How to Draw Realistic Eyes
A Step by Step Tutorial

How to draw realistic eyes

Interested in learning how to draw realistic eyes? I don't blame you! The ‘windows to the soul’ are a captivating subject matter. In this tutorial, I'll demonstrate the process of drawing a realistic eye, and illuminate some of the knowledge and skills we must acquire to draw this compelling subject matter convincingly.

I'll be using Staedtler Mars Lumograph graphite pencils (HB, 2B, 4B) on Strathmore 400 Series Drawing Paper.

F R E E  D O W N L O A D

Download the eye reference photo and eye drawing infographic at the end of this article!

A F T E R  T H I S  L E S S O N:

Don't miss these free eye drawing resources:

And my in-depth course on drawing realistic, believable eyes:

You may also be interested in these tutorials on drawing the other facial features:

Eye drawing tutorial step by stepAnimated GIF of the tutorial steps

Preparing for Drawing:
Analyzing the Visible Anatomy of the Eye

To draw this subject matter convincingly, not only do you need an excellent understanding of the drawing process (which you can start learning in my free Mini-Course), but additional layers of knowledge pertaining to the anatomy and structure of the eye, as well. I cover essential eye anatomy and how to construct the eye in my Eye Drawing Intensive. (It's fascinating to learn, and simply studying eye anatomy will completely transform what you see when you observe an eye!)

Here are some of the anatomical terms that I will be using throughout this tutorial:

Parts of the eye to know for realistic drawing

Though this is not a complete list of the features of the eye, these are the ones that are most visible in this pose.

Before we begin, it’s advisable to first analyze the structure of the eye in it’s current pose by drawing a structural diagram. This allows you to determine:

  • What features of the eye can you see? 
  • Which ones are obscured? 
  • Where are the important overlaps? (No idea what overlaps are? Watch Lesson 4 of my free Mini-Course!
  • What areas do you need to focus on or emphasize in order for the eye to read as a convincingly three-dimensional form?

A structural diagram can answer all of these questions and more. Discover my 7-step process of constructing the eye from the inside out in my Eye Drawing Intensive!

Transform your eye drawings in the Eye Drawing Intensive

How to Draw Realistic Eyes
Analyzing the Structure of the Eye

What I look for and notice while observing the eye in this pose:

  • This is not a straight-on view of the face or the eye. The model's head is turned about 3/4 to her right, but she is looking directly at us, causing an uneven distribution of the white of the eye on both sides of the iris. This allows us to see a larger portion of the inside of the top eyelid than we would see in a straight-on view. I have exaggerated this slightly in my structural sketch, though this is very subtle on the model, and manifests as a deep shadow.

  • The model's head is also tilted down. This allows us to see the entire top plane of the lower eyelid, and is going to be an important element to emphasize in my drawing in order to create the proper perspective, and the illusion that the eye is looking out from under the brow ridge.

    (Not indicating that each eyelid has two planes is one of the most common mistakes that decrease the realism of an eye drawing! Discover the most common eye drawing mistakes, and how to fix or avoid them, in this free video series.)

Structural study of the eye before starting an eye drawing

Finally, whenever we draw an eye, we need to remember that the eyeball is a sphere, so the features of the eye need to be drawn in a way that emphasizes that they are curving around a sphere.

As you learn more about this subject matter, you will be able to conduct this analysis visually instead of on paper. However, even when it’s not essential, drawing a structural diagram is an excellent exercise that always helps me notice more than when I conduct my analysis visually.

Learn essential eye anatomy for drawing in the Eye Drawing Intensive

Download a high-resolution
infographic of this tutorial here!

Infographic of a realistic eye drawing step by step

How to Draw Realistic Eyes

Step 1: Starting the Eye Drawing

How to start an eye drawing: two methods

There are two ways in which I tend to begin eye drawings:

Method 1 for Starting an Eye Drawing: Working from the outside in

When working from the outside in, I start by creating an envelope, or a general shape around the entire eye socket area. I then divide up this general shape into smaller, more specific sections (the eyebrow, the eye shape, and the shadow shapes). For a more detailed tutorial on using the Envelope method to start a drawing, watch Lesson 2 of my free Mini-Course.

Method 2 for Starting an Eye Drawing: Working from the inside out

When working from the inside out, I begin with the innermost shape of the eye. This means that I’m indicating the lines that define the part of the eyeball that I can see. Notice that the bottom line that I'm drawing is Line A in the image below as opposed to Line B. Line B may be more evident since it is emphasized by the eyelashes, but inconvenient to start with since I would have to leave the correct amount of room for both the eyeball and the top plane of the lower eyelid.

Starting an eye drawing from the inside out

Looking at my initial pencil marks below, notice that I’m not drawing a curved almond shape, which is the shape normally considered to be an ‘eye shape’. Instead, I’m looking for angle changes that I can indicate.

