Techniques and Tips

More Than Meets the Eye

More Than Meets the Eye

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You?ve probably heard the eyes called the ?windows to the soul? many times, but I hope you?ve also noticed that this phrase is more than just a cliche. They got that label because eyes are such an essential part of the expression of an individual?s personality. When drawing a portrait, in fact, many artists begin with the eyes, but they can still be a formidable challenge for both the beginner and the experienced portraitist alike. Here are some tips that will help you draw natural-looking, compelling eyes and get the best likeness of your subject you can get.

Learning to See
Drawing eyes well requires that you see them well. If you?re accustomed to perceiving the eye as a single shape unto itself, you may fail to see it as it really is: a cluster of several shapes on the surface of the face. These superficial shapes, which combine to form what we think of as the eye, can all be defined by the artist in terms of tonal values. In other words, all you need to draw a convincing eye is a good rendering of the lightness or darkness of the surface areas.

The tonal values of an eye are formed in two ways. The first is natural pigmentation. Eyelashes, for example, are usually heavily pigmented and therefore darker than their surrounding skin. The use of makeup, however, can act as false pigmentation and artificially darken or lighten some areas of the eye. Variations in tonal value may also be created by a source of light. As the rays of light fall upon the eye, especially the moist surface of the eyeball, they?ll cause a configuration of light and dark shapes that makes up what we see, and what you?ll draw, as the entire eye. Whatever their source, tonal values can be represented in your drawing by the use of shading, and this is the most important key to drawing lifelike eyes.

Before the shading begins, however, I recommend starting by outlining your shapes. My favorite strategy is to start with the eyebrows and work my way down, so I begin by defining the outline of the brow, then the area between the brow and the eyelid, then the upper eyelid, the visible part of the pupil and the rest of the eyeball, and finally the shadowed area beneath the eye. Some of these shapes will share the same outline, and the lighting may be such that two adjoining shapes have the same tonal value and appear to be one large shape. If this is the case, then draw them that way.

Then go back and shade in each of the outlines you?ve drawn, looking carefully for the variations in tonal value that make each one appear distinct. Observe the iris in particular, which should be darker around its outer rim but is often drawn by inexperienced artists as one flatly shaded area. Remember not to presume anything, and draw only what you observe. See the steps at left for a detailed example of this process.

Capture the Contours
When drawing a face in profile, don’t forget to account for the thickness of the eyelids. The eyeball is set back from each lid, and note that the lower lid isn’t directly beneath the upper one but is set farther back in the head.

Look for the Gleam
Here?s an important tip for making your eyes look lively: As you draw each eye, look for its ?catch light.? Catch lights are little spots of light that reflect off the moist, round surface of the eyeball. Sometimes they?re quite bright and sometimes more subdued, but either way these small details can make or break an otherwise excellent portrait.

The best way to add a catch light is to leave a gap of the white paper in your shading, and catch lights will typically straddle the upper edge between the pupil and the iris of the eye. You may see one totally within the pupil, but this usually creates a bizarre appearance in a portrait and it?s often an indication of improper lighting, such as that of a flashbulb. In this case, it?s best to cheat a little bit by moving the light slightly to the side that appears to receive the most illumination. If the eye you?re rendering is in the shadows, however, then you may not find a catch light, and it probably would look unnatural to put one in. If in doubt, try adding the light and shading it out later if it looks inappropriate.

The Mind?s Eye
All this discussion refers to drawing from a model, but at some point you may want to be able to draw realistic eyes from nothing but an image conceived in your mind. This is called the constructive approach, and it can be wonderful as a training exercise because it reveals a lot about your own perceptions, but in my experience those who can best draw constructively are those who have drawn extensively from life.

Finally, if you really want to get proficient, spend some time drawing nothing but eyes. When the eye is independent of the entire face, you won?t have to worry about proportion and placement within the face, which is crucial to good portraiture but can be studied separately. Any way you look at it, the only way to master the drawing of the human eye is to draw as many as you can. Train yourself to see them accurately, and you?re on your way to drawing them well.

Set the Tone
The drawings of these two women show how important the glance of the eye can be to the overall drawing. The narrow, critical glance of the woman to the far left required only a few strokes of the pencil, while the intence expression of the woman to the left is enhanced by the darkenss and detail of the eyes.

Mary Britten Lynch, of Lookout Mountain, Georgia, received a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the University of Chattanooga, and did graduate work at The University of Tennessee at Knoxvill and Long Island (NY) University. She’s a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society and the Watercolor USA Honor Society, and she’s received numerous honors in a variety of media, including the Purchase Award and the Holbein Award from the National Watercolor Society. Among many other places, her work can be found in the Smithsonian Archives, the National Women in the Arts Museum and the Art in Embassies program, all in Washington, D.C.

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  1. Ator

    This is what was necessary for me. I thank you for the help in this question.

  2. Bran

    This information is not fair

  3. Isma'il

    Nicely written, I liked it.

  4. Jaroslav

    Informative and interesting. But, it is difficult for my brains to perceive. Did it seem so to me or to you too? I ask the author not to be offended.

  5. Kazishakar

    exactly on target :)

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