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Painting realistic hair using default brushes

Author: digi_dreamer

Tools Needed

  • Photoshop
  • A render


In this tutorial I will walk you through the process I use to create realistic looking hair using only the default photoshop brushes.

Some people (myself included lol) can't get used to using preset hair brushes to create realistic looking hair. Myself, I end up with a straggly mess!

Anyone who has a basic knowledge of how the Photoshop tools work can follow this tutorial. I strongly suggest using a graphic tablet to paint hair!


Step 1 - Painting the base


Open your render in Photoshop, make any adjustments you want to make the character itself, personally I like to leave the hair til last. For the purpose of this tutorial I'm just going to leave her the way she is.

Set up a palette, create a new image (only needs to be around 100×100) and paint your darkest shade first, for this I will be making a redhead, but my base colour is almost black. I paint a blob of my chosen colours in the order I will use them to refer to when painting the hair. I usually only require 3-4 colours, but it helps to add a couple of extra ones just in case).

Select your darkest colour, go to your character image. New layer!!

Select the airbrush, opacity 100% and paint the base of the hair onto the scalp, don't worry about being too precise yet, you're basically just creating the skullcap.

Step 2 - Shaping the hair


You may want to do each step on a new layer until you get used to painting hair, I certainly used to as I could change any part later that I wasn't happy with.

Now to shape the hair. Select the smudge brush, mode to darken, strength to around 82 for short hair, 95 for long hair, you do the math for in between lol. Size depends on your image, just play around til you find a size you're comfortable with.

Now brush the hair out from the skullcap in the direction you want the hair to flow, sweeping strokes out to the length you desire.

Now to create a hairline. Select the smudge tool, use a small speckle brush, and set the mode to normal, strength around 47 works well. Gently brush against the hairline in the areas it will be visible.

Step 3 - Texturing the hair


At this point you may decide there are areas you don't like etc. Erase them now as, if you leave it, it's a lot harder to rectify later in the process!

Now we start adding texture to the hair.

Still using the smudge tool, mode to 'Darken' and strength around the same as you used for the body of the hair (82 – 95). Speckle brush again, draw out the wispy areas of hair, it's a good idea to look at some pics of the general style you want, for my purposes, there will be some 'tussle' to the hair. Try to think about what's happening in your image, is there wind? If so which direction is it going in (clothing is a good indication) make sure the wisps account for this.

Step 4 - Creating strands


Now we start on individual hair strands, giving depth to the hair.

Use your palette to choose the next shade up. Select the airbrush tool. I use around 26% opacity for this stage. Again size depends on your image, and may require some 'undo's' before you find what your happy with!

Now start painting individual strands. Use long strokes, and keep in with the direction of your hair. Try not to go mad painting strands, you can add to them, it's harder to undo them!

Step 5 - Adding depth


Alright, we've got something that's starting to look like hair!

Go back to your palette and select the next shade up. Using the same brush set the opacity a little lower and paint in some more strands. This will add more depth to the hair. Again don't go crazy, take it slow and keep looking at the hair as a whole.

Step 6 - Highlights 1


Now either set the brush to screen, or go to your next shade up and paint sparingly some highlights. For my image, the hair would have sparing highlights throughout the hair, but for most hair colours you just need a few around the face and a couple through the body of the hair.

Step 7 - Highlights 2


That's it for the painting in colours, now we touch it up with other tools!

Use your dodge tool, exposure set to around 36, and mode to highlights, brush in some highlights, again look at where light is coming in on your image, and try to focus them there. This also gives the hair some shine

Step 8 - Finishing touches


Now use the burn tool, same exposure, and brush down the entire length of the hair in sections. Do this a couple of times'and you're done!

That wasn't so hard now was it?! Lol. At this point you can merge your hair layers, and colourize, or adjust the hue and saturation to achieve a different colour, or just tweak the one you have.

Thanks for following along, and I hope you learned something new today!