There are at least three angle changes in both the top line and the bottom line. Indicating these, and keeping them in mind throughout my drawing, will help me represent this particular eye, and add a sense of realism to my drawing. The more specific we can get, the more realistic our drawing will seem.

Finally, notice the axis line that I drew to help me establish the correct tilt of the eye.

First step of an eye drawingHow to Draw Realistic Eyes: Step 1

How to Draw Realistic Eyes
Step 2: Completing the Block-In

Block in of an eye drawing

Whichever way I begin my drawing, the goal is to get to this point.

In this image I have completed my block-in (also known as a line drawing or blueprint). This stage is all about proportions, and I’m looking at the heights and widths of absolutely everything!

My lines are less angular and more curved here: this happens naturally as I add more lines and specify the form, which is why it's so important to start out with distinct angles.

A few important notes at this stage:

  • Look at the shape of the iris: Is it a perfect circle? Not at all! The iris is rarely a perfect circle. Notice (A) the angle change at the top left, (B) the flatter area at the bottom, and (C) that the visible portion of the iris is wider than it is tall. If you want realism and naturalism, these specifics are necessary.

  • Pay close attention to how much of the iris is covered by the top eyelid. Showing more or less of the iris can greatly change the expression of the eye.

The iris is rarely a perfect circle

How to Draw Realistic Eyes

Step 3: Filling in the Shadow Shapes

Eye drawing with shadow shapes filled in

Next, I lightly fill in the areas of the eye that are in shadow. Reflecting on this stage, I could have also filled in the left-hand side of the sclera (the white of the eye).

Though what I am technically doing here is shading, the purpose of this step has more to do with checking my proportions than beginning the shading process.

Filling in the shadow shapes with a flat, relatively even value helps me to see where I have drawn incorrect proportions, and, subsequently, to correct them.

A note about proportions:

Looking at the following infographic (which you can download a full-size version of below), you can see that I continue adjusting my proportions until the very end of my drawing!

An infographic showing the steps to drawing a realistic eye.

Download the full-size infographic here!

This is why it is so important to embrace the Proportion Stage of the drawing process – because while we tend to give it our utmost attention at the beginning, we need to 'keep an eye' (*wink!*) on proportions throughout the rest of our drawing as well.

Stay tuned for an upcoming course on developing your eye, hand, and the skills needed to draw accurately (and with little to no anxiety!

How to Draw Realistic Eyes
Step 4: Analyzing & Establishing the Value Structure

Early stage of adding value to an eye drawing

After I have lightly filled in my shadow shapes and adjusted my proportions, I turn my attention to shading, or rendering. My first priority is to establish my value structure: to determine where my light, half-tone and dark values are.

Determining the Value Extremes

Where are the darkest values in the scene?

The pupil and the upper eyelid area. Notice that where the pupil meets the upper eyelid, we can’t distinctly see where one begins and the other ends. If I can’t see a separation, I’m not going to create it in my drawing. In fact, separating them would only detract from the realism in this scenario.

Where are the lightest values in the scene?

The lightest values are the highlights that are found on the border between the pupil and the iris, in the lacrimal caruncle (corner of the eye closest to the nose), and in the far corner of the eye.

Notice that even the lightest part of the white of the eye is darker than these highlights!!

Though the sclera is referred to as the ‘white of the eye’, because it’s a sphere it is rarely completely white. It usually has a gradation and a range of values – here especially, since half of it is in shadow.

Analysis of lightest and darkest values for an eye drawing

Once I have determined the lightest and darkest values in the eye, I begin establishing them in my drawing, knowing that the rest of the values are going to be somewhere between these two extremes.

Another important aspect of this step is placing the pupil of the eye.

When doing so, I look closely at how much of the iris I can see on all sides of the pupil, and specifically where and how much of the pupil is covered by the upper eyelid. Changing this would, again, affect the expression of the eye.

Learn to shade realistic eyes in the Eye Drawing Intensive

How to Draw Realistic Eyes
Step 5: Building up the Shadows

Building up the shadows in an eye drawing

I am starting to build up the shadows in my drawing.

Notice my approach to drawing the eyebrow: I am not drawing individual hairs, or even thinking about drawing hair! Instead, I am drawing the general values of the area. The best way to approach drawing the eyebrows is to squint at them, notice how much detail is lost, and to mass in the values that you see when you squint.

At the very end of the drawing, you can indicate a few stray hairs, and that will be enough to create a naturalistic illusion of hair. Remember to work from general to specific, and resist the urge to draw individual hairs this early on in the process!

How to Draw Realistic Eyes
Step 6: Edges

Drawing the edges in an eye drawing

As I continue to build up the shadows, I start to pay close attention to the edge qualities throughout the eye. Unfamiliar with the concept of Edges? Watch Lesson 6 of my free Mini-Course for a detailed video on this essential concept!

