Eyes are the windows to the soul, or so they say, and being able to draw them is probably one of the first things most artists try to learn.

A photo of an eye
Photo by Liam Welch on Unsplash

During this tutorial, we’ll not only learn how to draw an eye in a semi-realistic style, but we’ll learn the anatomy of an eye. Once you know the anatomy, you can tweak the eye to any style you want.

But first, a note on semi-realism.

What do you mean, semi-realistic?

Semi-realism is any style that is clearly settled between a cartoon and realism. There’s a vast breadth of differences between realism and cartoons, I realize, but most people that label themselves as “semi-realistic artists” tend to lean more towards realism with a touch of style to give it their own flavor. The term “stylized” can also be thrown about, but both are somewhat loose and broad ways to describe a style. The reason why I chose to do a tutorial on how to draw a semi-realistic eye is that is what my style favors.

Anatomy of an Eye

Before you start drawing eyes, it’s essential to know the parts of an eye. No, I’m not about to get into every minute detail of the rods do this, and the cones do that, but you do need to know how the eye is shaped and what parts of an eye may be visible. Why? Even cartoonish eyes start with a basis in realism. Take a look at this eye below, and we’ll go over each part a bit further down.

Eye Structure Broken Down

  1. Brow Ridge
  2. Eyebrow
  3. Eye Socket
  4. Lid Crease
  5. Upper Lid
  6. Eye Lashes
  7. Tear Duct
  8. Pupil
  9. Iris
  10. Sclera
  11. Lower Lid

Click each heading to expand for more information about the part of the eye.

Brow Ridge

A portion of the skull that sits above the eye socket. As this is part of the bone, it does not move but can be located higher or lower depending upon the size of the eye socket itself.

Eye Brow

The eyebrow is that bit of hair sitting atop a muscle that can express so much. This can change not only in position but also in shape depending upon the effect you wish to gain. It will always lie on top of the brow ridge, however.

Eye Socket

The eye socket is the hole in the skull where the eyeball actually sits. While this can change in size, it will not change in position.

Lid Crease

The fatty deposits, skin, and muscles around the eye sometimes cause what is known as a lid crease. This is not always visible, depending upon the angle or if the eye is wide open or completely shut.

Upper Lid

The upper lid is the movable piece of skin that covers the top of the eye. Always keep in mind the upper lid will curve over the eye, creating a rounded shape, rather than a flat flap of skin. That curve will affect your shading.

Eye Lashes

Eyelashes were designed to keep dust and dirt out of our eyes. They are attached to the upper and lower lids, growing out of small hair follicles. Everyone has eyelashes, though in some characterizations of a male face they may be much less visible.

Tear Duct

The inner corner of the eye, near the nose, contains the tear duct. This is usually lower than the center of the eye and has its own shadows due to the little bump of flesh.

Pupil

The pupil is a hole in the eye that allows light to pass into the inner workings of the eye. It sits inside the eye and can expand or contract depending on lighting conditions and mood. Changing the size of the pupil can also set the tone of the person you’re drawing. Small pupils indicate fear or anger, or perhaps a villain. Larger pupils can show excitement.

Iris

The iris is the portion of the eye that gives it the color we call people by, such as blue-eyed or green-eyed. A couple of important things to note are that it is not always circular, depending upon the angle it is set at, and the color bleeds a little around the edges into the sclera.

Sclera

This is the “white” of the eye, though you should be aware that it is rarely completely white. Shadows from the upper and lower lids will cause additional shading depending upon the lighting.

Lower Lid

The second flap of skin that covers the eye and houses the lower lashes. This typically moves when more emotion is involved, such as squinting. Bear in mind, it also curves around the sphere that is the eye itself.

Starting off with Basic Shapes

Use your references!

So now that you know the basic anatomy of an eye as it pertains to what you should be drawing, let’s break this down into basic shapes.  Every time you draw something new, you should try to envision its shapes first. This will help you put together an object easier.

A couple of tips before we get started. While you’re still starting out, take advantage of layers. Do each of these steps on a new layer if you have to, it will help I promise. Also, use a reference. If you want to use the same reference I did, here is the image without the text to distract you. Or take a picture of your own eye!

Below you’ll find a step by step guide on how to draw a semi-realistic eye.  Use the dots or the arrows to guide you through it.

Step 1

So we know that the eye is, well, a ball.  A sphere. Start off by drawing a sphere. (Yes you can cheat at this one, this is just for practice.)

