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Painting the Eyes


The eyes should be painted first.

The eyes should be painted first.

The eyes are the most important detail of a portrait and it is essential that you paint them first. They are the focal point of the face and the feature that brings the image to life. If, at the outset, you can suggest that spark of vitality which the eyes bring to a portrait, you will establish a strong foundation for the work, which in turn, will give you the confidence to tackle the other features of the face.


The Elements of the Eye


Three stages of painting the eye.

Three stages of painting the eye.

There are a few key elements that you need to capture in painting an eye: the solidity of the eyeball and surrounding eyelids, the luminosity of the iris, the depth of the pupil, and the reflected highlight on the surface of the eye.

The three images above illustrate the painting of the eye at different stages:

1. The image on the left illustrates the initial underpainting of the eye in flat colours.

2. The middle image shows the first application of dark and light colours which begin to establish the solidity of the eyeball and eyelids:

  • The White of the Eye : a dark grey glaze is mixed from scarlet red, yellow medium azo and phthalocyanine blue and lightened with opaque titanium white. This is then applied in graduated layers to render the dark tones of the white of the eye. Note how the upper eyelid casts a strong shadow across the eye while the lower eyelid registers a weaker one. These shadows create the illusion that eyeball is resting comfortably in its socket.
  • The Iris: glazes of burnt sienna and titanium white are combined to suggest the refracted light of the brown iris. A little Prussian blue is added to darken the burnt sienna around the outer edge of the iris.
  • The Pupil: ivory black with a hint of Prussian blue is applied as the main colour of the pupil. A grey glaze, mixed with titanium white for its opaque qualities, conveys depth in the suggestion of a reflected image.
  • The Reflected Highlight: this bright glint of light on the eye is built up with layers of thinly mixed titanium white.
  • The Eyelids: the initial tone and form of the eyelids is sketched with strokes of a burnt sienna glaze.

3. The image on the right depicts the eye as it appears in the finished portrait, after some adjustments and refinements are made to the basic tones and colours.

All the fine details of our portrait were painted using sizes 1, 0 and 00 sable brushes.


Balancing the Eyes


It is very important to balance the eyes.

It is very important to balance the shapes, tones and colors of the eyes.

The overall balance between the eyes is a key element in achieving any likeness. You should build up the painting of both eyes at the same time in order to capture the balance between them. This essential relationship is far more difficult to achieve if you bring one eye to a state of completion and then start on the other.

Our lesson on pencil portraits should help you with drawing the eye.

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