I determine where the sharpest and softest edges are in the scene, and make sure to indicate them in my drawing. I then have two extremes to compare the rest of my edges to.

Analysis of sharpest and softest edges in an eye drawing

How to Draw Realistic Eyes
Step 7: Focusing on Nuances and Details

Drawing the nuances and details of an eye

I’ve continued building up my values, and my drawing is starting to look quite realistic! As I gain confidence in my overall value relationships, I start focusing on smaller nuances in value and edge quality. More specifically, I am considering how to use subtle values and edges …

  • to reinforce the structure of the eye that I illustrated at the beginning of this tutorial, and
  • to continuously improve, or make more specific, the proportions in my drawing

Nuances that I’m paying attention to at this point:

1) The gradation below the eyelashes on the lower eyelid.

Notice the subtle gradation present in the front plane of the bottom eyelid (the plane that is facing us - see the image below). It was essential that I drew in this gradation before drawing the eyelashes over top! The form underneath is much more important to create a sense of depth, dimension, and realism.

Would this area look realistic with the gradation but no eyelashes? Absolutely. How about with the eyelashes but no gradation? Nope. The eyelashes are the ‘icing on the cake’, and are one of the last elements to consider when drawing an eye. This is a trap that many students fall into! Resist the urge to begin drawing in eyelashes and eyebrow hairs until the end of your drawing, when the eye as a whole is already looking realistic and dimensional.

Subtle gradations on the lower eyelid of an eye

2) The counterchange, or reversal of values, in the sclera.

Looking at the top plane of the bottom eyelid: notice that towards the left, the top plane appears lighter than the sclera, and towards the right, the top plane appears darker than the sclera. (See image below.) This reversal of values is called 'counterchange', and is a beautiful moment that I absolutely want to emphasize in my drawing.

Counterchange, or reversal of values, in an eye

3) Implied, gestural lines connecting shadows.

Look how the line of the shadow below the tear duct/lacrimal caruncle area is picked up by the shadow indicating the bottom of the front plane of the lower eyelid. (See image below).

Gestural lines in an eye

Transform your eye drawings in the Eye Drawing Intensive

How to Draw Realistic Eyes
Step 8: Refining and Finishing

Finished realistic eye drawingHow to Draw Realistic Eyes: The Finished Eye Drawing

Comparing the previous stage of my drawing to this one, the first thing that you’ll probably notice is how much I darkened my shadows. Only after several ‘passes’ of incrementally darkening my values did I feel confident enough to create a pitch black value where the ‘darkest dark’ values of my image are, and to sharpen certain edges.

You may also notice that I adjusted a few proportions! Mainly, I noticed that I had left a little bit too much room between the iris of the eye and the top of the lower eyelid. And yes, even though my drawing was well on its way to being finished, I took the time to adjust that proportion.

Furthermore, I slightly defined the inner corner of the eye. Though the lacrimal caruncle and tearduct are in shadow and are not particularly clear, I created the slightest bit more definition to add some extra depth and create the illusion that the eyeball protrudes further out than the corner of the eye.

A Few Final Notes on How to Draw Realistic Eyes

Let’s talk about the three areas of detail that many beginners get hung up on when learning how to draw realistic eyes: eyelashes, eyebrows, and the fibres that radiate out from the pupil to the edges of the iris. (So, most of the minute details!)

The biggest mistake concerning these areas of detail is that students often address them too early. To create a realistic drawing, we need to address the whole before we address the individual parts.

It may also be liberating to know that we don’t actually need to create absurd degrees of detail in these areas to create a realistic drawing!

On the reference of the eye that I’m drawing, are any eyelashes even visible on the top eyelid? Barely! They are almost completely in shadow. If I zoom in closely, I can see just barely make out a few partial ones. That’s it!

How about the fibres in the iris? Again, if I zoom in I can see them. However, if you are drawing a model from life, are you going to see the fibres from where you are sitting? Probably not.

My point is: try not to get hung up on these details. Instead, focus on the larger value relationships and gradations that you can see. Then, if you have time in front of the model, if your drawing is large enough, if you can see that level of detail, and if your goal is hyperrealism, you can work on adding some of the finer details to your image.

This concludes the tutorial!

Next  Steps

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on how to draw realistic eyes! What next?

1) Continue learning how to draw realistic eyes in this free video series!

Download these free resources

The best way to improve your eye drawings is, unsurprisingly, to practice. Why not download a reference photo of the eye from this tutorial, the infographic to remind you of the steps, and start learning how to draw realistic eyes today.

Downloadable Resources

3) Ready to transform your eye drawings? Learn more about my Eye Drawing Intensive:

Eye Drawing Intensive
Student drawing before and after
Eye Drawing Testimonial
Eye Drawing Intensive Testimonial
Learn more about the Eye Drawing Intensive here!

Happy Drawing!

Marina, Founder of The Drawing Source

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