Free Demo | How to Paint an Eye in Watercolor and Oil

Roberta Carter Clark believes that the success of portrait painting depends upon the artist’s finesse in drawing and painting eyes. To achieve this, challenge yourself to draw and paint as many pairs of eyes as you can from life, magazines and photographs, every day for a month. Study the variations of the basic parts of the eye (the eyelids, lashes, iris, pupil and brow) and the different positions of eyes (straight on, profile or three-quarter view). Everyone’s eyes are unique; their variety is infinite.

The emotive subject of eyes, plus other complex facial features, are covered in detail in Roberta Clark’s best-selling North Light title, How to Paint Living Portraits: A Complete Guide to Painting Lifelike Portraits in Oil, Charcoal & Watercolor. This comprehensive guide on portrait painting includes more than 23 exercises on capturing the likeness of a range of ages and ethnicities, both male and female, plus 5 step-by-step portrait demonstrations in charcoal, oil and watercolor. First published in 1991, How to Paint Living Portraits has recently been reissued in paperback and with a fresh design. It’s available for pre-order at Below, Clark shares two easy-to-follow eye studies in both watercolor and oil.

Exercise #1: Paint an Eye in Watercolor
This example of a man’s eye is painted in stronger shapes and bolder colors than the features of a woman or a child.

Colors: Raw Sienna, Scarlet Lake, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, Burnt Umber, Olive Green
Brushes: 1-inch (25mm) flat, nos. 3 and 8 rounds
Surface: 140-lb. (300gsm) cold-pressed watercolor paper

how to paint an eye in watercolor step 1

Step 1

Mix an initial wash of Raw Sienna with Scarlet Lake and paint it over the entire eye area and let it dry. With a mixture of Raw Sienna, Scarlet Lake, and a touch of Cerulean Blue to cool the color, paint the eye, eyebrow and structure around the eye opening and let it dry.

how to paint an eye in watercolor step 2

Step 2

Strengthen the shadows, brow and structure with a darker mix of these same three colors and let it dry. Lay in the color of the iris. Paint a still darker mix of these three colors at the edge of the upper eyelid running right into the iris. Leave a break in the lid line and leave the highlight in the eye so the initial wash shows. Let it dry.

how to paint an eye in watercolor step 3

Step 3

Add Cerulean Blue to cool the area between the bridge of the nose and eye; also over the whites of the eyes. Drop Scarlet Lake into the inner corner of the eye and a bit above while the blue wash is wet. Let it dry. Use a darker warm mix of Raw Sienna, Scarlet Lake and Cobalt Blue to define the eyebrow in short strokes and broken lines, and bring this mix down with water over part of the blue area and into the fold line of the lid and definition of the lower lid. Leave the light edge where the lower lid catches the light unpainted. Let it dry.

how to paint an eye in watercolor step 4

Step 4

Use accents of Cobalt Blue and Burnt Umber mixed together to define the brow further. Use a darker warm flesh mixture of Raw Sienna, Scarlet Lake and Cerulean Blue to cover the fleshy area between the eyebrow and the fold of the eyelid, and further define the lid and the area surrounding the eye opening. Paint the pupil with the darkest dark you can make with Cobalt Blue, Burnt Umber and Scarlet Lake.

Exercise #2: Paint an Eye in Oil

Colors: Titanium White, Raw Sienna, Venetian Red, Cobalt Blue, Cadmium Orange and Cadmium Red Light, plus an oil painting medium to make the paints flow more easily
Brushes: nos. 2 and 4 filbert bristles, no. 3  sabeline
Surface: Raw Sienna imprimatura on primed linen canvas

Step 1
Block in the eye oval, the eyebrow and a hint of shadow under the eye and alongside the nose with Raw Sienna.

Step 2
Draw the brow and eye more carefully with Raw Sienna and oil painting medium and lift out some of the lights with a small brush and turpentine. The imprimatura should be applied a day in advance and thoroughly dry, so when you lift color, the warm tone is revealed rather than the white canvas.

Step 3
Add flesh color with Titanium White, Raw Sienna and Venetian Red on the forehead and around the eye. Add Cobalt Blue to cool the shadow areas. Mix all four pigments to make a gray for the white of the eye. Make the same mixture without Titanium White to create a dark for the eyebrow, iris, and more eye and lid definition. Add just a touch of Cadmium Orange and Cadmium Red Light to make the eye opening warmer.

Step 4

Treat the eyebrow in a broken, rough-brushed way with light and dark accents to create the texture of short, crisp hairs. There is a value change as the brow curves over the brow bone. The lines around the eye are soft, not brittle. The darkest—the pupil and the upper third of the iris—lies next to the lightest light, the pure white highlight. The contrast between the white of the eye on the light side and the green-brown of the iris gives the image snap and draws your attention. A tiny bit of Cadmium Orange and Cadmium Red Light warm up the eye and give it more life.

About the Author: Roberta Carter Clark

Roberta Carter Clark has been painting portraits since her teens, when she attended drawing classes at The Detroit Institute of Art. She has been invited to jury both state and national exhibitions and teach portrait and figure painting workshops across the United States. Her paintings have received awards in national exhibitions, including the American Watercolor Society, Allied Artists, the Transparent Watercolor Society of America and the Adirondacks National Exhibition of American Watercolors. She worked with Portraits Inc. in New York City for over fifteen years, and her commissioned portraits are in the collections of hundreds of families and in public and corporate collections.

Roberta is the author of How to Paint Living Portraits, first published in 1990, and Painting Vibrant Children’s Portraits, 1993. She has also contributed to several other North Light publications, such as Splash 1, 2, and 4, Basic Drawing Techniques, Basic Oil Painting Techniques and Basic Portrait Techniques. Roberta’s watercolor figure work has been featured in American Artist, The Artist Magazine, Watercolor and Watercolor Artist magazines.


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