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So often people ask how to paint this or that. So often you find tutorials about how to paint something specific. You might have noticed (or not) that on my blog there are no ‘how to paint x’ posts at all. And there’s a reason for this, which I’ll talk about in a bit. But I am here to break my principle and I will write a ‘How to paint x’ today. So let’s start with one of the hardest topics of all; how to paint an eye.

I could create a video and show you how I paint an eye. But I’d rather teach you than show you how to paint an eye. There is a thin line between the two, which is sometimes hard to find, but I try to look for it whenever I can. 

So if your painted eyes usually look like this image below and you are keen to improve, read on.

Painting an eye requires the same method as painting anything else. Well, if you follow my method that is. There are of course dozens of techniques and methods for paining and I will show you how I go about things and hopefully explain to you why it works well. You can try it and see if it suits you for your self. 

Step 1:  Look and See

Have a good look at the eye. Stare at it. Make some (mental) notes if you can: What stands out about the eye first and foremost? Perhaps they are bright blue or deep brown, perhaps it has insane eyelashes, perhaps it is an old eye, a tired eye, a happy eye? What colour is it? What’s the eyebrow like? Is it bushy or thin? What about the eyelid? Is it sagging or not, is the eye protruding or not. Are the eyelids sagging over the outer sides of the eye? Are the eyes deeply set? Now look at the shape of the eye: Is the eye more round or more oval? Slightly droopy, turned upwards, wide open, half closed? And finally, what is the colouring like? Skin colour, eye colour, lash colour? Is the white of the eye white, blue-ish, yellow-ish, shaded or bright?

What I notice first and foremost in our reference photo is the deep brown colour, the bushy eyebrows and lashes, the pale skin tone, the clear upper eye lid fold and the lack of colour.

Step 2: Shapes

The next thing I’d look for is shapes. Simple toddler-puzzle-like shapes. So look for triangles, squares and irregular shapes.The triangle in the eyelid. The oval or circle of the eye itself, the long and thin shape of the lid, the triangles in the corner of the eye. The triangles on either side of the eye making up the whites, etc. 

Here is a graphic image of the shapes you could find in an eye.

Step 3: Paint

Now we can paint. I will paint those shapes. Mind you, I am not painting an eye, I am painting these simple irregular shapes.  I keep double checking I’ve got the shapes right. Is this too wide or too tall? Too long or too narrow? For now I won’t bother about colour too much, I’ll just paint a simple average colour. What is an average colour? Well, you know, grass is green, the sky is blue, that brick building is brown/red, my skin is pink. So keep it simple. The eyelid is pink, the eyelashes (don’t draw them but just put down the shape: long and thin shapes) are dark brown, the eye is blue, etc.  

Painting in the main blocks of the eye

Step 4: Smaller Shapes

If you are happy with your block-in eye then move to even smaller shapes inside the shapes already painted. But keep it simple. No doubt that eyelid has a colour gradation to moves towards a darker tone. And the corner of the eye will also have some smaller shapes inside that first big shape. The blue or brown of the eye will have a darker ring on its outside and some lighter areas on the inside and the upper eyelid might have a broad highlight. Look for smaller shapes inside the big shapes. These smaller shapes will naturally have a lighter or darker version of the bigger shape’s colour. So if the eyelid was pink, then there might be a darker pink smaller shape inside it. With these smaller shapes we can create form. Practice will make perfect when it comes to creating form. So don’t feel discouraged if your darker shape on the eyelid does not really read right just yet. 

Step back from your painting and look. Does this start to look like a simplified eye? Fix any shapes that don’t sit right. Fix any colours that look out of place. Constantly compare with your model or reference photo and play ’spot the difference’.

Look for smaller shapes inside the main blocks

Step 5: Transitions

Next we can refine the transitions from one colour block to another. That shading on the receding eyelid needs to transition smoothly to the highlight on the eyelid where it comes forward. That triangle in the corner of the eye needs a bit of softening. 

Work on the transitions between various blocks

Step 6: Form

Now that we have moved away from flat simple shapes, remember that we are painting 3-dimensional shapes. That eyeball is a sphere, the eyelid comes forward and recedes, the corner of the eye is deep and the nose bridge comes towards us. Put subtle values down to enhance the 3-dimensionality of these shapes and turn them into form. 

Try to create form by varying the values within each block, making areas protrude and recede as you go along.

Step 7: Build it Up

Stand back and look, compare, look again. What does it need? Do you NEED to draw in those eyelashes as if they are spider’s legs? Do you NEED to paint every hair in the eyebrow? If these features stand out clearly then perhaps you do. But for most natural eyes it is not something we see straight away. So if you put emphasis on the things that we don’t even notice in real life, you’ll end up with a funny looking eye. 

Build up the pastel layers to  create variety and depth of colour

I know the eyes are brown, but did you really look or did you just paint them brown and left it at that? What variation can you find inside this brown? Is there an inner circle (shape) of lighter brown? Is it just lighter brown? Or has it got a blue tinge, or perhaps a hint of green? Is it the same all the way round or perhaps darker on one side?  And that highlight? So many paint that highlight simply white. Is it white? Is it the LIGHTEST thing in the whole image? Is there any variation in colour inside it? How big is it? What shape is it? Is it? And the white of the eye? Is it white? Is it the brightest area in the whole thing? Probably not. The white of the eye rarely looks white. Look again to double check.

Step 8: Finish

Stand back and look. What does it need? What’s wrong with it? As long as you know what’s wrong you will know what to to fix. Keep trying.  When you run out of ideas of what to do, then it’s time to leave it alone. 

Reduce the size of your marks to create finer detail

How To Paint X

I promised you to explain why I never write ‘how to paint x’ blog posts. I suppose, if you want me to, I can change this. But when someone asks ‘how to paint a tree’ then my answer would be ‘the same way you paint an eye’. Or if someone wants to know ‘how to paint a portrait’ I would say, the same way you paint a still life: You look for shapes. You look for colour and value. You find the smaller shapes, you connect them together, you work them into form and finish off with detail and edge work. Easier said than done, I KNOW, but it is really the same process whatever you paint! So if you want more ‘how to paint x’ just let me know! 

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About the author

Sophie is an artist, art historian, tutor, author and blogger. She writes on oil and pastel painting, art history and the life of an artist. She paints portraits and still life and specialises in painting drapery and lace.

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