How To Draw Expressive Eyes

Humans are like emotional sponges. They see someone or something experiencing an emotion, and bam, they’re soaking it up and feeling it, too.

That’s what we call sympathy… or is it empathy? Either way, this means in terms of art, there is one undeniable truth: 

No matter what style you’re creating in, nothing will cause a viewer to connect with your art more than a big-ole pair of expressive eyes staring right at them. If your subject has eyes, that is.

So I’m here to give you some tips on how to make your subject’s eyes pop right off of the page and into your viewer’s heart… It’s not as grotesque as it sounds.

Realism:

Whether you are drawing from a reference photo or from real life (we’ll get to imagination next), there is one thing that I cannot stress enough: Draw everything you see! 

But the whites of the eyes aren’t even white in this picture!
Draw everything you see.

But the highlights are too bright, and you can’t see the shape of the pupil!
Draw everything you see.

But what the hell is this shadow even doing here??

All of that weird stuff is what makes your subject look like your subject. The shape of their eyes just happens to be catching light differently or casting odd shadows. And here’s the secret… The closer your drawing looks to your subject’s actual eyes, the better the emotion portrayed will come across in your work.

I’m guessing you chose your subject because the emotion beaming out of their face is the same emotion you want beaming out of your artwork. Well, every little intricacy that you’re seeing is very important in having your drawing give off the same emotion as your reference. So I humbly suggest that you please do draw everything you see.

I feel like I should also mention the obvious here, for whatever style you’re using. The eyebrows. You should try not to rely on the eyebrows to do all of the work, because a lot of emotion can come just from the eyes… but it’s very true that you can illustrate so many varied emotions and expressions with those fuzzy caterpillars that live above your eyeballs.

Cartoony:

Alright, now here is where you can really have some fun. When you’re working in a more animated style, you’re usually relying on your imagination as opposed to references. The more details you add, the more immersive the world is. The same is true for the eyes. The more expression you add, the more emotive and relatable your character is.

The fun thing about this style is that the emotion can be much less subtle than it would be in realism. And because of the free and loose nature of the style, you can kind of bend the laws of how the human face works.

For example: In the right picture, I really wanted her to look manic, so I added a lot of white space above her pupils. I also added some dark reds in the corners, and some serious bags underneath, as well.

Would you ever see someone walking down the street with these characteristics? I really hope for your sake that the answer is no. But this is exactly the type of thing we can exaggerate to emit much more intense emotion through the eyes. So, the possibilities for this style are really endless. Experiment away!

Animal:

The tips here are pretty much the same for drawing people. The difference (other than general color and pupil shape), is a foreign coldness that animals seem to possess, heavily portrayed through their eyes.

I believe this trait comes from the fact that you just don’t know what animals are thinking, meaning you never know what to expect from them either. They could be friendly and just trying to figure you out, or they could be contemplating when to have you for dinner.

But despite the unknown, there is also something deep and spiritual in the eyes of animals. That sounds like a lot to capture in a drawing, but once again, if you’re (sing it with me) drawing everything you see, the emotion will come out naturally.

There are, however, different instances where the expression can be slightly enhanced. For example: I made sure the owl’s eyes were extremely dark, adding to the mysterious and soulful nature of the animal. Likewise, I made sure to make the slit shaped pupils of the fox very thin, adding to it’s predatory nature.

Both of those characteristics were already there in the reference pictures. It’s really just about reading the expression before you start drawing, and knowing what parts to pay special attention to in order to create that expression. I’ve found that 100% of the time… it’s in the eyes.

The final tip I’m going to leave you with, for any style you happen to be creating in, is practice. I know you probably hate me for saying it, but nothing will improve your art more than constant, constant practice.

I have drawn some ugly potatoes with little twigs coming out of them in my time. It was only after a lot of practice that they started looking like eyes.

So please do practice, have a lot of fun doing it, and pretty soon your eyes will be expressing any emotion you can think of. Popping right off the page and into your view… okay I’m done.

Here’s looking at you kid,
Kayla

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