Chapter 6 – Hair Painting

6.1 Hair Painting Methods

Hair painting is a very organic, visual technique in which the stylist customizes the colour placement to enhance the client’s facial features and natural hair colour and texture. The three most popular hair painting techniques today are free-hand, balayage, and ombré. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably by clients and stylists, but each has its own unique application process, and each can be done alone or combined with other techniques for a truly unique result.

So, what are the distinguishing factors of each technique?

Hair Painting Techniques
Free-Hand Painting Balayage Ombré
Images Long hair where the hair is black at the roots but gets blonder towards the ends, with many strips of blond and black everywhere. Long hair that is darker at the roots and gradually transitions to blonde. Everything is well blended. Ombré hair that transitions from brown, to auburn, to strawberry blonde.
  • Panels
  • Triangles
  • Thin Panels/ Subsections
  • Horizontal or diagonal slices/ Subsections
  • Selected strands are well saturated
  • Vertical brush strokes
  • Product is lightly swept over the surface of the hair
  • Vertical brush strokes
  • Hair is fully saturated at the mid-lengths to ends
Separation Tools
  • Open-air processing
  • Foils, meches, thermal papers
  • Open-air processing
  • Cotton
  • Open-air processing
  • Foils, meches, thermal papers
Final Result
  • Ribbons of blonde or colour against deeper dimension
  • High contrast
  • Natural
  • Subtle blend
  • Sun-kissed
  • Progressive blend of dark root to lighter ends
  • Medium – high contrast

All of these hair painting techniques will give you a lived-in look that requires minimal maintenance, yet, each one requires a specific skill set and a deeper understanding of the intended outcomes. Before you can select the correct procedure for your client, let’s go into each technique a little further.

Free-Hand Hair Painting

Free-hand hair painting vs Balayage: Are they the same?

Free-hand hair painting is often referred to as Balayage, or vice versa. Balayage is in fact a method of free-hand hair painting, but the distinction between the two is in the application.

With classic free-hand painting, strategic pieces of hair are saturated through with colour or lightener for a pop of contrast. It is a more organic alternative to foils, since the product is placed while the hair is at its natural fall.

As seen in the images below, the colour or lightener can applied as:

Lightener is applied in thin strips of hair from roots to ends.
A ribbon.
Lightener is applied to a large section of hair to form a W shape.
A W-shape.
Lightener is applied to a section of hair to form a V shape.
A V-shape.
Lightener is applied to a large section of hair to form a half-V shape.
A ½ V-shape.


Note: A ½ V-shape is a popular application to use on the sides, as it focuses the pop of colour around the face.


With balayage, the colour or lightener is swept lightly over the surface of the section, with the saturation through the section focused more towards the ends (if desired), as seen below:

Lightener applied to strips of hair all over the head. Lightener is light near the roots and thinker near the ends.

Balayage is literally translated as “to sweep,” so light brush pressure and surface-only saturation are key. Generally, this technique is processed in open-air for subtle lift and a more natural “sun-kissed” result.

The photo below illustrates how much depth is left underneath your lightly painted sections. This is what results in a natural, subtle result.

The head from the previous image tilted forward to show that most of the underside of the hair remains untouched by lightener.


 Alternately, Ombré is a look of gradation of colour used in everything from home décor, to fashion, to nails.

When it comes to hair, ombré is not a technique of hair painting, as balayage is, but rather a look or result.

To achieve an ombré effect on hair, the colour or lightener is applied in more of a horizontal placement, with full saturation. Generally the regrowth area is darker and the ends are lighter, with a transition in the mid-strands.

This look can be achieved on virgin hair by blending progressing levels of different colour formulas down the hair strand, or on virgin or coloured hair using lightener to lift, and toners to achieve the blended transition.

A woman with ombre hair that goes from dark blue at the roots to lime green at the ends.
Ombré hair colour.

All three techniques can be used to achieve beautiful, low maintenance results. Next we will explore how to create a seamless blend in whichever method of hair painting you choose to use.

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Hair Colour for Hairstylists: Level 2 Copyright © 2021 by Arden Magtiza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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