How to Draw Eyes

How to Draw an Eye - The Basics

The eye has been said to be "the window to the soul". When drawing a portrait of someone, it is clearly important to know how to draw eyes.  Sometimes we can look at just a person's eyes and know exactly who they are. 

How to draw an eye step by step

The process is fairly straight-forward. After drawing out the basic contours, we'll gradually develop the tonal range of the eye. To create the representational effect that we're after, we'll gradually build up layered applications of graphite to develop the value and the texture.

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Patience With Graphite Pencils

If realism is your goal, then patience must be practiced. Just like other art-making mediums like colored pencils or pen and ink, graphite applications must be patiently layered and deliberately applied.

Textures develop through layered applications of graphite of varying hardness. Harder pencils, which produce lighter marks, are applied first. Softer pencils are applied on top, pushing values darker. If the softer pencils produce unwanted textures, then additional applications of harder graphite can be applied, working the material into the tooth or texture of the paper.

Materials For This Lesson

For this lesson, a series of graphite applications are patiently applied on smooth Bristol paper. This surface creates smoother transitions of value, but easily smears.

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How to Draw an Eye - Step by Step

Here are the steps that we'll take to draw a realistic eye. Each step is broken down in more depth below. It's important to be patient - creating a realistic illusion takes time...

  1. Draw the contours (outlines) of the eye.
  2. Shade the iris and pupil.
  3. Shade the whites of the eye, tear duct, and eyelid.
  4. Develop the skin texture around the eye.
  5. Draw the eyelashes.

1. Draw the Contours (Outlines) of the Eye

We'll begin the drawing by lightly and loosely drawing the contour lines of the upper portion and lower portion of the shape of the eye, leaving open the location of the tear duct. We'll start with the "H" pencil with very little pressure. Within this shape, we'll draw the shape of the iris, pupil, and a shape for the strong highlight that overlaps the pupil slightly.

It's perfectly acceptable to draw with many light lines at this stage. We'll progressively place heavier pressure on the pencil as the drawing develops, which will lead to darker marks and values. Be patient and focus on capturing the shape of the eye.

Drawing a realistic eye step one

2. Shade the Iris and the Pupil

Next, we'll begin the slow process of layering values, starting with the darkest values within the pupil. Care is taken to preserve the highlight as darker tones are developed. This highlight will create the illusion that the eye is wet, so it's very important to preserve this area. It's much harder to go back and erase out a highlight when working with graphite.

The pupil will eventually be the area of darkest tone within the drawing. We'll slowly build up the dark values here. By slowly layering darker applications, we have greater control over the values produced and we can potentially avoid "graphite shine". Graphite shine happens when heavy applications of graphite are applied and flatten the tooth or texture of the paper, resulting in a very shiny area of graphite.

Within the iris, marks are made radiating from the center. While most of the darker marks are linear, a few form organic shapes. By gradually adjusting the values in this area, we can begin to create a more realistic appearance. The iris is actually made up of two closely layered sections - the stroma and pigmented epithelial cells underneath. By gradually adjusting values, we can develop a subtle, three-dimensional appearance.

The outer and inner portions of the iris are developed with slightly darker values.

Darkening the pupil of the eye

While the "H" pencil lays the groundwork, we'll need to start pushing the values darker. A slightly darker and softer "HB" pencil is applied to progressively darken the values in the pupil and the surrounding iris.

In any eye that you draw, there will be inconsistencies and unusual shapes. You may notice small spots of darker tones or wavy lines. We'll need to include these details in order to create a drawing that is realistic. We'll begin to develop these "imperfections" with the HB pencil over the lighter H applications already in place.

Drawing the iris around the pupil

The texture of the iris is smooth and this should be reflected in our drawing. Although the surface of the paper on which we're working is already very smooth, the texture of the paper is still evident. This means we'll need to alter the graphite applications to create a more natural illusion of texture.

A blending stump is gently used to soften the texture. The blending stump is pulled in the same direction as the strokes made with the pencil to preserve the pattern of lines and shapes within the iris.

After the blending stump has been applied, you may find that the contrast between the values has been muted slightly. If this is the case, you can revisit the iris with the HB pencil and restore some of the contrast lost. Doing so will just create additional depth to the drawing.

