How to Paint Realistic Eyes

Fri 28th Mar 2014, by Linda Bergkvist | Tutorial

Painting Realistic Eyes by Linda Bergkvist has been one of our most popular tutorials. Its 18 tips and tricks to create the "windows to the soul" are timeless. This week we dusted it off and gave it a polish for the many artists who will want to include these priceless steps into their workflow.


The eye is probably the most catching thing about the human face. It's where we're looking when we're talking to people. It's where tears emerge from; it's where we indicate what we're looking at and often what we're thinking about. If you've painted beautifully but the eyes look dead, you've not painted a human -- you've painted a mannequin. 



Step 1


Let us start with a blank piece of paper, only make it flesh coloured instead. Picking a good first colour for skin usually has some impact on all the other colours one will pick thereafter - for this reason, it's always vital to start with a colour that's not too pink, not too orange, and not too saturated.


Common mistakes: Using a colour that is too saturated or too grey, a colour that is too orange or too pink. Try to find the middle ground, it will affect the rest of the painting.










Step 2 


Sketch a simple eye. There are some things here that people tend to forget. The first one is that there is a lid below the eye as well as above it. Without this lid, the eye will sit very unnaturally in the face. Secondly, we have the corner of the eye where the tears come from. Leaving these things out are among the most common mistakes when it comes to painting eyes. Let's keep these 'sketch lines' on an entirely separate layer, on top of everything else. 


Common mistakes: Forgetting the lower lid. Forgetting the corner of the eye.







Step 3


Next, we try to get the feel for the shape of the eye. If we shade the bottom eyelid, and highlight the upper one, we suddenly see something emerge. A flat eyeball will mess up the entire eye, so it is very important that we get the roundness through. But the truth of the matter is that the area surrounding the eye should be showing the shape of the eyeball itself.

The eyeball is white and you won't be able to show much of its roundness because most of it is hidden, but by shading the lids you'll give the same message without making the eye look like it is bulging. I'm using a warm pink here to highlight, and a desaturated brown for the shadow. This will all change later.





Step 4


Try to imagine that there are lines running across your face, showing the shape of it - it's sometimes hard to tell how the structure lies by just looking at something. Better yet, if you are inclined, paint straight lines running down your own face and take a photo of it to use as reference.You'll see that the lines look everything but straight when you look in a mirror - in fact, you might discover an entirely new way of looking at your own features.


When shading, keep these lines in mind. Don't paint them in unless you feel you absolutely have to (and if so, on a separate layer), but try to imagine them while you shade. 


Common mistakes: Imagining the eyeball, not as round, but as elliptic. Shading the surrounding area as well as the eyeball as if it is the shape and size of what shows, not what is hidden behind lid and flesh.



Step 5


Build up the area around the eye. Do this by picking a highlight (in this case, the same one that I used for the eyelid) and figure out where the light would fall. People have different shapes of eyes, but a rule of thumb is that you'll have a soft, pillowed area just below the eyebrow (along the entire length, actually, though I've only highlighted part of it here - the other part 'pops' out because I've shaded below and above), one upon the cheekbone and then it'll always help to make the area just around the corner of the eye look a little less flat.


Close your eye and gently trace the shape with your fingertips. You'll have the swell of the eyelid, the area below the eyebrow and then the cheekbone, right? Remember that an area like this is likely to leave a shadow below. The problem here, of course, is that we're not painting the entire face - it's easier to fit an eye in when there is something to fit it into. 


Common mistakes: Too stark shading. Using pure black or even lines to show edges.



Step 6 


After this, we need to define the areas that I only very quickly blurred in on the previous stage. I'm working with soft edged brushes here, all along. In some places, I'll shift to a custom brush that is round but has slightly torn edges.


Pick warmer, more saturated colours. You can highlight and shade by using colours alone. Work shadows into the eyebrow, but more importantly accentuate the eye itself by shading the lower lid more and also adding some shape to the upper lid. Again, touch your own eyelid (carefully, keep your eye open) -- it sticks out a little but not too much. A common mistake is to make the upper eyelid look huge, and to forget the crease that shows that while you've got your eye open, the lid is slightly folded back. 


Common mistakes: Accentuating all the creases and folds only with shadows instead of highlights.




Step 7

Now, we're going to get tricky. Instead of just shadowing with dark colours underneath the eye and accomplish a look like an alcoholic that hasn't slept for five days, we're going to find the shapes with a combination of highlights and shadows. Never forget that across the planes and curves of a face, the values will be flowing.


