When learning how to paint eyes and portraits, it's pretty important to learn how to paint them realistically. Like all facial features, if the eyes are not correct, the likeness of the subject will be lost. If the subject is far away, you can get away with less detail, but if the subject is close, you will need to pay attention to details. Follow these guidelines and you should see improvements in your painting efforts.
There are quite a few steps in accurately painting the facial features of the human eye. When you paint eyes, remember to include the upper and lower eyelids, the white and colored parts, the iris and pupil, the eyelashes, the membrane in the corner and the highlights. It is including each of these components that gives the eye depth and realism.
Whenever I paint portraits, I like to make the task as easy as possible. I like to paint, not draw. For this reason, I almost always use tracing paper, the grid method or the carbon tracing method to get a most accurate sketch on the canvas. My favorite method is the carbon tracing method. You will need a printed black and white copy of the subject to be painted. This copy needs to be the exact size that you are painting. Take some soft charcoal and darken the back of the copy. Now place the paper on the canvas with the carbon side down. With a sharp pencil, trace the entire eye (and the rest of the photo too). Your drawing should be exactly in correct placement because you have followed the lines on the photo.
If you do this, then you should not have too much difficulty with the placement of the eyes. With whiche method you use for getting the sketch on the canvas, and if your reference photo is the same size as the painting, you could also use a ruler to make sure that your drawing is accurate. Sometimes the smallest mistake can make your eyes seem out of place. It's worth the time it takes to get the drawing correct.
For this example I will start with the outside and work inward. Assuming that you have your skin color mixed and on the palette, apply a thin coat of color to the entire area. Be careful not to cover up or hide your pencil / charcoal drawing however. Now lighten that color and apply a light coat to the upper lid for highlight. To emphasizes the creases, add some dark lines back in. Continue adding layers of skin color until your drawing is covered by paint. Now add white paint to the “white” portion of the eye. This white is usually grayed down. Look closely and you will see that the white of an eye is not pure white. Next, add a tiny bit of pink in the corner or the membrane. Now with what ever color the iris is, paint in a circular shape in the colored area or iris. Brown eyes typically have a “wagon wheel” spoke look to them. Use varying shade of browns to mimic the correct color. Blue eyes tend to have more of a circular shape. Darken the iris color on the palette and paint in each pupil, then outline each iris. The final white highlight is the finishing touch for the completed eyeball. Add a tiny bright white highlight in each pupil. The highlight gives the indication of moisture and reflection. To create the eyelids, a very light skin color usually works best to re-define the top and lower lids.
Adding Eyelashes and Eyebrows
When adding eyelashes, care needs to be taken so that you do not ruin them by adding too many! Less is sometimes more when it comes to adding eyelashes and eyebrows. Follow the exact shape of the eyelashes with a fine tipped brush and quick small strokes paint in a few of the eyelashes. Note that in general, eyelashes go outward not straight up! The more you paint in, the more prominent they will be on the painting, especially on the bottom lid. I suggest to paint in a few, step back and look before painting any more. For the eyebrows, the same is true, small quick strokes, step back and view often so that you do not overdo them.
Now you have all the components of the eye in place. A little fine tuning and highlights and or shadows and your portrait efforts should be fantastic! This is truly learning how to paint eyes the easy way.