Hey, fellow art enthusiasts! Do you know what’s more complicated than drawing an eye? Drawing both eyes. And on a face! It does not help that eyes are the first thing we naturally notice when we see a drawing of a face, and if something is slightly off, the whole portrait looks a bit weird.
So, in this post, I’ll break down my process for drawing eyes on a face that seems to help me draw better eyes by demonstrating a portrait in 7 Steps following which I’ll share some strategies for improving your eye sketching skills. And by the way, there’s also an exercise at the end of the post that reportedly has been practiced by artists like Picasso and Van Gogh, so make sure to check that out!
Step 0: Know the anatomy and proportions of the eyes.
First, it is crucial to have a basic idea of the proportions of the eyes relative to the face as well as the structure of:
- the eyes,
- the eye sockets in which the eyes actually sit,
- and the muscle and fat cushioning the eyes.
Here are some key things to remember before we start drawing eyes because absorbing this information will help you draw eyes more convincingly on a face.
- The eyes sit on a curved skull and not on a flat plane.
- The eyeball is a sphere of the size of a ping-pong ball that sits inside the eye socket, and the iris protrudes outwards from the sclera (the white part of the eyes).
- The eyeball is about twice in diameter as the iris.
- The gap between both eyes is equal to the width of one eye, which is also about the same as the width of the nose.
- Extrapolating the center of the lips in the direction of the sides of the nose will converge along the outer edges of the eyes.
- The eyelids have some volume and are not paper-thin like many beginners draw.
- The upper and lower edges of the eye socket are not perfectly aligned when viewed from the side profile because the brow ridge protrudes slightly outwards compared to the base of the eyes.
- Eye level is approximately at the vertical center of the head.
Step 1 Draw the structure of the head.
The first step to drawing eyes on a face is to outline the structure of the face in the correct proportions and perspective.
Everything that goes into drawing the structure of the head is going to be too broad to cover in this post so if you’re new to portrait drawing, I suggest you read this quick Loomis Method guide.
Step 2 Construct the gesture lines across the face to define the overall angle at which the eyes will be placed.
One of the most critical aspects of drawing eyes in a portrait is to figure out the angle of the eyes relative to one another, depending on the head angle and foreshortening. It’s important to remember that the eye closer to view appears larger than the other, and these gesture lines should convey this effect.
I prefer drawing two gesture lines across the face tangential to the lower and upper edges of the eye sockets. If you close your eyes for a moment and try to locate these edges on your face, it would help you get a visual sense of where you want to draw these gesture lines and help you realize the position of the eyeball relative to these landmarks.
It is also necessary to consider the position of the browline at this stage because the gap between the browline and the upper edge of the eye socket that is closer to view should be larger than the gap on the other side of the face.
Step 3 Define the edges of the eye sockets by marking the ‘three eyes’.
There are two ways to go about this: You can either mark the inner edges of the eye socket by comparing it to the width of the nose and extrapolate this middle eye to the left and right to find the outer edges. Or you can start with the outer edges of both eyes first if that seems more easily recognizable, and figure out the inner corners by dividing the eye-to-eye length into three equal segments.
It’s important to remember that the width of the three eyes (counting the gap in the middle) will appear proportionately smaller away from the closest eye.
Step 4 Block in the general shape of the eyelids.
Using gesture lines as a guideline for perspective, we can mark the curves of the eyelids. Just remember that the eyelids follow the curvature of the eyeballs.
Another thing to remember is to outline the volume of the eyelids depending on the tilt of the head. If, for example, the head is tilted downwards relative to your view, you’ll only be able to see the thickness of the lower eyelids, whereas in some cases, it’s apparent in both eyelids.
Step 5 Suggest the shape of the iris and pupil.
When outlining the visible portions of the iris and pupils inside the eyelids, a good rule of thumb is to assume the overall diameter of the iris as half that of the eyeball which you can reference from the eye sockets that we marked in Step 3.
Unless you’re viewing the person dead straight, the iris is not a perfect circle and more of an eclipse. It can be tricky to figure out how to draw an eclipse, especially when a portion of it is covered by the eyelids. A trick to help draw the eclipse of the iris is to draw a couple of faint contour lines over the eyeball converging towards the center of the pupil, and from my experience, it helps visualize which direction you need to skew the eclipse.
This is probably the most delicate part of a portrait, so it’s best to hold the pencil gently when sketching these details to allow edits if required.
Step 6 Suggest the shape of the muscle, fat, and skin folds surrounding the eyes.
The space between the eye socket and the eyeballs is occupied by muscle and fat that occasionally overlaps and compresses against the eyelids.
At this stage of the drawing, I prefer not to overstress these shapes but to draw the contour of such forms to indicate their position relative to the eyelids and the brow ridge.
Step 7 Outline the shadow shapes and highlights, and clean up the linework.
Before starting the shading process, it is useful to indicate the shadow shapes and highlights.
Do consider the range of tones within the sclera (the white part of the eyes) at this stage because many beginners perceive it to be lighter than it actually is, and that negates the impact of the highlights.
Before shading your drawing, clean up the linework and make any final adjustments.
Step 8 Refine and render.
And my favorite part of drawing the eyes: Shading! I prefer to shade in a quick block of tone in the shadowy areas defined in the earlier step and refine the values from there. Make sure to shade the shadows under the upper eyelids along the round contour of the eyeball and the same goes for creating any highlights.
You can work on rendering the minor details like the eyelashes and eyebrows in the final stages of the drawing when the main shapes and forms are already defined. In hindsight, I should have chosen a different reference to illustrate the eye-drawing process because the eyelashes and the eyebrows have faded in the portrait of the girl with the pearl earrings. Oh well. 🙈
In the next section, I’m sharing some tips that helped me improve my eye sketching skills, and make sure to attempt the practice exercise at the end of the post.
4 Strategies for improving eyes in a portrait.
- Draw both eyes simultaneously instead of drawing one eye after the other. This ensures both eyes are drawn to the correct perspective and proportions and look like they belong to the same face.
- Outline the structure of the eyes before going into detailed rendering, and make sure the dominant forms of the eyes are reasonably correct before tackling the secondary details like the eyelashes or the reflection on the iris.
- Build up the values gradually and avoid pressing the pencil too hard early in the drawing process because harsh pencil lines around the sclera and iris can be tricky to erase without creating some mess.
- Time for some drawing practice! Grab your sketchbook and copy the Plates 1 and 3 from the Bargue Drawing Course below. Honestly, I think these are brilliant at teaching the basic structure of the eyes from different angles and how creating simple shadows can convey so much about their shape and form.
I hope reading this post gave you a basic idea of how to draw eyes, and if you know some tips for drawing eyes, you can share them in the comments below. Happy drawing!