You'll have light reflecting differently on the different types of skin (often oilier below the eyes, around the nose, moist on the lips). You'll have a few sharper creases (like upper eyelid) and then creases that soften out (like the one on the lower eyelid, which smoothens as it reaches the corner of the eye). A face does not consist only of highlighted cheekbones, nose, lips and chin - it has all kinds of hills and valleys. No matter how good you become at painting, it will always look flat, false, and fake until you understand these shapes.



Step 8 


Trying to find shapes with a combination of highlights and shadows isn't always easy, but it's far more effective than trying to find it by using lines. For the most part, I won't even have the sketch lines here, they're merely here to demonstrate the shape of the eye as I build the face up around it.


Once more, accentuating the curves, planes and folds with a combination of lighter and darker areas. We're using no black, we're using no white. All variations of the same skin tone. Now - if you're clever, the highlighted area underneath the eye will have a slightly more bluish tone (as the skin here is extremely thin and the vessels underneath have a tendency of showing colour though), and use warmer highlights for the other parts of the face. If you pick the colours directly off this demonstration, you'll see that when I say 'bluish', I don't mean actually blue. Taking a look, you'll see that in spite of the eyeball itself not having been drawn in, the eye already has shape!



Step 9


Having just said that the face has shape even without the eyeball, that doesn't mean we can skip it altogether, does it now? Let's sketch it in. Don't use white, use a mix of pale grey-beige and then brush over with the skin tone - I've found that this combination very closely resembles the actual colour of an eyeball (the skin tone is generally reflected on the highly glossy surface). Do not add highlights to this eyeball yet. It's a waste to work in the glossiness at this point - it'll be painted over by the iris and pupil anyway.


What's more important, though, is that the eyeball's shape is consistent with the shading you've done on the eyelids. If you've been thinking right, it should fit right in. If you've messed up, the eyeball will look like a golf ball pushed into an ill fitting hole. Keep imagining the round shape of it, and if it helps, sketch the outlines of the round shape on a separate layer and then shadow the eye below it accordingly. 


Common Mistakes: Pure white for the eyeball.


Step 10


The iris is completely round. For the most part, some of it will be hidden by the eyelid - if you hide only a little, the eye will look widened, shocked and staring (such as in the example I'm painting here), while hiding half or more will give the eye another expression altogether: perhaps indolent, seductive, sly.


Like the eyeball, never cease to imagine the iris as a round thing. To make absolutely sure, always paint the full round thing on a separate layer and then simply erase the bit that would be hidden by the eyelid. Like previously mentioned, we see the eyes, and we definitely see if something's messed up. A non-round iris will make it look alien and crooked - a neat thing if that's what you intended, but not so neat if you are aiming for a natural look.


So, pick a dark, random colour (nothing too extreme) and paint in the iris. Then on top of that, paint a lighter colour that will leave a slightly darker edge. Not all eyes have this darker edge at the outskirts of the iris, but we're settling for it this time around.

Step 11


Similarly, the pupil is COMPLETELY round, no doubt about it. Paint in a round, dark circle in the middle of the iris. Just for the feeling's sake, dab a blotch of white on top of the iris and pupil, just to see how it would feel. There's the eye, suddenly a little glossy.


Common Mistakes: As previously mentioned, there is a tendency to make the iris less than round.









Step 12


There are no dark sketch-lines in a face, so it's time to get rid of them. There are two easy ways to do this - either you simply delete the layer, or you do as I did here: paint over them. I've found that painting over something rather than simply deleting it occasionally helps the liveliness of a picture. So for the sake of this exercise, paint over, don't delete.


What we have after we've done that is an eye that likely looks slightly messed up. We've used the lines as crutches, forgetting to shade the folds instead of letting simple lines do the talking. So the next mission is to do the highlighting and shading in the areas that are now looking stupid. For this, I use a brush that is either just hard edged and round, or something similar to this:





I've found that this brush is excellent to blend colours with, either as just painting, or as smudging. Do not forget the fact that the bottom eyelid sticks out a little. It doesn't sit flat against the eyeball - we need a little 'rim' to show that there's a shape to it and it's not just pasted in place. Paint this 'rim' (just above the lashes) with a vague pink colour slightly lighter than the skintone below.


Also, it might be a good thing to scribble the eyebrow in at this point, because once the lines are removed, chances are it looked like a dark blur. We'll fix it up more later. Common mistakes: Leaving the lines in or mimicking them once they're removed.