Using a blending stump to smooth pencil applications

Now that we have a base application of lighter graphite in place, we can switch to a darker graphite pencil. In this case, a General's Layout pencil is used. This pencil is equivalent to a 4B pencil in darkness - however, it is relatively hard, meaning that it keeps a sharper point for a longer period of time.

We'll then continue to slowly build up darker values with the darker pencil, making sure that we continue to preserve the strong highlight that overlaps the iris and the pupil. As we continue to develop the darker tones, the contrast and range of value increases in the drawing.

3. Shade the Whites of the Eye, Tear Duct, and Eyelid.

After darkening the values of the pupil and iris a bit further with the darkest graphite pencil, our attention now turns to the other areas within the eye. A gentle application of the "H" pencil is applied to the "white" of the eye on the right side. Remember, the eyeball is a sphere. This means that the values will be slightly darker on each edge of the eyeball. In this example, we see that the shadow is rather strong on the right side, since the light source is originating from the left.

The tear duct is also darkened, leaving hints of lighter value within. This area is also wet, and the preservation of strong highlights here will help to create this illusion.

Darkening the white of the eye

The top eyelid overlaps the eyeball. In most cases, the light source originates from above, producing a shadow just underneath the eyelid. A cast shadow can also be found on the eyeball, just underneath the eyelid.

The underside of the eyelid is darkened and the crease above it is enhanced. The same process of layering graphite applications is followed - "H", "HB", and "General's Layout Pencil". As graphite is added, we can blend applications with the blending stump, softening the texture.

Drawing in the eyelid

4. Develop the Skin Texture Around the Eye

A few visible wrinkles are added on the left side of the upper eyelid crease, before adding a light application of graphite on the skin below the eye. The textural development of the skin underneath begins by making small shapes, isolating subtle areas of lighter value.

As we have thus far, we'll slowly build up applications to progressively make the values darker and build up the illusion of texture. A light application of graphite is applied here with the H pencil.

Drawing in the texture for the skin

The contrast within the areas of skin texture is enhanced by progressively making the shapes a bit darker with applications made with the softer graphite pencils. With a slightly greater range of value, the texture of the skin becomes more realistic. As this happens, areas around the eye are also darkened, resulting in more contrast between the eye and the skin around it.

Developing the values around the eye

This process is repeated to develop the illusion of skin texture above the eye.

Drawing realistic skin texture

Draw the Eyelashes

With most of the layered graphite applications in place, we can add the eyelashes. With a sharpened "HB" pencil, bold lines are pulled out from the skin. These lines mostly curve down and then up for the top eyelashes, with a few lashes bending in unpredictable ways. For the bottom lashes, the opposite is true. The lines are pulled upward and then down. They are less concentrated than those found along the top lid.

Drawing eyelashes

Using the "H" pencil, a few indications of veins within the eye are added to complete the drawing.

Realistic pencil drawing of an eye

Tips on Drawing Eyes

1. Look at the eyes that you are trying to draw - I know- this tip seems pretty obvious. But many people try to draw what they think they see, rather than what they actually see.  Look at the shapes, lines and values and do your best to copy that info on your paper.  Don't think about drawing eyes, think about drawing shapes, lines, and values.

2. Remember that every eye is different - No two eyes will ever look the same.

3. Eyes are their own unique shape - Eyes are NOT ovals and eyes are NOT football shapes.  They have their own unique shape that you must recognize. (See tip #1)

4. Eyes have a full range of value - Most anything that you draw or paint should incorporate a full range of value.  Eyes are no different.  If you need to use a value scale to ensure that you have used a full range of value - then do it.  The darkest darks and the lightest lights should all be there.

How to Draw an Eye

More Lessons on Drawing Eyes

This lesson explored drawing a realistic eye with graphite pencils. And while many of the concepts that we covered here carry over to other drawing mediums, it may be helpful to see how this process is slightly different when a different drawing medium is used.

Here are a few more lessons on drawing eyes with different mediums...

How to draw an eye with colored pencils
How to Draw a Realistic Eye with Colored Pencils
How to draw an eye with pastels
How to Draw an Eye with Pastels
How to draw an eye with charcoal - frontal view
How to Draw an Eye with Charcoal - Frontal View (Membership Required)
How to draw an eye with charcoal - profile view
How to Draw an Eye with Charcoal - Profile View (Membership Required)
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