My, What Big Eyes You Have! – Drawing Realistic Eyes

Drawing eyes, or any part of the face is tricky because we are all so familiar with the human face. We start looking at faces from birth. We look at babies and they to us. So what we tend to do when drawing the face, especially eyes, is to exaggerate. Eyes get drawn with dark lines instead of emerging out of a darkish area of the socket which end up looking more like an Egyptian kohl eye than a more naturalistic eye.

To draw eyes well there are some physical considerations. The first is the skull itself and the socket. When you see a skull (and at halloween you can see lots of skulls) there is a hole where the eye ball, muscles, and skin will fill. Notice the shape of that hole. It’s not round! It’s kind of shaped like a pair of sunglass lenses, more of a rectangle shape. Notice the slope of the eye brow bone. Each side bends down toward the ear. Notice also at the bottom where its lower and higher.


Inside this cavity sits a ball. To start the drawing draw a ball shape, but fill the cavity. Remember, we are seeing just a small section of the orb of the eye. If you take a ping-pong ball, you can start to visualize it sitting in the ‘eye-glass lense’ shape. In fact, you could make a model using a ping pong ball as the eye ball.

The bone of the brow ridge, the top of the socket sits FORWARD, or IN FRONT OF the ball. So how do you show this?  By remembering that there is going to be a shadow created by the brow ridge and socket bone. To render this, lay in a middle to dark middle value in the whole eye socket area, but still keep the ball lightly visible.

eye ball massed in

Over this lightly draw in the eye lid. When drawing the lid, notice, again, which is higher, which is lower in both the top and bottom lids. The ball is now being covered by the skin (and muscle) on both the top and bottom of the sphere.

eye lid

When drawing the lid, but make sure you draw it lower than the top of the circle. Note where the corners of the eye are. The top of the circle of the eye ball is where the lid dives back in to the socket. It’s the area where one would apply eye shadow.

The lid will make it’s own shadow on eye ball, and the iris is often darker, even in pale eyes. When drawing the iris, notice what master painters have done – they use straight lines to depict the shape. The reason is that we, the viewer, will round it. And as an artist it’s easier to create the illusion of round with straight lines, especially in a small, tight area such as the eye.

eye iris

Add the lighter, highlight to the lid(s) as it’s also a ball on top of a ball and needs to show form. You can also add a highlight to the eye itself, but be judicious. See what really there and make sure the highlight is not too dark, nor too light. It has to be in the correct value.

eye finish

Remember that all the prep work you do underneath the drawing should be light, but dark enough for you to see, and most especially accurate. If it’s not accurate, what ever gets laid on top will be off. So take your time to really observe and get it correct. To go fast, go slow. Take your time. You will live with the drawing way longer than it will take to make it, so be really thoughtful about your lay-ins.

This is just a basic lay in and can be taken further. One book that I use often and travel with is John Vanderpoel’s “Human Figure”. In it he breaks the figure down in to their separate parts. Copy them until you can do them from memory.