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6 Tips for Getting Better at Drawing Eyes

I personally find eyes the most challenging feature of the face to draw, and the fact that they are usually the first thing that a person notices on a face does not help beginner artists like me who have been finding it hard to draw the eyes well. And don’t ask me about my struggles in drawing the ‘other eye’ after having drawn the first eye to perfection.

So in the past week, I have been studying how to draw eyes properly from Loomis, Reilly, Proko, and other art instructors and have compiled a list of the 6 most helpful tips to draw better eyes based on what I have learned. These tips may seem obvious to some of you, but I hope most of you can learn something new by reading this post.

How to get better at drawing eyes?

To get better at drawing eyes, we first need to study and practice drawing the basic structure of the eyes. When practicing drawing, try exploring different ways to convey the eyes’ shape and form to improve quickly.

1. Familiarize yourself with the basic structure of the eyes

My study of a cast of David’s eye.

Although everyone has seen eyes a million times before, being able to draw them well requires us to observe, examine, and understand their three-dimensional form while ignoring any preconceived ideas we have about how they should look like.

My favorite exercise to study the basic shapes of eyes is making a drawing of a plaster cast of the eyes because I can ignore secondary details like the eyelashes and the shading of the Iris and focus exclusively on studying the most basic forms of the eyes.

I personally found the exercise helpful in observing how the eyes are positioned relative to the other elements of the face, like the brow ridge and the side planes of the nose, so I would definitely recommend beginners to give it a go.

2. The eyes should follow the curvature of the skull

I noticed in my earlier drawings that the eyes I drew looked rather flat and lacked the three-dimensional quality I was going for. One tip I learned by studying the Loomis Method is that the eyes should be drawn to follow the curvature of the skull and not as if they are placed on a flat surface.

Depending on the angle of the head, the curvature of the head may be less or more obvious, so doing quick eye studies on a simple Loomis head helps to get a feel of how they wrap around the curvature of the head.

3. Place both eyes correctly before adding any details

I have been guilty of drawing one complete eye with the shading and everything before starting the second too many times. The problem with this habit is that you become so invested in the lines you have already marked that it interferes with your ability to see and correct errors in the placement and proportions.

The best way to go about drawing the eyes is to make sure you have positioned them correctly in relation to each other and with other landmarks of the face before doing any detailed work. Following are key points to remember when placing the eyes in your portraits.

  • The space between the two eyes equals the length of one eye when viewing the face head-on. In a 3/4 view, this gap will lie somewhere between the size of the foreshortened eye (the eye closer to the viewer) and the eye that is further away from the view.
  • The inner corners of the eyes (tear ducts) roughly align with the wings of the nose.
  • The center of the lips aligns with the eyes’ outer corners and the nose’s wings.
  • The lower eyelids are positioned approximately in the verticle center of the head.

4. Tips for rendering your eye sketches

  • Draw the fleshy white layer of the eyeballs (Sclera) in midtones instead of pure white to make the highlights more prominent.
  • Highlights in the eyes should point towards the light source.
  • Shadows and highlights on the eyes need to follow the curvature of the eyeballs.
  • Eyelids have some volume, so a dark shadow under the upper eyelid and some highlights just above the lower eyelid help suggest this volume in a portrait.
  • Iris is not an exact circle but an ellipse trapped inside the rounded exterior of the eyeball. Drawing an x and y axis over the eyeball helps visualize how the Iris shape is influenced by perspective.
  • The outer edge of the Iris may have a dark outline, but it’s crucial not to outline the segments of the Iris that are covered by the eyelids.
  • When drawing a portrait on a small scale, it will be necessary to simplify the value range and shapes of the eyes as well as the forms around the eyes, like the eyebrows and eyelashes. This is because going into too much detail when drawing small can often lead to a drawing that looks messy and unappealing (at least in my case).
  • Varying the line weight around different parts of the eyes can help suggest a better sense of volume and overlapping forms.
  • Placing the outer corners of the eyes slightly higher than the inner corners can make the eyes look more attractive.

5. Tips for drawing expressive eyes

Good artists can convey a person’s emotions just by drawing their eyes. Obviously, this is a skill that can take years to master but from what I have understood by observing the drawings by some great artists, the following are the main ingredients that need to be subtly varied to suggest a particular eye expression:

  • The degree to which the eyelids are open
  • The tightness and shape of the muscles and skin surrounding the eyes
  • The gap between the upper eyelids and the eyebrows
  • The angle of the Iris
  • The size of the pupil relative to the Iris
  • The shape language of the eyebrows and the eyelids
  • The prominence of the highlights
  • The degree of transparency in the Iris

6. Practice drawing eyes!

Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do to improve your eye sketching by reading tips without actually observing and practicing drawing based on what you have learned, so grab your hopefully not-so-dusty sketchbook and start drawing some eyes now!