Low poly hair is the bane of most game artists existence. Rarely is it done well, and the majority of the time, a bald head, or a slicked back look is taken as the easy way out. For three months I was in charge of creating the various hairstyles for Dark Age of Camelots: Catacombs expansion. Making the characters bald was not an option, so I set out trying to figure the best way to create low polygon count, heavily textured hair. Examples of my results can be seen below. The PSD of the final hair texture created in this tutorial is here
First you need to set up your arsenal, your tool set. I used a few custom brushes for this. Credit for the idea, goes to Adobe with their hair tutorial. To create a brush, make a new canvas roughly the size of the brush you want. Create a black and white image, and go to Edit> Define Brush. The black areas will be the brush bristles, and the White areas will be transparent. You will also need to lower the spacing, and have your tablet pressure control the opacity of the hair. It works best to have it stay at a constant size, so do not let pressure control size. Here are my brushes (note that the last one is just a one pixel brush set to hard, no need to create that). Each is being displayed four times their actual resolution. You can actually drag these into Photoshop and just click edit>define brush, or you can download my set here
. I encourage you to make your own and play around with the settings
The first brush is for soft hair like fill. It works at different sizes, and it is fairly soft. The second is for adding a bit of sharpness and definition over top of the first. It should be used in quick strokes. The second and third are double hairs, used either horizontally or vertically, and can come in handy when the three hair brush is too much. The final is a single pixel brush set to hard, and is for precision placement when things just need a little touching up.
I contemplated doing an entire head, but each approach is specific to the hairstyle you are wanting to do. I can not do all the leg work for you, and figuring new ways to use old techniques is one of a Game artists greatest abilities. So I will be only showing you a small example of creating hair, but hopefully you will be able to extrapolate out how to tackle your specific problem. Reference is KEY!
Always find reference of the color and rough style you want. then make a few rough drawings of the style you are going after. The less seams you can keep while creating your hair, the better. Its all about the quick uninterupted strokes
First thing I do is pick a nice base color, normally this is fairly dark, as I tend to lighten things as I go
Using the soft hair brush, I rough out a general flow of the hair. Lighter at the top, and darker at the bottom. Keep the root area (top) darker as well.
Now I try to pick out a few shapes to make it not just straight hair. Clump it together in a few spots, and make it deep in a few others. Every so often, I change the brush from normal mode, to soft light mode, in order to get some color variation in.
I used the three pixel hard hairbrush to go in and add some more fine detail. Keep in mind, you can and should use these brushes in both brush mode and smudge mode. Set pressure to control strength, and pick these brush shapes for your smudge tool. The lower resolution your hair is, the more you will need to smudge. At this resolution, a single pixel is fine for a hairs width, but in a much smaller space, a single pixel will be too large and will make the hair look like yarn. So smudging will keep the hair-ness look there.
Make a selection over the areas that the highlights should go using the polygonal lasso tool. Hit ctrl+alt+D for the feather option, and pick a feather size appropriate for your texture. On mine I am going to use a value of 5
I used the three pixel hard hairbrush with a much lighter color to go in and add the initial specular. By making a selection and feathering it, you can use very fast and very sharp strokes, with perfect fading in and out. Hair specular is unique. Hairs are translucent, so not only do they shine, but they transmit that shine up and down the shaft of the hair. There is normally a base specular, which is the absorbed light. That is what I painted in this step. This highlight tends to be saturated the color of the hair
Make another selection, this time smaller, and put it about the two thirds of the way up of the previous highlight area. Feather this a smaller amount, I used a value of 1.5
I highlighted within this area, then deselected, and cleaned up in some other areas, using the two pixel vertical hairbrush. I took some redder colors and blended the highlights into the lower parts. This is the primary specular, and it is actually the hair reflecting the light source. It tends to be cooler and closer to white
No hair is complete without some scalp showing. I cant think of many hairstyles where you would not see at least some scalp. I like to always show the scalp at the crown of the head where all the hair grows from, as well as any split going down the center. This is merely a new layer, filled totally with skin color. I applied a mask, and painted on the mask to reveal the skin. This is important because of the next step, to have it on its own later, and a mask revealing it