How to Paint Natural, Afro Textured Hair in Adobe Photoshop
In this tutorial, we’re going to look at different ways of painting natural, afro textured hair in Adobe Photoshop. We’ll create a trio portrait, with each subject’s hair drawing inspiration from different hair types.
Before diving into this lesson, check out the previous two tutorials in this series:
First, create a New Document. I like to work at a print-appropriate resolution, but choose a size that is appropriate for your goals. In this case, I’m working at 17 inches by 11 inches, at 300 dpi.
Before we begin to draw, I would recommend reviewing your Brush Settings. Photoshop’s default Brushes sometimes yield less than desirable results, if you’re looking for the kind of sensitivity you may be used to seeing when using a standard pencil or brush.
To open your Brush Settings, go to Window > Brush.
Under the Transfer tab, make sure that Opacity Jitter and Flow Jitter are set to Pen Pressure.
I would also recommend keeping an eye on your Opacity and Flow in your Options Panel. With the Brush Tool selected, you’ll see options that look like the screenshot below.
Adjust the Opacity and Flow to your liking as you draw and paint. Keep in mind that Opacity refers to the amount of transparency in your stroke. Flow is in reference to how much color “comes out” of your stroke.
2. How to Create the Initial Artwork
On a New Layer, begin to lay out your composition. I’m going to draw a portrait of three people, so we can experiment with rendering three different hair “types”: 4A, 4B, and 4C. They are the three coily hair types generally included in the Andre Walker Hair Typing System. While this system is not without its flaws (and valid criticisms), we’ll use it as a visual starting point.
Keep in mind that people, in general, do not usually fit into perfect categories. We’re all unique and beautiful in our own way—and that includes our hair! You may find that some people have combination hair or traits of more than one type. When in doubt, take a look at references! This is not a rigid rule book, but rather an example of how these qualities can be visually interpreted.
Using a Hard Round Brush, begin to establish the basic facial structure and where you would like the hair to sit on the head. I’m going to work with hair generally inspired by 4A, 4B, and 4C curls, in that order.
Once I’m happy with my initial composition, I like to create a New Layer and refine my work. Notice how I kept my initial sketch visible, as a reference. Again, I largely utilize a Hard Round Brush with Pen Pressure sensitivity on for both my Opacity and Flow.
One key tip—keep in mind that the hair here is not straight. Therefore, I generally like to avoid straight lines. Curved, varied lines will often make for a more organic aesthetic.
When it comes to my initial colors, I like to place the colors on top, on a New Layer. Set this Layer’s Blending Mode to Multiply. Notice how the applied color affects the initial line art. I like to start with a single, flat color for each subject in this phase.
Then, on a New Layer acting as a Clipping Mask, apply color variation where applicable. Notice that because we defined a specific area for our color in the previous step, we can’t color outside of this area now.
I use a similar method to place my initial shadows. Create a New Layer, and set it as a Clipping Mask. Set this Layer’s Blending Mode to Multiply, and then experiment with where you would like your shadows to be in the composition. I decided to place my light source on the viewer’s left-hand side.
At this point, I like to refine my work by painting on top of it. However, the focus of this tutorial is on the hair specifically, so we won’t spend too much time on rendering the other parts of the composition.
If you would, however, like to review this part of my process, you can check out some of my other tutorials, where I go through this in detail:
When painting on top of the base composition I’ve created, I largely use a Soft Round Brush and a Hard Round Brush. We’ll jump ahead to my rendered work and focus on the hair.
3. How to Paint Type 4A Hair
Let’s start with the subject on the viewer’s left. My intention is to give this subject’s hair qualities that are often associated with Type 4A. These coils can have a visible curl pattern, so we’ll work with that aesthetic here.
Note that I often do a lot of drawing on the same Layer—but if you are feeling less confident and/or want to preserve your work, you may want to use a New Layer for each step.
Using a Hard Round Brush, alter the Opacity so it is around 80%. Then, begin to add varied lines, starting from the hairline. They should be darker than the hair’s base color.
Lower the Opacity on your Hard Round Brush even more—around 70% will do.
