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Anatomy of the Eye.. and How to Draw It

March 9, 2011

What is more alluring than the eyes? For many portrait artists, it’s the eye that is the main attraction, the feature that drives us to draw portraits at all. There is the intricacy of the structure to master, and then there’s the challenge of capturing something as elusive as emotion.

I’ve talked about drawing eyes before. I’ve covered tips for drawing eyes, as well as done a full tutorial on drawing and shading the eye.

Today, I am going to take a more general approach on how to draw the eye from a knowledge of basic anatomy. An awareness of the structure of the human eye will help you in achieving a realistic likeness in your portraits no matter what your reference image is like.

1. The Tear Duct

Often over-looked, this tiny little apparatus is essential! While the outside corner of the eye is pointed, the inside corner forms a little round nub. Next to the tear duct, before the white of the eye, there can often be seen several tiny folds of skin. Of course, if your portrait is quite small, you won’t need to worry about these details.

2. The Iris

This is the exciting part of the eye. The coloured area, it is actually a muscle that relaxes and contracts in order to allow certain amounts of light to pass through your pupil. When drawing the iris, you need to take into consideration the colour of the eye. Blue eyes will be shaded lighter, brown eyes shaded darker. Don’t forget to add some detail in the form of striated, radiating patterns. Also, the outer edge of the iris is often darker than the rest.

3. The Eyelid Crease

Often, all we see of the eyelid when the eyes are open is the crease above the eye. Sometimes, we see the entire crease and sometimes the fold overlaps the outer edge of the eye. These details are a huge part of creating emotion and individuality in your eyes. Although we see the crease as a line, don’t forget to add some shading to create a short, but smooth transition to the lighter areas of the lid.

4. The Eyebrow

This is another key element for showing expression. In general, men tend to have thicker, straighter brows that are lower (closer to the eyes). Women’s brows are thinner, more arched and placed higher on the face. Check out my eyebrow tutorial for more details on how to achieve the right texture.

5. The Whites of the Eyes

Scientifically known as the sclera (my day job keeps me refreshed on grade eight biology terms) the whites of the eyes are not actually white! Like any three-dimensional object, the whites of the eyes vary in value. Under the eye-lid, the eyeball is a sphere and should be shaded accordingly. The whites are often darker in the corners of the eye, lightening towards the middle. They are also darker right under the upper eyelid, as the eyelashes cast a shadow.

6.  The Lashline

The lashline, or the edge of the eyelids, define the shape of the eye. In general, the eye is widest where the iris is. When drawing the lash line, your technique depends on the size of your drawing. For very small portraits, a slight darkening of the upper lash line is sufficient. For larger portraits, you will want to draw the individual eye lashes. To do this, use short, quick, curved pencil strokes. Start at the eyelid and pull away, creating a tapered line that mimics lashes.

7. The Highlight

This is the point of the eyeball where the light is hitting it directly. Because the eye is wet and shiny, the highlight is often quite hard-edged. The shape depends on the type of light source. For example, light from a window will create a square highlight. This part of the eye should be significantly lighter than the rest of the eye, pure white if possible. The highlight gives your eyes sparkle and makes your portrait come to life. Even if your reference doesn’t have one, add it in!

8. The Pupil

One of few objects in nature that is perfectly round and symmetrical, the pupil is the actual hole in your eye that allows light to enter. If you want the eyes to be the focus of your portrait, make the pupils the darkest value. Also check out this post by portrait artist Gwen Seemel where she explains that larger pupils are more attractive.

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