Step 13


At this point, pick up a mirror. Look at the eye in the mirror, and notice that the white of the eye becomes pinker as it reaches the corner of the eye, and that the pink isn't entirely flat in shape right before the corner. We need a little glossiness here, a little colour to make it believable. A tint of blue added to the eyeball colour, and then some very soft, smooth touches of a round soft brush to pick out little highlights here and there. Most important here - be careful, chances are you'll overdo this area and end up with an eyeball that looks textured. This isn't the point. Point is, adding little touches of realism.


Also, redefining the shape of the eye at this point, and adding more detail to the eyebrow and the corner of the eye is almost a must. I've found that the realism is sometimes helped by further enhancing the shape of the corner of the eye by highlighting around it (take a look to the immediate left of it, you'll find a little highlight there). Try to work in more colours. Try to find little oranges, blues, reds and purples to discreetly add here and there for a more skinlike 'feel' to the area surrounding the eye.


This is where we start thinking about the iris, as well. The iris is a textured, wonderfully intricate thing and usually what makes an eye 'fly'. The first step to defining it would be just adding a very sloppy dark shadow at the top of it. Common Mistakes: Forgetting to define the corner of the eye, or even leaving out that area altogether.



Step 14


Create a new layer. Set the new layer to 'soft light', and paint with a dark, ruddy colour to emphasise the skin tone. This will make more difference than you know. Pay special attention to the eyelids (the lower one in particular) and the area underneath the eyebrow. There is a vast difference now that the skintones are picked up. This sort of alteration goes for any kind of detail in a face, especially the bottom of a nose, around the nostrils and the eyes, but also the corners of the mouth and the side of the nostrils. In this step and the one before, I've smudged the eyebrows a little with the brush I previously showed 


Common Mistakes: Forgetting about skin tone variation. A face and all its details looks dead and flat without such small devices.





Step 15


Continuing on the skin tone variations around the eye, make yet another layer above the first one, and now add textures. Use a small brush with pressure set to opacity and shape and just scribble away. The eye in this example is slightly exaggerated, but the practice is the same. Skin is NOT just a smooth, polished-stone texture. It's not porcelain. Do not forget to at least hint at the texture and the pores, sometimes only with little skin tone variations. I'll happily say that I learned this from the 3D art forums - watching all these marvellous artists work on the skin textures, and then in the end asking myself: why didn't I think of that?


The good thing about keeping the texture layer separate is that you can use a soft eraser to make some patches more transparent and others more opaque, giving a lively, 'real' look to it. Add a few birth marks while you're at it. 


Common Mistakes: Leaving the texture out altogether. Big no-no.


Step 16


Paint the lashes in by using a hard edged little brush with pressure set to size. Keep them just a little bit scraggly, and don't paint them too long. Keep them on a separate layer. A good thing to keep in mind is that the lashes rarely sweep out towards the outer corner of the eye, as they are often depicted to. Most of them will be curving downwards quite naturally.


After this has been done, use a combination of a tiny smudge brush and the eraser to soften the sharpness of the lashes. Rinse and repeat for the upper eyelid, but in this case remember not to point the lashes straight up, as this has a tendency to look unnatural.


Common Mistakes: Painting eyelashes as unnaturally long, and forgetting to taper them off at the end. Even worse, forgetting about the eyelashes altogether for a creepy-eyed look.



Step 17


We're getting there! The iris is a plethora of textures. If you pick up a mirror and stare at your own eye really closely, you'll see that it's not even just the diamond shaped textures radiating from the pupil, but that they're layered. Layer upon layer of delicate little coloured shapes. Not an easy thing to mimic. We'll try, though, by painting little soft strokes of colour upon one another, not erasing if we make a mistake but just keeping to painting over and over for that right textured, deep look.


In the end, I decided to break the highlight up as well, just to make it look a little more realistic. It's a good thing to think about the light conditions of a picture before deciding where to place the highlight and what shape it should be, but in this case, I just smudged it a little and added the faintest possible touch of blue to it (I doubt you can even see there's blue there, but there is). 


Common Mistakes: Making the iris look flat by painting only one layer of texture and using only one colour with different brightness.


Step 18


There's not a lot to say. For the final step, look the picture over for some things you might want to change or do differently - in this case, adding some more shading and shadowing to the eyeball itself as well as adding a touch of gloss to the iris.



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