We all tend in the beginning to draw the eye of Ra. This stylized oval eye is instantly recognized as an eye—a generic non-specific one. But a human eye nonetheless. This eye is applied to the faces we try to draw, and we wonder just why the drawing, so carefully done, does not look like anyone. The eye is recognized as human, but not this human. We have to look carefully, and see what makes this eye individual, unique.
Just what is the structure of the eye? How does it vary by species and individual? What makes it human and your eye? So lets take a closer look at the eye, both human and other animals. What does it really look like? How big is it, what is it shape and features? Just where and how does sit on the “face” and how does it work?
The Animal Kingdom, a brief overlook
For each species, the eye fulfills its function, to see. Obviously, but just why the variations? What does each individual animal need to see and how does that shapes both the eye and its function?
First, fish eyes. While fish often have excellent eyesight, they usually lack external structure, ea, eyelids, lashes, and eyebrows. They do move in their sockets, some working independently, but they are not typically expressive. We invent such expressiveness when we cartoon. By endowing these eyes with more human characteristics, animators make us relate to these fishy characters. Fish, because they live in the water, really don’t need things like tear ducts and eyelashes. As you move up the animal scale, the eye structurally changes, becomes more complex, sometimes bizarre and frighteningly inhuman, like the compound insect eye, or the hypnotic and sinister eye of the crocodilian, with its yellow iris and slit pupil.
Mammals also have a wide variety of eyes. Pray animals usually have their eyes mounted on the sides of their heads, (the better to see that staking lion) unlike predators, whose eyes need to be front and center. (The better to see that fleeing gazelle) All eyes are different for different functions. From the Large light-sensitive eyes of the cat to the liquid brown eyes of the bloodhound form follows function. Eyes that closely resembles our own tend to evoke stronger positive emotions in us, as we tend to humanize them. It is no surprise that we find sea otters, with their large brown child-like eyes cute, but shutter when we see the alien slitted eyes of a snake. (Of course, that forked tongue does not help.)
But just why do our human eye drawings so often go wrong?
The Eyes of the Beholder
To really be able to draw the human eye, we need to be able to clearly see and understand their structure, and how they appear from differing views. Back to Ra. The Egyptians were masterful artists. But whenever they drew the god Ra, even in profile, the eye stared straight at you. This is not because Egyptians did not understand the structure of the face. To the contrary, they had very firm grasp on anatomy (preparing all those mummies does teach you a few things about how the human is put together). So why the forward, stare you in the face eye?
Because the Eye of Ra was always on you, the all-seeing, all-knowing Ra. This representation of Ra was not so much literal as symbolic, and this holds true down to our day. We need to fight the tendency we all have to draw the eye as we know it to be. We need to observe it and draw it as it appears to be. When we start to draw the human face, we have a truckload of symbols preloaded into the brain just waiting to spill out onto our paper.
Resist this urge!
Draw what you see, not what you know.
This brings us to the major stumbling block in drawing faces, the stored symbols and how they sabotage our drawings. We have to learn for the first time the true nature of the human eye. It symmetry and lack there of. No two eyes are alike. While we share common structure, each of us has a unique eye. These things tend to run in families, so if mom has a nice round eye, chances are most of her children will too, but remember, there are always two parents.
Your eyes are your best tools in learning to draw real eyes, and unlearning the symbols stuff in your head. Look at eyes. Make a study of it. And draw them. The handiest pair is of course, your own. Get a nice mirror that stands on its own, and look at your eyes. Notice how they are similar and how they differ.
One major mistake is to make the left and right eyes exactly alike. They are not. They tend to be mirror images of each other, but not perfectly. They will be differences. One will tend to be slightly larger. This is good news for the artist, because you don’t have to be perfect! Just observant.
Notice also that the eyes are not really round or even real ovals, but their own totally unique shape. They will tend to be more rounded by the nose, and then taper off towards the ears. Watch your eyes in the mirror move. Even the eyeball is not completely round. Look at the opening for the eye, the lids, both top and bottom. Just how much of the eyeball is covered by the top lid as opposed to the bottom? Notice where the lashes really are, not where you have been drawing them all these years!
Get yourself a tablet of tracing paper and cut out a bunch of ads that show the face close-up. Cosmetic ads are good for this, as are shaving cream ads. Any ad that shows the face clearly will do. You can also use family photos, but make cheap copies of them for this. Trace the shape of the eyes, both of them. Then take the tracing paper away and look at the shapes of the eyes.
As the face turns
You might want to trace out the angle and placement of the face for reference, and see how the shape of the eye(s) changes as the face shifts in relationship to the camera. Notice the difference in the eyes in the frontal view, the profile and the near profile views of the face.
As the face turns from the full frontal view through the profile, the eyes seem to change position. They don’t really, but your view of them changes, the further eyes almost seems to come closer to the nose until it is completely hidden by it. Trace these shapes and see how the shape of the eye itself seems to change. Once you see these isolated shapes, you will have these stored in the old brain-box to counter those pre-loaded symbolic eyes.
Draw what you really see
With the help of these tracings, photos and close-up family photos, you can study the shape of human eyes, and the eyes that run in your family. Notice where the lids cross the eyeballs, making for what appears to be rounder or narrower eyes. Notice also how deep the elliptical fold is and how this varies person to person and from younger to older eyes.
One major mistakes children make, which does tend to carry over into adulthood, is placing the eyebrows too close to the eyes themselves. The opposite can also be a problem, making all your people look surprised.
One last word on drawing eyes, look before you draw