The eyes are arguably the most tricky part of the face to draw. To improve my eye drawing skills, I have been trying different ways to practice drawing eyes these past few months that help me understand their structure, and anatomy but don’t require drawing from a live model.
Here are 5 of my favorite ways to practice drawing eyes that are most helpful in getting better at drawing eyes and my tips on making the most out of each type of practice.
1. Doing anatomical studies of the eyes.
Interpreting the complex overlapping forms of an eye in your drawing requires a diligent study of its anatomy. Here are some things you can focus on when studying the anatomy of the eyes:
- Learning the different components of the eyeball, such as the Sclera, Iris, and Pupil.
- The skull structure that supports the eyes, and the skin, muscles, and fat surrounding the eyes.
- Observe the eyeball’s curvature and volume, and the different folds of skin covering the eyes.
- Understanding the mechanical aspect of the eye muscles.
2. Drawing from an eye sculpture.
I love doing studies of plaster casts of eyes from famous sculptures like the Statue of David because the lack of skin tone and the flatness of all sides of the cast other than the front side helps you to appreciate the three-dimensionality of the eyes and the different planes surrounding the eyes.
As beginners, we often get caught up with minor details of the eyes, such as the eyelashes and the shading of the Iris, before getting down the basic shapes of the eyes and their surrounding forms on paper first. For this reason, drawing eyes from a plaster cast can be a great exercise to train beginner artists like myself to see the big shapes before committing to any detailed rendering in their drawings.
3. Sketching your own eyes in front of a mirror.
If you have a friend who doesn’t mind sitting for you for a couple of hours while you inspect their eyes from twelve inches, that is perfect! However, if, like me, you
don’t have many friends and are too broke to commission a muse can’t find a volunteer, then drawing your own eyes in front of a mirror is the next best thing.
Scrutinizing your eyes from a mirror reflection will help you observe the three-dimensionality of the different parts of the eyes in a way that drawing from photos will never do. When doing your eye portraits, here are some things I suggest you observe:
- The curvature and volume of the different parts of the eyes.
- How the eyeballs sit inside the eye sockets.
- The transparency of the Iris when the light is directed towards it.
- How the shadows on the Sclera from the upper eyelids follow the contour of the eyeball.
- How the shape of the eyes changes based on your viewing angle.
The exercise of drawing your own eye can get a bit tiring because you have to maintain the same head angle, so I try to restrict myself to doing quick eye sketches when drawing from a mirror.
4. Practicing eye sketches based on photo references.
When I started drawing portraits again this year, I struggled most with drawing the eyes. The biggest improvement in drawing eyes for me has been through exclusive eye studies using random photo references from Pinterest.
You can improve your eye sketching skills more quickly by practicing drawing just the eyes instead of drawing the complete portrait every time.
Here are some variations I like to try when doing eye studies from photos:
- Drawing one eye from the same angle but with different positioning of the Iris.
- Drawing both eyes simultaneously and focusing on how perspective and foreshortening affect each eye.
- Doing eye-expression studies.
- Drawing eyes over a basic Loomis’s Head structure to practice getting the placement and proportions right relative to the face.
5. Doing master studies of portraits by other artists focused on the eyes.
Doing master studies of portraits is a great way to understand how different artists draw eyes in their unique way by playing with subtle variations in drawing its basic form and rendering techniques.
I personally really like how Loish draws eyes in a semi-realistic way. After studying how she draws eyes, here are some things she does that I believe make the eyes in her portraits stand out:
- The overall proportion of the eyes is slightly bigger than the average proportions of the face.
- The outer corners of the eyes are paced significantly higher than the inner corners (tear ducts), making the eyes look more appealing.
- The upper eyelashes are merged with the shadow of the upper lids to create a single block of shape, along with the occasional individual strands of eyelashes that tend to stand out. This makes the eyes look less busy and helps to give a cleaner finish.
- Highlights are usually placed on the white part of the eyes (Sclera) that also tends to overlap the edge of the Iris.
- When the head is tilted downwards, the faint highlight above the lower eyelashes suggests the volume of the lower eyelids.