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  • Writer's pictureKevin Roeckl

How to paint realistic eyes

People are so fascinated with how realistic eyes can look in artwork, I thought I’d share what makes them look so shiny and 3-dimensional. It’s the highlights on the eye. A good example is my portrait of Tanner (see it HERE).

  • Pic 1 is a close-up of the eyes in Tanner’s portrait.

  • Pic 2 is the same thing but with the pupil (the black center of every eye) just a solid black, as many people expect it would be.

The white highlight in each eye is extremely important to making the eye look “alive” and shiny. In this example, the white highlight is very small, in can often be a bit larger. The placement of the “white dot” on each eye also helps indicate what direction the eyes are looking. Tiny differences in where the highlight is placed, or where the pupil is placed, can make a difference in the direction the subject seems to be looking, and even their facial expression. Just a millimeter to the left or right, or higher or lower on the eye, can make that difference.

Example of shiny realistic eyes compared to flat, dull eyes, using colored pencil cat portrait as example

In these eyes you also see the grey-blue reflections on the black pupil. That’s a reflection of whatever was light-colored in front of Tanner….like a window or a white wall across the room from him (or if outdoors, could be the sky). That is not always so apparent on the dark pupil because often in bright light the black pupil will be small. Sometimes reflections are barely visible. Tanner’s pupils were really big so those reflections on his shiny eye were obvious.

But the “white dot” reflection must always be there, or an eye will look flat and lifeless, like Pic 2. Kind of like the attack of the zombie cats, right???


Tanner's portrait was done with Prismacolor pencil on Canson Mi-Teintes paper.

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