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How to Paint Eyes That Look Realistic | A Beginner’s Guide

Have you noticed how your portrait painting comes to life if you get the eyes right? Well, it shouldn’t be any other way because eyes are one of the most important features in painting a face. It isn’t in vain when we call eyes the window to a person’s soul. Artists who paint eyes realistically can change the mood of their portrait and capture the true essence of their subject. 

A realistic eye painting

Artists often aim to achieve such results, but they fail. A common cause is not understanding the intricacies of the shape and anatomy of human eyes. Even the most famous portrait artists have made great efforts to gain this knowledge. To overcome this hurdle for you, let’s discover an easy tutorial on how to create realistic eyes in a portrait. It’s simple, practical, and beginner-friendly too! Let’s get started.

Anatomy of Human Eyes

The very first step in your journey to paint realistic eyes is to understand their build — the anatomy. You may think that it is impossible to understand the different shapes of every eye in the world. However, it isn’t as tricky as you may feel – it is, in fact, the key to getting those eyes right. 

The white portion of your eyes is the sclera. If you have ever closely observed your own eyes, you would know sclera is never pure white. It has some tones of light gray, blue, or pink in it, scattered randomly. Next, you need to remember that it is only the exterior shape of the eye that changes. The interior structure is the same for everyone. 

The interiors mainly include eyeball, iris, and pupil. The eyeball is always a perfect spherical shape and the iris is a perfect circle. The pupil, which is located in the exact center of the iris, is another smaller, yet perfect circle. The skin covering the eyes determines their outer shape and it can differ depending on your genes, roots, etc. However, the shape of the eyeball, iris, or pupil never changes. 

Let’s Understand This With an Example

To grasp this better, let’s assume you want to paint a pair of laughing eyes. On the surface, you will see that the eyelids have partially covered the iris and the pupil. However, did it change the shape of the eyes?


The only thing that changed here is the superficial appearance, but the eye structure is still the same. So the mistake here is adjusting the iris’ shape according to the eye-opening. Whereas, the correct approach here is to remember the iris is round and you should shape the eyelids accordingly! This makes sure your eyes look natural and have that realistic effect.

Step-by-Step Guide To Paint Eyes

Before you pull out your notebook and start practicing, take a breather to observe. Stand in front of the mirror and study your own eyes. You can also look for images on the internet and find your inspiration.

These guiding steps will teach you how to paint realistic eyes separately from a portrait. Once you get accustomed to it, you can move on to the bigger picture i.e. your complete portrait painting. With due practice, you will be able to apply this knowledge in creating different types of portraits.

Start with doodles

Start doodling rough shapes without emphasizing the details. It will get you more comfortable before the next step. The aim here is to find the style that suits you the most. Creating multiple doodles will make you more comfortable to use paints.

Create the base

Take a blank page and paint your choice of skin tone as the foundation. This will be your base to paint your eyes on. If you can’t choose a specific skin color, try to recreate yours. You do not need to paint it in any specific shape if you are just trying to paint realistic eyes.  However, if your aim is to create a full portrait painting, then the base will be according to the rest of the portrait.

Paint the outer contours

Next, take a slightly darker shade than your base color and paint two ovals close to each other. If you are absolutely new and unfamiliar with working on finer details, make your ovals bigger. This will make it easier for you to work on finer details later in the process. Instead of painting sharp inner corners, add a soft curve for tear ducts using a small pointy brush. 

Work on the sclera

The next step in the process is to paint the sclera. It should be smaller than the outer contour and must be within the contours you just created. As we have already mentioned the white portion of your eyes is never pure white, it should be created accordingly.

Mix your white paint with just a hint of paynes gray, brown pink, or light blue or pink colors. This will tint your white paint and give your painting a more realistic appearance.  If you observe your own eyes, you will see some pink or red nerves in the sclera. The sclera has more tints of gray, pink,  or blue near the edges of your eye. The white color is much clearer and brighter towards the iris.

The iris and the pupil

Whenever the aim is to paint realistic eyes, your focus should always be on the details. Detailing on bigger surfaces is much easier, but if you are working small, your brushes must suit your needs. Look for brushes that can support finer detail in the images such as reflections and sparkle in the iris.

Unless a person has their eyes deliberately open wide, a portion of the iris is always covered under the eyelids. So avoid showing the full circle of the iris in your painting unless specifically aimed otherwise.  Painting the iris is all about layering, so we will start with the darkest color you can see in the eye. For example, if you are painting a brown iris, take the darkest brown you have or start with black. Once it’s dry, start adding layers of lighter colors and spokes using a filbert 4. 

Do not jump straight to the lightest color. You must also remember to leave an extremely thin outline of the darkest tone with no additional color layers. This is a useful tip in adding more drama to the eye. For the streaks and reflection in the iris, use a mix of the same dark and light colors you used for layering.

While detailing, always make sure that your brushes do not have paint residue or excess colors, This can smudge on your surface and ruin the painting. Also, do not press your brush onto the canvas, instead just touch it gently with the tip of your brush to transfer paint.

For your pupil, the color is always black. Create a small black circle in the center of your iris using your filbert. Now to add light reflections, take very little white and create an imperfect circle overlapping the line of your pupil. The placement of this circle shall vary depending on the direction of light falling in the eye. You can also use a white pen to add the reflection and prevent smudging.

Move to the eyelashes and eyelids

The skin you painted as your base for the eye is now going to act as your eyelid. Firstly, add your eyebrows before creating the outline. Now add some definition to your eye by taking a color darker than your skin color and lining your crease. Do not let it touch your eyebrows.

 You can add just a hint of dark chocolate brown to some burnt sienna for this. Now use the same color to add the outline effect. Next, take some white and dry brush your eyelid from the innermost corner to a little beyond the iris. Do the same under the crease of your outer corner to add some light and shadow effect. 

Now take a clean, script brush and start from under the eyelid to paint your eyelashes. Notice how your eyelashes are slightly curved up? You can achieve the same look and paint realistic eyes with just a simple swiping technique. Place your brush under the eyelid, bring it just slightly towards the sclera, and then swipe up. Directly swiping up makes your eyelashes look stiff and unreal. For better results, paint individual eyelashes, and let some overlap. Paint longer and denser lashes towards the outer corner and keep reducing it as you move inward.

Congratulations on Your First Step to Paint Eyes

If you have come this far, you deserve a hearty congratulations for your perseverance. The first step in your artistic journey is often difficult but never impossible. With the right guidance and some patience, you will soon be on your path of creating one masterpiece after the other. For now, step back and take a moment to admire your creation. Soak in its beauty, observe the eyes you just painted, and feel proud of yourself!

TERAVARNA is coming up with more such tutorials that will not only help you improve your work but also let you stand out in any art competition or exhibition. If the tutorial helped, don’t forget to share the final results with us!

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