How to Draw and Color Eyes in Photoshop

I am a firm believer in the notion that the eyes are the single most important feature in a portrait. They convey emotion, vitality, and they provide an essence of soul no other feature can add. When working on a portrait, I always work on the eyes separately just to make sure they pop from the rest of the picture.

Now, it’s important to note, that this is only one method of sketching and coloring eyes. I certainly do not claim that this is the best method, and it’s somewhat stylized. It involves simplified features and shading, and strong black linework. While it is based on realism, this method of drawing an eye would be better employed by semi-realistic or illustration-esque artwork.

With that said, let’s get started on drawing the eye. I have provided two step-by-step illustrations, one for the sketch stage, one for the coloring stage, for you to see examples as the tutorial progresses.

This tutorial assumes basic knowledge of Photoshop.

Step One: Circles

Everyone can draw a circle, and this is why I say that everyone can, in turn, draw an eye. Start by drawing several circles of varying sizes. Try to make them as symmetrical as possible, but don’t worry if they’re not perfect.

Note, I use a Wacom tablet with Photoshop, and to sketch, I always set my brush size to 3 and make sweeping strokes. With good control, you can do all of this with a mouse, or sketch on traditional paper and just scan it when we’re ready to ‘ink’ and color.

Step Two: The Lids

Now you want to add the lids to give your eye its best definition. Think of what you want out of your eye. Is it looking up? Down? To one side? Is the person sad, happy, scared? The lids will help reflect all of these things. Observe your own expressions in a mirror, and how your lids conform to the eyeball as it moves.

Draw the lids by making slightly curved lines. One toward the top, one toward the bottom. The way you draw your lids will also greatly affect how your style looks. If you want a harder style, the way I often draw male eyes, make the lid lines straighter, the angles more defined.

Keep in mind as you’re drawing, that the eyeball is a sphere, and the lid rests over it. It doesn’t hold it in or cut it off. The eyeball fills the lid, giving it the same shape as the eye itself.

Step Three: The Iris and Pupil

The iris is always in the center of the eye, not directly between the eyelids. This means if your eye is looking up, part of the iris and pupil will not be viewable, as they will be covered by the upper eyelid.

Draw a circle for the iris, and then a circle inside for the pupil. Be mindful of your subject. Different situations cause the pupil to change its size to allow a great concentration of light into the eye.

Step Four: Details

It’s important to add small details to keep your eyes looking at least semi-realistic and three-dimensional. People will notice if there is something missing in an eye – though they may not be able to tell exactly what’s off about it, they’ll notice.

That said, the first thing you want to add are the tear ducts at the corners of the eye. At this stage, you’ll also wish to define the eyeball itself by pulling your lids together at the ends with the tear duct.

Because the lids do sit on the eye, it’s important to show that they’re not just sitting there flatly. Start from the edge of your original upper eyelid line and following it up around your circle as shown in the illustration. Do the same for the bottom lid.

Now you have your eye! Repeat these steps on your other circles, playing around with lid positioning to get different expressions. As you can see in my sketch, I leave them loose and scratchy, just to get a feel for what I want to draw. I don’t tend to clean up my drawings until the inking or coloring stage. Illustration 6, you’ll notice, also shows guidelines for how far the eyebrow extends, which can give your eye a quick burst of personality and emotion.

Step Five: Inking

Now select your best eye and prepare to ‘ink’ it. Make a selection around it and copy it. Select New, and Photoshop will automatically make a document to that size. Paste your selection, and it will make itself a new layer.

For reference, I’m working at a 200% zoom, just so I can see the lines a bit more accurately.

We need to be able to see our original drawing, but not have it be obtrusive. Turn down the sketch’s layer to 50% opacity, and create a new layer. I just use a normal paintbrush, again set on size 3, to do my inking. If you prefer you can use the pen tool for a more precise, less sketchy look.

Trace your lines onto the new layer. Once you think you’re done, turn off the bottom sketch’s layer visibility. Chances are, your inked eye will look incomplete. Finish your lines and clean it up to where it’s sufficient for you. Now delete your sketch layer and prepare to color!

Step Six: Flats

With this style, it’s ideal to have the linework preserved. So when you prepare to color, create a new layer, and set it to Multiply, this way the black lines of your inked layer will show through.

We want to start with our flat colors, or flats. I’ve selected a good skintone first and painted all around the eye, and the lids. Then I’ve selected a light eye color, and a color for the eyebrow.

I don’t use separate layers, but if you wish to keep your flats separate, you can easily do so by creating a layer for each color.

Step Seven: Shadows

Create a new layer, set the mode to Multiply, and the opacity to 50%. Now take your eyedropper tool and select from your skintone. Start painting on your shadow layer and you’ll see that it’s a few shades darker. This is an easy way to get simplified shades from your images.

Do the same thing for your other colors. If you made separate layers, you may wish to make even more split layers for your shadows.

Note that I am using very simplistic, one color shading. Experiment with different colors for different effects. Use a dark brown, a purple, a blue. Don’t worry about blending anything yet; we’ll get to that part shortly.

Step Eight: Highlights

Create a new layer and set the mode to Screen. Instead of sampling colors, for highlights I just prefer to use white. Instead of lowering your layer opacity, lower your brush opacity, that way you can build up highlights as needed. I set mine at about 30% to start.

Make highlights on high points where the light would normally hit. The top eyelid, the ridge on the bottom eyelid, above the eye, etc. Again, don’t worry about blending just yet; that’s in the next step.

Step Nine: Blending

Now is the time to make everything a little bit smoother. There are several methods of blending, but again, I prefer to choose a simplified method. I use the smudge tool to blend. A bit of a mini-tutorial on the tool itself:

I never use a brush size higher than 7, and an opacity of about 75%. The lower the opacity, the more control you have over the blending. If it’s at 100%, you’ll find the blending doesn’t exactly blend very well; it just pulls color from one area to another.

Take the smudge tool and pull out your highlights, blending them at the edges. Do the same with the shadows, until you get something appealing. I like a more subtle transition, so I tend to blend quite a bit.

Step Ten: Touch-Ups

Step ten is rather vague. Now is when you do all of your minor adjustments to make the eye look better. Because it varies, I’ll just describe what I did on the example eye.

First I went back to the inking layer and erased the stray lines. I also erased the bottom lid line, and the guidelines for the eyeball, and re-drew them using less pressure so the line width was varied, making them look more natural.

I added some darker shading variation, and pulled some blue from the eye to work into the skin surrounding it to make the shadows a bit cooler. Then I flattened all of my layers and grabbed a dark blue brush, drawing over the black line of the iris to make it dark blue instead. A few spatters of different colored blue also went into the iris.

Finally, I took a white brush on 40% opacity and built up a highlight as a result from the direct light that hits the eye. Forgetting this often leads to a very flat picture, so be sure to put it in when applicable!

And there you have it; an eye sketched and colored in Photoshop. Experiment with your own variations to establish a unique style, and soon your eyes will be the very life of your work.

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