The Secret to Painting Realistic Eyes
The eyes are the windows to the soul.
The eyes have it.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
These cliché phrases are so popular because they are true! If you are painting a person or animal, one of the most important (and most intimidating) parts to paint or draw are the eyes.
When a viewer looks at a piece of artwork that features a portrait or an animal subject, the eyes are often what draws them in or keeps them interested in the painting.
If you’ve ever tried painting realistic eyes (or drawing them), you may have already found out what many artists know: getting the eyes just right is hard.
You would think making an eye would be simple – heck, we look at eyes all the time!
So why is it so hard to make them look right when we grab a pencil or paintbrush and try to make a decent eye in our mixed media paintings?
It’s because our brain tricks us.
Your Brain is Tricking You Into Drawing or Painting What You Think You See
That’s right: our powerful, intelligent brain actually works against us when we are trying to accurately portray the things we see in our artwork.
If you can start with the knowledge that your brain is not on your side, you will be ahead of the game!
Why does the brain do this? Well it’s actually kind of simple.
Our brain is a lot like a computer. Do you know how a computer stores certain bits of information when we go online so it won’t have to start from scratch each time we visit a certain website? Our brain is lazy like this also!
When we were little and first learning about the world, our brain formed impressions of common things, so we wouldn’t have to learn what we were seeing over and over and over. This was super helpful to us since we could instantly look at something, recognize it (it’s a small fuzzy insect), recall the word that named it (a bee), and understand it based on all of our previous interactions with it (be careful, it could sting). This way, we don’t have to spend precious time relearning the concept of “bee” over and over. And as we got older, we were able to understand new information about bees and add it to our knowledge base.
This is great because it allows us to have lots of information about the world around us. This is NOT so great when we decide, as an artist, to represent those things in the world on paper or canvas.
Our Brain’s Generalizations Make it Hard to Draw and Paint Accurately
For example, we make generalizations about eyes based on all the eyes we’ve ever seen:
- Most eyes are generally almond shaped.
- Eyes have round irises.
- Eyes have round pupils.
- The whites of the eyes are white.
- The eye has individual lashes on the top and bottom lid.
So, with the information our brain has stored about most eyes, we draw an eye like this:
I’m sure we can agree that this is an eye. It’s got all the criteria our brain needs to look at it and say, “Yup, that’s an eye!”
But it’s not a realistic eye. It doesn’t have that extra something that pulls you in and leaves you transfixed.
To Make Realistic Eyes, We Need to Force Our Brains to See What’s Really There
Because everything your brain has told you about eyes is wrong when it comes to drawing or painting an eye.
- Every eye has a unique shape due to the facial makeup of the person around the eye.
- Pupils and irises, although round, don’t always look round in real life because of shadows and highlights.
- The whites of the eyes are not white.
- Lashes are grouped in clumps and will appear realistic if depicted this way in paintings.
So, What’s the Best Way to Draw or Paint Realistic Eyes?
Painting realistic eyes in your mixed media art means you learn to draw or paint what it actually looks like – not what your brain is telling you. And you really do have to “learn” this. It sure doesn’t come naturally because we’re used to our brain behaving a certain way! (Our brains like to outsmart us!)
- In reality, eyes can be shaped differently in the same face.
- Eyes can have pupils and irises that look weird based on the way the light catches that eye at that moment.
- Many women wear mascara, which changes how their eyelashes look.
- The whites of the eyes can be slightly blue, pink, brown, or a combination of colors. It depends on the person and the lighting.
Basically, in order to draw or paint a realistic eye (and many other things, as you’ll find out), we have to trick our brains! How? Glad you asked.
Real Eye Examples: Four Photos
Below I have some photos of eyes. Lets look for some of the characteristics of actual eyes that we’ll need to include in our mixed media drawings and paintings if we want our subjects to have realistic eyes.
- This person has eyes that turn down at the outer corners.
- He is looking up at us, so the top of his green irises are hidden.
- The highlights in his eyes are shaped like long rectangles. They’re reflecting something with this shape. This reflection changes the shape of his pupil to an upside down “L.” We know his pupil is round, but it doesn’t appear round in this photo.
- We can’t see individual lashes. His bottom lashes are just hinted at. His top lashes appear to be a solid “band” of dark color. We know he has individual lashes, but we won’t draw them individually because that’s not how they appear in this photo.
- Her head is slightly down and to the left, so it looks like her right eye sits higher than her left. It’s not actually higher, but the way her face is angled makes it appear that way. To draw her realistically, we place the right eye slightly higher.
- Her eyes are actually almond shaped, but her top lid line is much darker than her bottom lid line. So rather than drawing or painting two hard edged lids, the top would be dark and the bottom would be much lighter.
