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 will demonstrate the process of drawing a realistic eye, and illuminate some of the knowledge and skills that one must
acquire to draw this compelling subject matter convincingly.
Plus, download a guide to the 6 Most Common Eye Drawing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) here!
I will be using Staedtler Mars Lumograph graphite pencils (HB, 2B, 4B).
To draw this subject matter convincingly, not only do you need an excellent understanding of the drawing process (which you can learn in my free Mini-Course), but additional layers of knowledge pertaining to the anatomy and structure of the eye as well.
Here are some of the anatomical terms that I will be using throughout the tutorial:
Though this is not a complete list of the features of the eye, these are the ones most visible in this pose, and that I will refer to throughout this article.
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
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.
What I look for and notice while observing the eye in this pose:
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
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, check out 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.
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.
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:
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!
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!)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 …
Nuances that I’m paying attention to at this point:
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.
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
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
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on how to draw realistic eyes!
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 a bonus guide on the 6 Most Common Eye Drawing Mistakes, and start learning how to draw realistic eyes today!
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