How to Paint an Eye: Fundamentals for Painting Realistic Eyes

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How to paint the human eye, with its intricate design and layers of color and light, can be a challenge for any artist. However, with the right techniques and understanding of painting fundamentals, painting eyes can become much more manageable and rewarding as well.

This article will guide you through the process of how to paint an eye and reveal to you how painting eyes can be broken down into simple shapes and colors. We will also delve into the core principles of painting, revealing how these can be applied to create a captivating representation of the human eye. Whether you’re a beginner or experienced artist, get ready to discover new insights and techniques to enhance your artistry.

Setting up how to paint an eye

In order to demonstrate how to paint eyes effectively, I created a painting study off of Giorgione’s painting Giovanni Borgherini and His Tutor. However, for our purpose we will be narrowing our focus to capturing a single eye in the greater work.

learn how to paint an eye by creating an eye painting study of this piece by Giorgione
Creating a painting study, is a great way to focus on particular elements in a painting that you want to work on.

So, let’s get started on the painting with the first step to setting up our composition—creating a painting sketch!

Sketch out the basic shape of your eye painting

Next, lightly sketch out your painting and map out the basic shape of the eye you are painting. Don’t just capture the eyeball, but also some of the immediate surrounding areas such as the eyebrow and part of the nose bridge.

first step of how to paint an eye, is creating a painting sketch to develop your composition
Before I start my painting, I first create an imprimatura on my painting surface and sketch out my subject matter.

In the image above you can see that the sketch just captures the very basic elements of the eye. It is meant to help you determine where to place the eye on your painting surface.

Paint the eye’s first three color spots

As you get started with color, first ask yourself what value range is the eye your painting in – is it darker or lighter? What are the colors like–are they warmer or cooler in temperature? The answers to these questions will inform you of the colors you need to mix as you apply your first three colors and beyond!

So, after completing the painting sketch, I move forward with mixing my first spots of color.

First color spot on an eye painting sketch. Learn how to paint an eye
Here we have our first spots of color on the painting. When painting an eye it is just as important to paint the area surrounding the eye as it is to paint the eye itself.

Now, there is not a “correct” area to apply your first spot of color. However, it is important to find an area that has an intersection of a light, medium and dark values. This will become more clear as you follow the tutorial. In the image above, you can see I first paint a dark value color spot to the right of the eye.

Focus-in on the surrounding values

When you paint an eye it is important to paint the colors and values that surround the actual eye. This helps for it to look and feel more natural and fit into the context and environment. If you don’t paint them together then they won’t look like they belong together. You want to avoid making it look like you pasted an eyeball on your painting.

In the image below you can see that I paint a light value color right next to my first color spot. Right now, the painting looks just looks like shapes of brown and beige colors. Don’t worry about whether your painting looks like anything in the beginning. This is not what is important. It is most important to put all your effort and energy into the values and colors you mix up. This is what will make your painting work and come together.

Light and dark color spot in the third stage of learning how to paint an eye
We now have two spots of colors together. It is best to focus purely on just color and value – especially in the beginning stage of the painting. Don’t worry about your painting looking like anything. It will hurt your painting in the end if you try to force an object on your work.

In the diagram below you can see how I mixed up the colors for both the lighter value as well as the darker value color. Mixing skin tone colors can involve mixing in quite a few different colors. Especially as you are often dealing with subtle shifts in color temperature.

how to paint an eye color mixing chart
When mixing colors for an eye, make good use of complementary colors as these will help you to create subtle color transitions.

How to use light and edges in your painting of an eye

In the image below we have our first three value color spots together – light medium and dark. The painting now has a sense of light! It doesn’t look like an eye yet, but this is not important in the beginning stage of a painting. What is crucial is to achieve good color relationships and a strong sense of light. This serves as a solid foundation to build upon.

Soft edge in an eye painting sketch
Soft edges are critical in an eye painting. It adds a sense of dimension and realness.