- Her eyelashes are dark at the lid and you can see some individual lashes. On her right eye, some individual lashes are close together, making that spot seem thicker and darker.
- She has two round white highlights at the top of each pupil.
- This man has two different eye shapes because of the skin around the eyes.
- Even though he is looking directly at us, his left eye is turned toward the inner corner.
- Both the bottom and the top of the iris are covered by his lids. This makes the iris appear not round.
- His highlights are round and white, and sit on the outer left side of each pupil. This gives the pupils a “C” shape.
- Because her head is turned, this woman’s right eye appears much smaller. Her nose blocks the inner corner and that eye is further away from the viewer than the left eye. The shape of her right and left eye appear different from each other due to the angle of her head.
- She is looking far to the left. Much of her irises are hidden.
- The upper lashes of her right eye are very visible because of the angle. They make a wispy upside down “C.” The lashes on her left eye are different. They are evenly spread out and clumped together in groups with lid showing in the areas between.
- We see much more of the “white” of her left eye, and it is much brighter than the small bit of white we see in the right eye.
As you can see from our detailed look at the four photos above, we can’t generalize eyes if we want to paint or draw then realistically.
We have to make the eyes as individual as the person we are representing. We also need to include a bit of information about “where that person is” through the right placement of the lights and shadows of the eyes!
Now, it’s one thing to know drawing or painting realistic eyes requires you to base your art on what you see, and not what you think you see. It’s another thing entirely to apply everything we just learned to the canvas or drawing paper.
Here are 10 hacks that can further help you create amazing eyes in your mixed media artworks.
10 Hacks for Painting Realistic Eyes (Or Drawing Them)
- Don’t “hard outline” the shape of the entire eye. In the photo above of the simple eye I drew, I did this. Many people also do this. This is what we’re taught to do when we learn to draw as kids. I drew a curved line for the upper lid and an almost matching curved line going the other way for the lower lid. If you look at an eye photograph, eyes don’t really do this.
- Hide the top of the iris (the colored part) with the lid. (Unless you want your person to appear very scared or startled). Most people have at least a portion of the iris covered by the lid and the shadow from the lid. This makes the iris appear not quite round. (It is for the most part round – thanks brain! – but it appears not round since part of it is usually hidden).
- Trace lots of eyes for practice. If you have a photo of eyes and a sheet of tracing paper or a lightbox, you can trace the eyes to see what eyes actually looks like. You can trace as many times as you want to get a feel for the eye. Don’t be worried if your tracings look stiff, formal, or unrealistic at first. As you look back at your tracing and loosen up a bit, the eyes will start to look more realistic as you go.
- If the head is turned, the eyes change based on the angle. Also look at how the light and shadow appear based on that angle. If you are painting realistic eyes in a turned head, you will need to take this into consideration.
- Eyes are not symmetrical. Left and right eyes are going to have subtle difference. If you want a more realistic eye, it’s better to match what you see in the photo or person rather than trying to make the eyes match each other.
- Areas of light and shadow will make your eye drawing or painting seem much more realistic.
- All eyes have a bright highlight, and it might not be white or round. The highlight area is the spot on the eye that catches the light the most. It can be many shapes or colors depending on where the person is.
- Eyelashes are not uniform. Look closely and you’ll see they are different lengths, some are clumped together in groups, and the lashes also have lighter and darker areas.
- Make the pupil black. Any other color will make it lose importance. Use back paint or your darkest pencil color if it is a drawing. It may not be completely round (depending on where the highlight is) but it will always be black.
- Make sure the “white” of the eye is not white. Depending on the photo or person, the white will have a tint to it. It will also have shadows from where the light is coming from, so part of the white may be very dark or nearly black. The lightest part of the white of the eye is usually right beside the iris. This is because eyes are round and that is the part that is closest to you when you’re looking at the eye so it will appear brighter. The rest of the white will gradually get darker as it disappears into the lid areas and the corners of the eyes. Also, eyes usually have a bit of pink at the inner corner where the white meets the tear duct.
Now It’s Your Turn!
One of the best things I learned when I started learning to draw and paint accurately? Paint what’s there instead of what I thought I saw. Try this and your drawings and paintings will improve! It just takes practice (and the willingness to trick your brain a little bit).
What do you think? Did these tips help you? If so, please let me know in the comments! Also, if you have any questions about painting or drawing eyes, please leave a comment.
Want more mixed media art tips? Check out Mixed Media Art Tutorial: My Art Process Step-By-Step
Photo credits from Unsplash.com:
turned face: Velizar Ivanov
girl eyes: Christiana Rivers
older man eyes: Seb [ P34K ] Hamel
All other photos are my own.
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