The eyes are one of the first features we notice in a portrait, often becoming an important focal point to the drawing - because of this we are sensitive to any mistakes, and tend to over-fixate on this feature. Common pitfalls to drawing the eyes include adding excessive detail, and drawing them too large, as well as more general drawing issues of wonky placement and mis-proportioning. In this post, we will look at guidelines for placing the eyes, and how their structure affects our drawing.
Placement of the Eyes
To start placing the eyes, it is important to lay out the proportions of the rest of the face. I tend to do this by finding the hairline, and dividing everything below it into thirds – though this won't hold up for extreme tilts of the head. It is worth remembering that everyone has slightly different proportions as well.
(Facial proportions in front, three-quarter and profile views)
The eyebrows mark the top of the eye's structure, as they lie just above the eye socket. Dividing the central third of the face in half creates a box that contains the eye and eye socket structure. If the head is perfectly level, the eye tends to be about halfway down the face. In the frontal view, the eyes are separated by the width of another eye. This separation distance reduces as the head turns to a three-quarter view – a good way to check the eyes aren't too far apart at this angle is to compare their separation to an eye-width.
(In a profile view, the eye is roughly as far back from the nose as its own width, but only in an exact profile angle. As the head turns towards or away from the viewer, this changes quickly, but it is a useful comparison – we tend to position the eye too far back or forwards in profile views.)
Structure of the Eyes
The eyeball is spherical in structure, and is sunken into the eye socket. A lot of this is covered by the eyelids and eyebrow, but it is important to understand the effect this structure has on the volumes we see.
(The eyeball in the eyesocket in three quarter and profile views. Note how the eye socket overlaps the eyeball, which in turn sits below its surroundings)
The socket surrounds the eyeball, so the the eyebrow, cheek and nose sit proud of it, meaning these forms will catch overhead light and leave the eye in shadow. There is also a small flat 'step' of bone between the eye socket and nose – separates the eyeball from the side of the nose.
(This somewhat exaggerated example shows how the cornea creates a shallow bump on the eyeball)
The eyelid show a round curvature from wrapping around the eyeball. The cornea – a transparent structure on the front of the eyeball covering the iris and pupil – bulges out a little further, and the eyelids conform to this too. Remember that eyelids have a thickness, resulting in shadows or highlights appearing on their edges.
(Paying close attention to the shape and angles of the eyelids helps to capture likeness)
The eyelids are not symmetrical, each having a distinct shape. Each one has a curve with a peak in, with the eyelid sweeping out from the tear duct before hitting its peak and curving back in. On the upper lid, this is roughly a third of the way from the tear duct, and on the lower lid, it is two-thirds of the way across. It is subtle and varies a lot from person to person.
Putting It Together: Drawing the Eye
The eye can be challenging to draw, especially capturing the likeness of the sitter, and avoiding over-working it. However, there are a few tricks to make this a bit easier.
(Negative shapes marked out in blue.)
The first trick is to use the negative shapes around the eye. The whites of the eye form a useful negative shape with the eyelids, whilst the shapes between the eyebrow and eyelid, or the shape of the eyelid itself are also useful. Focus on this to avoid generic looking eyes.
(Look for the balance of positive and negative shapes to help capture shadow shapes accurately)
Another way to deal with the eye is to utilise its shadow shapes, especially in tonal work or painting. Look for shadow shapes and try to link them together into larger shape – it is amazing how this can not only imply the eye, but also convey pose and likeness.
(Eyes from different drawings (Left to right): John William Waterhouse, Gustav Courbet, John Singer Sargent. Look at how simple they are close up)
Don't be afraid of simplifying the eyes – just look at artists' drawings for ideas if you are unsure. Sometimes, it is a case of deciding what is appropriate to the image, as it easier to see and express detail in a bright, or line-based image than a moody tonal one. Think of how you can imply detail rather than squeeze it in. If you cannot see a detail, you need not draw it – look for how it is implied by other elements.
Over to You
For each of these features articles, I will recommend practising by drawing a page of said feature. Try using a mixture of live or photographic sources, and copying from artists' drawings, as this will not only show you the natural structure of the eye, but also how different artists have approached it.