Observations and Tips for Drawing Realistic Eyes

Close-Up Of Human Eye Drawing On Paper

Louis Diaz/EyeEm / Getty Images

In this lesson, we look at the anatomy of the eye and discover some useful tips for getting the eyes right in portrait drawings. By learning what is under the skin, you will know what to look for when you are drawing an eye. This will help you achieve accurate, realistic results in your drawings.

If you would like to practice drawing a simple eye, this drawing an eye lesson is a perfect place to begin. In order to draw it, you first need to observe an eye. 

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The Anatomy of the Eye

eye anatomy

Helen South

As you learn to draw eyes, it is useful to think about the anatomy of the eye.

Watch a friend's eyes as they look from side to side. You can see that the eyeball is not a perfect sphere. The cornea bulges out in front of the iris (the colored part). While the iris looks flat, reflections from the front of the eye show a curved surface. This detail is important because as the eye changes position in the socket, it makes the shape of the eyelid change slightly as well.

How you draw the eye also depends on the angle of your subject's head.

If they are at an angle or three-quarter view and are not looking directly at you, the eyes will also be at an angle - so you are looking at them in perspective. Because the pupil sits in the plane of the iris and is in perspective, it is an oval rather than a circle.

To put this into perspective, look at a coffee cup or even a round bangle or ring that's handy. Hold it at an angle and notice how the circle changes into an oval as you turn it. The appearance of the eye changes in the same manner.

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Anatomy of the Eye Socket

Human head with bone, muscles and circulatory system.

Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

When drawing, look for the signs of the underlying structure that the eye is placed within.

Observe the bones and muscles of the face. Depending on a person's age and build, they may be more or less visible, but they are still there. An awareness of the shape of the eye socket and the bands of muscle around the eye will help you identify and model changes of the plane around the eye.

Some study of anatomy is essential for artists interested in realist drawing. Spend some time making studies of the bones and muscles. Don't worry about naming the parts, just know what they look like.

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Observe the Eye in Detail

Blue Eye

amandabanana87/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

To draw a realistic eye, it is important to observe it very closely.

Notice that the iris is not a solid tone, but has streaks of color and is dark around the edge. Observe your subject carefully to identify the patterns of their iris. Take note of the highlights and reflections on the surface of the eye as these alter their appearance.

At this angle, the inside rim of the lower eyelid is visible, and part of the upper. A broken line is often used when drawing the lower eyelid to indicate this lightness. In a tonal drawing, there may be a highlight.

The 'whites' aren't really white. They have a slight color, you will often notice visible blood vessels, and they are frequently shadowed. Reserve pure white for highlights.

The Difference Between Good and Great

When you look at a realist drawing of an eye, the difference between jaw-dropping realism and a reasonable likeness is the attention to detail, This happens both in the observation as well as the drawing.

If you are trying to achieve a very high degree of realism, you need a very large, clear reference photograph. It will also require a great deal of patience and accuracy in drawing every tiny change in light and dark. There's no magic trick, just very careful attention.

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The Shape of the Eyes

Eyes in Three Quarter View
note how the rounded shape of the eyeball means that the angle of the head means that the shapes formed by the eyelids appear different.

Ford Maddox-Brown

We often draw the eyes as symmetrical ovals and think of them as being mirror images of each other. But as you know, the human face is not symmetrical, nor is the eye itself.

Eye shapes vary a great deal, and the shape of the lids will change as the eye moves. When gazing to one side, they can change dramatically. Add a slight turn of the head or move your viewpoint from the center, and the eyes can look very different indeed.

Trust your observation and use the position of the pupils as a reference point.

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Observing Expression

Eye expression

Stock Photo/Inset by Helen South

Expressions can drastically alter the shape of the eye. Pay attention to the planes, lines, and wrinkles around the eye, not just the lids themselves. If you do not, the eyes will look misshapen.

A smile pushes the muscles on the face upwards, making the lids bulge a little. Sometimes laugh-lines appear. Models practice an artificial smile that doesn't reach the eyes, but most subjects have smiles that affect their whole face.

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Placement of the Eyes

Sketch showing eye placement

Helen South/ DJ Jones

Pay careful attention to the placement of the eyes. If drawing without any aids, refer to the key 'landmarks' of the face: check the angle and distance of the inner and outer points of the eyes in relation to the ears and nose.

When you sketch a straight line through the eyes, the base of the nose, the mouth, and the brows, you'll find that they are in correct perspective or parallel to one another.

When you begin drawing a portrait, sketch this structure. Use the construction lines to indicate the planes of the face, place the pupils, and draw the main lines of the lids and brows.

Including wrinkles and facial structure lines like the cheekbones at this point can help provide reference points as well.

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Drawing Eyes in Portraiture

Portrait Drawing

Helen South

When drawing a portrait, you may not want to get too detailed at first. Instead, work up the whole face, adding more reference points and ensuring that everything fits together. Some people do prefer to focus on a single area at a time. You will want to see which works best for you.

Whichever approach you choose, careful observation is the key. Observing the tiny details of light and shade in the eyes will bring the subject to life. This is true whether you are doing a detailed portrait or a quick sketch.

Often, you may 'abbreviate' or suggest the details that you've observed. The visual information that you've gathered will make you sketched 'abbreviations' accurate ones that make sense. In the end, the drawing will be much stronger than when you've only guessed at what it should look like.

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Tips on Drawing Eyes

Pencil sketch of female eyes on white paper with pencils

Kurtikam/Getty Images

Here are a few final tips you'll find useful when drawing eyes. Keep in mind that the level of realism and detail that you obtain depends on observation, patience, and a sharp pencil.

  • Sometimes a little artist's license is needed if the light is poor or when you're working from a photo. Adding a little-curved highlight cutting across the pupil and iris, a shadow under the lid or detail to the iris can brighten flat eyes.
  • Don't automatically outline the lower lid. Quite often, the lower rim is highlighted and only needs to be indicated very lightly.
  • Draw the subtle changes in tone which indicate the eye socket and the planes of the nose and brows, which help to set the eyes into the face. If using a line, you can use broken or implied line.