Begin to layer lighter colors in a spiral pattern. It doesn’t have to be perfect—we’re just establishing some texture and flow here. Note that while the pattern is a little abstract, the movement is not. The hair has a distinct direction on the head.
I also used this same, darker color, to add some variety to the hairline, so it looks more organic.
As we continue to layer color on the hair, make your Brush Size smaller. I alternated between dark and light colors here, again using a Hard Round Brush.
Then, I created a New Layer and set it to Multiply, so I could bring back some of those dark values in the hairline area.
Now, switch to a Soft Round Brush. Keep its size small, and add small variations and curls. If you notice a space that seems unnatural or out of place, you can also use this Brush for blending.
Remember, you can alter your Opacity and Flow—in my opinion, this is often crucial in getting the line transparency and sensitivity you want.
Finally, I added some variation to the outermost contours of the hair. The edges looked a little too perfect—so stray hairs and extra curls can help make things look more natural. I achieved this with a Hard Round Brush.
4. How to Paint Type 4B Hair
The center subject’s hair is going to draw inspiration from 4B hair qualities. 4Bs and 4Cs tend to have very dense curls with a lot of shrinkage. Many who have this hair type do not have a visible curl pattern, like 4As.
The difference is in the density; 4B coils are generally a little looser than 4Cs.
I started with a Hard Round Brush. Similar to how we started with the previous subject, I added some darker values to begin to establish some depth.
Then, layer on lighter colors. In this case, I like to use a Custom Brush, but you could use a Hard Round Brush and a Soft Round Brush with lowered Opacity.
Remember to keep the light source in mind. I like to work in large, pillowy shapes.
Then, I went in and added some additional definition to the darker areas in the hairline. My process is very much about layering colors and decreasing the size of the Brush each time I do so.
Note how the color placement follows the movement of the hair. It isn’t haphazard. In layering colors, darker values peek out from behind the lighter ones too, helping to further visually convey depth.
To put the finishing touches on this, I made some edits to the outermost contours of the hair. I added variation here with a Hard Round Eraser, but the varied lines were inspired by the shapes I created within the hair.
I also added some tiny tufts on the front because it looks cute! It’s as simple as using the Eyedropper Tool to grab the dark color and then the light color. Layer them just as we did the rest of the hair.
5. How to Paint Type 4C Hair
And now for the character on the viewer’s right, with hair inspired by 4C qualities. I want this afro to look thick and gorgeous, with minimal curl pattern.
Similar to the center subject, I started with darker values to help define the dimensional qualities of the hair.
Layer on large clumps of lighter values. Again, the same Brushes apply from the previous subject. You can stick with a Hard Round Brush, or try using a custom one that has a little texture to it.
Again, when layering color like this, I recommend decreasing the Brush Size. Notice in this case, however, that there’s less of a pattern. I want an aesthetic that looks soft and unified.
Continue to layer colors. I generally like to alternate between light and dark values; I like to use the Eyedropper Tool to “pick up” colors in the local area, where I’m painting. I find that it makes blending and choosing the right colors easier.
In addition, some variation in the hairline will make for a more natural look, similar to the previous two subjects.
Finally, I adjusted the outermost contours of the hair using a Hard Round Eraser. In this case, I wanted the shape of the hair to stay more unified and less divided, to help further visually illustrate the thickness and density of the hair.
6. Add the Finishing Touches
Now that I’ve rendered the hair on all three subjects, I decided I wanted to push the shadows further.
I created a New Layer and set its Blending Mode to Multiply. Make this Layer a Clipping Mask, and then apply these additional values. I used a light pinkish color.
While the focus of this tutorial is not the background, I still wanted to do something visually interesting with it. I used a Hard Round Brush and drew some directional lines in various sizes. No need for perfectionism here—I just had fun drawing zigzags!
Then, to give the background some varied color, I locked this layer and used a Soft Round Brush to apply color. The colors were inspired by the subjects’ shirts, using the Eyedropper Tool.
And There You Have It!
We’ve explored three different ways one could potentially paint natural, afro textured hair—inspired by 4A, 4B, and 4C! Remember, regardless of the “type”, hair comes in all sorts of wonderful varieties. When in doubt, look at references!