5 Forget-Me-Not Tips for Painting Eyes

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then a painter needs to get them right when creating a portrait painting. But the “oval, circle, dot” anatomy of the eye that we all first learned as children is far removed from how to give the illusion of a real eye in your work. Here are a few tips about painting the eye that I like to keep in mind.  I hope these will help guide you when it comes time to depict this particular facial feature.

Van Gogh’s self-portrait (detail) is an exercise in line, but notice how it varies in thickness and direction, especially around the eyes.

There are two lids to the eye, one above and one below. The lower lid is the one most people tend to forget, so be mindful to define it. This will prevent the eye looking like it is hovering above the face instead of securely seated in its socket.

It isn’t just the eye that gives the sense of roundness or three-dimensionality in a work. The cheekbone and brow ridge give a sense of the curve around the eye as well.

Highlight the upper eyelid and cast the lower lid in subtle shadow–that’s the way to give it roundness. Also don’t forget to depict the crease where the upper lid folds when the eye is open.

Jusepe de Ribera’s Penitent Magdalene (detail) is an example of how emotive eyes can be. Notice how convincing the eye socket and area around the eye is painted.

As with most features on the face, nothing is really defined with strong, unbroken lines. Use varied lines and shading to create the peaks and valleys that turn the form.

We all love the idea of bright eyes, but that doesn’t mean the eyeball itself is pure white. Try a pale grey or beige and lighten it up with a bit of skin tone color for the eyeball. It’ll look more natural that way.

The facial features of every person are so unique, and yet there’s a commonality about them. If you can master these intricate features, you put yourself in a position of painting anything well. For that reason, I’m always on the hunt for more insight and feedback on what makes a compelling, believable portrait painting.

In Alain Picard’s DVDs, the artist takes the complexity of the human face and breaks it down to shapes and values–a lesson that can never steer you wrong and has practical applications for any painting you attempt. There’s Pastel Techniques for Painterly Portraits, Essential Techniques for Pastel Portraits, and Painting Skin Tones in Pastel. Together, these can guide you through all the ins and outs of portraiture with charming and realistic results.

I’ve gained a lot from these sources, and will continue to do so in the hopes of bettering myself as an artist. I hope they put you on the same path. Enjoy!



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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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