet, just keep experimenting. 🙂

Thanks for reading this far. I hope the tutorial was useful to you.

Let me know your thoughts on the comments, and also tell me if there's any tutorial you'd like to see.

More coming soon!

XO Cora

Cora Lynn

Cora Lynn

I'm an indie artist, who enjoys creating fantasy characters and creatures mixing elements from nature and different time periods and cultures.

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