Eyes have always been my absolute favorite thing to draw, and I tend to accentuate them in all of my artwork. They can also be one of the most difficult things to draw, and it takes a lot of practice to get them right. There are a lot of picky little details to pay attention to. When we begin drawing an eye how we “think” we should, without really observing an actual eye’s appearance as if we have never seen one before, we tend to end up with a drawing like below. Generic football shape, outlined individual eyelashes, harshly contrasting pupil and highlights, and those pesky little lines jutting out all around the center like a kid’s drawing of the sun. In reality, an eye’s darks and lights are much more subtle and blended, each person’s eye is a completely different shape, and unless we are drawing a huge zoomed-in eye filling an entire 18×24″ piece of paper, you wouldn’t actually see individual eyelashes. I’d like to share my tricks of the trade with you. Grab a piece of paper and follow along. It will be fun, I promise! Don’t worry about doing everything “perfect”, just enjoy sketching. Every artist does things slightly different, and the more you practice you may discover some of your own “tricks” that work for you.
- Lightly outline the contour of the eye. Don’t just draw an oval with half circles above and below it. Pay attention to the exact curvature of the unique eye you are trying to draw (photo references are always good.) Is it wider on one side than the other? Does the eyelid dip down drastically or does it curve more gradually? Are the curves of the eye and eyelid soft and smooth, or more angular? Is the eyelid rounded or more flat on top? Is the fold under the eye parallel to the bottom eyelid, or does it droop diagonally? Sketch lightly, as you don’t want to see harsh outlines through your shading.
- Shade the outside perimeter of the eyeball. The darkest shading is always at the two corners of the eye, and gradually fades as you get closer to the iris. There will also be a deeper shadow underneath the eyelid since the lid overlaps our eyeball, blocking the light from reflecting as much up top.
- Shade around the iris, again with slightly deeper shading closer to the top eyelid. Even if you don’t explicitly see shadows near the iris in your photo reference, the white of our eyes are never really pure white, and you will get a much more realistic look if there is a gradual transition between the iris and the white of the eye, rather than going from fully colored in iris to stark, clean paper in the white of the eye. This step helps the iris look “settled” into the eyeball rather than looking as if it is “hovering” on top if it.
- Add your darkest shading on the top of the iris. This should be a shade darker than your darkest value that you used previously underneath the eyelid when you shaded the white of the eye. Think of a crescent moon facing downward, with the thickest shading up top, getting thinner and then altogether disappearing as it trails down around the edges of your circle shape.
- Add in your pupil and reflections. The reason we do this next is because we want to have the reflection areas mapped out before you get to shading the rest of your iris. You can go in with an eraser and add highlights by removing shading afterward, but this can be messy and end up smudging work you don’t wish to be smudged. I find it easier to just leave the highlights white to begin with. The location varies by light source if you are using a photo reference. Without a specific reference, it is safe to add two highlights, one on top and one on bottom at a diagonal to each other. Fill the pupil in dark black. This will be your darkest value.
- Shade around the pupil using the same value you used to shade your crescent moon around the top of the iris, one step lighter than black. Again, this anchors the pupil inside the iris so it doesn’t seem as if it is floating on top. This gradual gradation from dark to light makes the separate parts appear as a whole.
- Fill the remainder of the iris with a medium value. Again, we want all our value transitions to be gradual, so get a little lighter when you begin shading around the edges of your highlight areas.
- While we don’t want radial stripes circling the inside or our iris, we don’t want to smooth all the visual texture out of it either, as the striations of dark and light we see are part of the deep beauty of eyes. Literally “scribble” some slightly darker shading shooting out from the pupil in the two areas between our highlights. Again, please scribble though it may seem odd and scary; we don’t want neat, individual lines extending from the pupil.
- Add the tear duct by simply finishing the shading around your eyeball, cutting off the little teardrop shaped dip in the inner corner.
- Shade your eyelid! Shade the darkest in a thin line over the crease you originally outlined. Don’t just trace your line darker, shade by moving your pencil back and forth swiftly in short strokes over this line. Above this, shade a touch lighter to again make a gradual transition from dark shadow to white paper. Shade darkly also over the curved line directly above your eyeball, the edge of the eyelid. This will provide a foundation for the eyelashes, which we will add later. Shade along the bottom eyelid like this also.
- Shade the bottom crease under your eye. This is not a direct “fold” so it should be lighter than the shading for the eyelid since it is less in shadow. Shade deepest along the line you originally sketched, and shade lighter around this line on top and bottom. Extend the shading up to the outer corner of the eye to really show the skin curving. Add some light shading under the dark crease of the upper eyelid.
- We’re going to scribble again! Add some jagged shading pointing out from the top and bottom eyelid where the eyelashes will go, more so on top than on bottom. Do this in a medium value.
- Now, you can go over and add some individual curved darker lines sticking out to add some detail to your eyelash area. Don’t make them all the same length, and try to curve them – no straight lines poking out! Add a bunch overlapping each other using swift, light strokes with your pencil. They should be dense and close together.
These are not hard and fast “rules”, and once you’ve practiced the basic guidelines you can twist them to create entrancing eyes in your own unique artistic style, both realistic and more comic or stylized.
Speaking of eyes, I just designed a new pattern for Redbubble covered in glamorous eyeballs for your enjoyment. Check out all the cool new products featuring my digitally drawn pattern Mascara Tears here!
Feel free to throw a comment my way if you have any other drawing questions, I’m always open for giving tips. Any best practices other illustrators out there have found helpful? Don’t hesitate to share!