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What is the difference between hair painting and highlights?


Hair painting and highlights are two popular hair coloring techniques that create a subtle, natural looking effect on the hair. Both methods involve applying color to the hair in a sparing way to create variation, dimension, and shine. However, there are some key differences between hair painting and traditional highlighting in terms of the technique, look, maintenance and cost.

What is Hair Painting?

Hair painting, also known as hair stroking or micro-painting, is a new technique in hair color that creates subtle, natural looking results. The process involves using fine tipped tools, like a thin brush or specialized hair painting pens, to paint ultra-fine lines or strokes of hair color onto the hair strands.

Unlike traditional highlights where foil strips are used to separate strands of hair, hair painting involves freehand painting of color directly onto the sections of hair. This gives stylists the freedom to create more customized, organic results. The color is painted on in an irregular, feathered pattern to mimic how hair naturally lightens in the sun.

What are Highlights?

Highlights are a classic hair coloring technique that involves lightening select strands of hair to create dimension. Foils or other separating techniques are used to isolate strands of hair which are then lightened with bleach or hair color. This creates strands of lighter pieces contrasting against the background shade.

Traditional highlights have a structured, defined look since the strands are cleanly separated and coated in color. Variations range from fine, wispy babylights to thicker, bolder looks. Placement is determined according to personal preference and can be done to frame the face or throughout the hair.

Difference in Technique

The technique used for hair painting and highlights varies significantly:

Hair Painting Technique:

  • Freehand application using fine brush or pen
  • Hair separated into fine subsections
  • Color applied in feathery, irregular strokes
  • Does not require foils or other separating techniques

Highlighting Technique:

  • Foils or other materials used to separate hair strands
  • Sections of hair isolated and saturated with lightener
  • Full strands coated in color
  • Precise placement to create defined results

The hair painting technique requires advanced skill and precision to create soft, natural looking results. Highlighting is a more standardized technique since foils help control application.

Difference in Look

Hair painting and highlights also differ in their finished look:

Hair Painting Look:

  • Subtle, soft, natural result
  • Mimics how sun naturally lightens hair
  • Color blends seamlessly into base
  • Minimal regrowth lines
  • Provides shine and dimension

Highlighting Look:

  • Defined, bright pieces stand out
  • Structured, uniform sections
  • Obvious regrowth lines
  • Dramatic light vs. dark contrast
  • Customizable placement

Hair painting produces subtle results since the color is slowly blended and melted into the hair. Highlights have an obvious start and stop that creates more contrast.


Since hair painting creates such a soft, blended effect, it requires less frequent maintenance than highlights.

Hair Painting Maintenance:

  • Touch-ups needed every 4-6 months
  • Roots blend more seamlessly into color
  • Doesn’t require full redo
  • Can go longer between appointments

Highlight Maintenance:

  • Roots typically visible in 4-6 weeks
  • Requires full redo every 2-3 months
  • More frequent appointments needed

Hair painting allows you to go longer between salon visits since the regrowth and fade is less noticeable. The defined sections of highlights require more precision to maintain.


Hair painting is typically more expensive than traditional highlighting:

Hair Painting Cost:

  • $150-$300 per session
  • Takes 2-3 hours
  • Advanced skill required

Highlighting Cost:

  • $100-$250 per session
  • Takes 1-2 hours
  • More affordable technique

Since hair painting is more labor intensive and requires precision, the service is priced higher than standard highlights. However, less frequent maintenance can balance out the overall investment.

Best Candidates

Certain hair types and colors are better suited for each technique:

Good Candidates for Hair Painting:

  • Blondes and light brunettes
  • Longer hair – at least medium length
  • Straight or wavy hair
  • Seeking subtle sunkissed effect

Good Candidates for Highlighting:

  • All hair colors and types
  • Short to long hair
  • Seeking defined, striking contrast
  • Prefer regular salon maintenance

Hair painting blends best on lighter shades and longer lengths, while highlights can work on virtually any hair. Your personal preference for bold vs. natural results also helps determine which technique is better.


While highlights and hair painting are similar hair coloring techniques, they produce very different looks. Hair painting results in softer, more blended color that mimics natural lightening. Highlights have an obvious, defined look with bright pieces contrasting against the base. Hair painting requires more specialized skill but less frequent maintenance. The best technique depends on your hair type, color, and personal preference. Knowing the differences allows you to select the right method to achieve your desired look and maintenance level.

Category Hair Painting Highlights
Technique Freehand painting color directly onto hair strands Foils used to isolate and apply color to strands
Finished Look Subtle, soft, and natural Obvious, defined pieces of lightened hair
Maintenance Touch-ups needed every 4-6 months Requires re-highlight every 2-3 months
Cost $150-$300 per session $100-$250 per session
Best Candidate Light blonde or brunette hair seeking subtle look All hair types seeking bold, dramatic contrast