The Perfect Strand:
Drawing Hair with Charcoal

When drawing a portrait, you can spend more time drawing the hair than it takes to draw the facial features. Hair can be time consuming and difficult to draw realistically, especially with graphite. Drawing portraits with charcoal not only gives a more tonal value than graphite, it’s easier to draw realistic hair.

Whether the subject’s hair is long, short, straight, wavy, in pigtails or ponytail, or blowing in the wind, hair doesn’t have to be tricky to draw.

I use two different methods of drawing hair- baton and dry brush- and there’s no particular reason that I chose one over the other. If I have a good stockpile of charcoal powder, I tend to use the dry brush method. That’s why it’s good to save the residue from sharpening batons. I save mine in a short, wide mason jar. They are quite convenient for storing the charcoal residue and it’s easy to access the powder without making a mess.

If using the dry brush method, a watercolor paper with a fine grain texture should be used for the best results. Just as with a baton, there has to be enough tooth to hold the charcoal. I always begin a portrait with a quick sketch of my subject so that I can erase and refine as I need to. Once I’m satisfied with the drawing, I begin the portrait without having to worry about excessive erasure.

Drawing Hair with Charcoal

To the left is a quick sketch I did of my daughter before drawing the final portrait. I put in enough of the detail to be sure that I am going to have the desired look on the final drawing. Although I didn’t complete the hair, I did do enough so that I would know where the light falls. Whether using a brush or a baton, the method is pretty much the same. The baton should be sharpened to a point. If using a brush, use short, flat bristle brush.

Once you have the initial sketch drawn, with hair placement outlined, begin by laying down the charcoal on the darkest values. This is usually at the crown and sometimes can be found near the ear, if the ear is showing. The darkest values aren’t necessarily in one place, but it’s best to begin at the crown and work down to avoid dragging the charcoal into other parts of the drawing.

It’s best to lay down the charcoal in blocks, following the direction of the hair. You don’t need to pay attention to every single strand of hair. Once the dark areas are filled in, begin to draw the hair, again in the direction of the strands. If using a brush, keep moving in the direction of the strands. Draw using both gesture (quick) strokes and contour (slow) strokes.

Adding Highlights

Using an eraser, lightly remove some of the charcoal for the highlights. This process may have to be repeated a number of times. Working in sections is much easier, being sure to start each new block about a half-inch into the previous block to avoid noticeable lines between blocks. The transition from block to block should be smooth.

I use a kneaded eraser brought to a fine point to draw highlights. When the eraser gets too loaded with charcoal, I simply make a new point. The cleaner the eraser, the better the stranding and highlights will be because the charcoal on the eraser won’t be pulled back into the drawing. It’s also important to make sure you are lifting the charcoal and not blending or dragging.

When I reach the desired look in each block, I spray with a workable fixative and move on to the next block. The workable fixative will allow you to rework the sprayed area but will prevent smudging.

White Charcoal

There shouldn’t be a need to use white charcoal if working on white paper, but if the portrait is drawn on a colored paper, then white charcoal can be used to draw in the highlights instead of an eraser. White charcoal is good for portraits done on tan or gray paper.

Hair can be tricky but with practice, it becomes as easy to draw as the rest of the portrait.

As a tip to those who like to do a pre-sketch before tackling a project, I use my worn down Nitram batons for this. I use the chopstick method for securing the baton. Just place the baton between the chopsticks and secure with thread or string. It makes a great holder if you don’t like working with short batons. When the batons are too short to sharpen or work with, sand the stump on fine sandpaper and add the residue to your powder collection. There’s never any waste!

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