Step 2

Let’s do an eye just looking straight on.  Well, we know the iris is also a circle at this angle.  

Tip:  Remember, the iris is a lot bigger than most tend to make it if you’re going more towards realism.

Step 3

The pupil is also a circle at this angle.

Great, so now we have one of those eyeball toys you see around Halloween.

Step 4

Let’s draw in the lids.  Start with two points on the edges of the eyeball.  Remember, the one you want to be the inner corner of the eye should be lower than the center, as this will be the tear duct.

Step 5

Draw the top lid.  Please, please, please use a reference.  It will help you and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.  Remember, the top lid curves over the eye, so the arc of the curve will be where the eye pushes out the lid the most.

Step 6

Draw the bottom lid.  This will usually have only a very slight curve to it and the arc of the curve will be downwards rather than upwards.

Step 7

Either redraw or trace over the location of your iris and pupil inside the two lids.

Step 8

Remove your eyeball (hide the layers or erase them).

Look at that, you have the start of an eye using basic shapes!  Let’s get into a little more detail.

Step 9

Go ahead and put in the eye crease. This will typically follow the same curve that the upper lid did.

Step 10

Now put in the eyebrow. Remember, this needs to go above where your eyeball was unless you have someone scowling or frowning, as the eyeball sits in the eye socket and the brow ridge is the top of the eye socket. It will also extend past the outside corner of the eye.

TIP: Don’t draw every individual hair when drawing the eyebrow. You’re trying to block in the basic shape, not what it will look like at the end.

Step 11

Let’s start defining the lower lid. I like starting with this because otherwise, I tend to forget its existence. If you drew a thick line for your lower lid, you could draw over top of it in a lighter value to indicate the actual lid. Remember, use your references. Notice due to the angle the picture was taken at, most if not all of the lower lid is visible?

Step 12

Define the shape of the tear duct. You may want to round this off at the corner a bit, and don’t forget that fleshy lump!

Step 13

At this point, you may want to do some cleanup. Perhaps the line of the top lid is too thick, or you have some excess on the bottom lid. Go for it! This is why digital art is fantastic because if you did each step on a separate layer, you could erase to your heart’s content. Here, I thinned out the upper lid and cleaned up the bottom one.

Step 14

Hey, that looks a little better. At least, to me, it does. Let’s get the details into the sclera, so this doesn’t look so flat. Working on this first will allow you to blend the edges of the iris into it with ease. If you save it for later, you may find the sides of the iris to the sclera have a few stray pixels here and there.

Tip:  Remember, the shading on this will depend upon your lighting for your piece, but no part of it should be completely white!

Step 15

Time to start the iris. When working on the iris, remember that it will blur a little into the sclera and keep your lighting in mind. The lightest part of the iris will be the opposite of where your reflection will be. If you want to add some of the darker streaks and characteristics, I recommend finding a speckled brush and doing it on another layer. That way, you can erase what you don’t want.

Step 16

Alright, go ahead and put in the pupil. This will never be completely black. If you’re working in color, try adding a deep red to emphasize depth. If you’re using values, the lighter value will be closer to your light source. And yes, there’s a bit of blurring around the edges of this as well.

Step 17

Getting closer to looking like an eye with every step. Let’s add the eyelashes. I’m going to admit to you here, and now, eyelashes are not my strong suit. It is recommended you do not draw each individual lash, but that you try to clump them together in sections of triangles.

As you can see, I tend to ignore that rule for the bottom lashes. They’re just too small to put together in clumps sometimes. I also ignore my own practice of “I hate shape-changing brushes” and turn on size measured by pen pressure to try to get those teeny tiny pointy tips.

Step 18

Alright, finally the section you’ve all been waiting for. The pièce de ré·sis·tance. The highlight.  Why did we save this for last? Putting on your highlights too early can trick your brain into wanting to make your other values too light. This highlight should be the lightest value, and it will be in two to three places depending upon your style. The darkest part of the pupil. Another smaller one on the opposite side of that for the iris. And, finally, the water line to show that yes, our eyes have liquid and liquid reflects.

How I Learned To Draw Semi-Realistic Eyes

Whenever I make one of these tutorials, I always try to include the resources of where I learned to do this. I’m not the best artist out there. I’m still learning, just like you! But some pros are offering free advice all over the internet that you should take advantage of. So here’s where I’ve learned from them to draw semi-realistic eyes.

Ready To Draw An Eye?

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