It is also important to start to pay attention to soft (and hard) edges that are around the eye. In the image above you can see how there are soft edges in between the dark and light value color. You can use your finger or palette knife to reinforce soft edges. Most effectively though, you want soft edges to develop from two similar value colors placed next to one another.

Painting the eye’s eyelid, iris and lower eyelid

By this point we have laid a solid foundation to start painting an eye. Here I paint part of the upper eyelid. You can see how I pay attention to the lighter and darker color spots on the eyelid.

how to paint an eyelid with right value structure
As you get closer to painting the actual eye, make sure that all of the colors and elements in the painting are working well and harmonizing together. Here, the eyelid fits seamlessly into the painting.

Breaking down the spots of color further

When painting an eye, always work on breaking it down into spots of color. This simplifies the process enormously, and you end up with a much more convincing painting as a result. In the image below you can see the initial stage of the iris and whites of the eye (sclera).

At this stage, the iris is just one single spot of color. It is important to keep it simple! The sclera is broken down into two spots of color.

An eye might look complex and detailed, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t simplify it in a painting. You want to keep your painting simple. Here we have a single color working for the Iris section of the eye. If you get too detailed too quickly then your painting will lose a sense of cohesiveness.

Though we usually think of the white part of the eye as rather light in value, you can see here that it is actually quite dark! This is because it is in a darker shadow area and isn’t that much different in value than the shadows that are next to it. Because we painted the surrounding environment, we are able to to make the eye and area around the eye fit together.

Make note of how close in color and value the sclera and iris really are. Yet when seen together in the painting they look distinctively different.

In the image above you can see just how close together in both color and value the iris and white of the eye (sclera) are. The colors may look very similar when seeing them separate from the painting. However, when you see them together in the context of the painting – their subtlety makes a world of difference.

Pay attention to the highlights while painting eyes

As you near the end of a painting, you can start to pay more attention to the highlight areas. This means to pull out the lighter value sections that are present in your subject. In the image below you can see the bright yellow color spot to the right of the eye close to the nose area.

In this color chart, you can see another example of some color mixing. Here we have a lighter value color that is to the right of the eye. Understanding how color works helps enormously with understanding how to paint an eye.

Whether your highlight is on the eye itself or surrounding the eye, it is still important to make sure that it fits into the context of the painting. In other words, restrain yourself from making it look too bright as otherwise it will look like a pasted bright color and not something that belongs in the painting.

The painting is now starting to come together more. It is best to wait until the end of a painting to get some of the lightest highlights. Otherwise they might get muddied earlier on in the painting process.

Completing your painting of an eye (checklist ✔)

When completing an eye painting it is important to continue to focus on the fundamentals. It is most helpful is to ask yourself questions to know whether your work is complete or not;

  • Does the eye feel like it is sitting behind the eyebrow? It is important for there to be a believable sense of space. The degree of difference in depth between where an eyebrow is and an eye might seem trivial, but it makes a big difference in a painting. The devil is in the details.
  • Does your eye painting have a clear sense of light? You want to keep your work simple and be able to discern a clear sense of light right from the beginning. Simplifying values is key.
  • Is there good color harmony? Do the colors in the eye painting flow well together? Or do some colors stand out too much and distract from the rest of the painting?
  • Do the color temperatures work? Color temperature plays an important role in portrait painting and when painting eyes. Depending on what type of light you are painting with, it is important for your specular highlights to be extremely cool while your warm core shadows are warm.
It can be a challenge to know how to finish a painting. But with time, you will know when your painting is complete.

With practice, you’ll be creating realistic eyes in no time. But remember, don’t focus on the eye itself. Focus on seeing the eyes as abstract shapes, forms and colors. If you can capture the subtle shifts in values and intricate details, you’ll be able to paint any eye that you see. Keep at it, and have fun experimenting with different techniques. You’ll be amazed at how much you can improve your eye painting skills with practice!


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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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    2 thoughts on “How to Paint an Eye: Fundamentals for Painting Realistic Eyes”

    1. thank you so much for all the details of how to paint you share with us : they are very clear and stimulating whatever the difficulty of the goal;

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