Painting Eyes | Pastel Portrait Painting Techniques

When learning how to paint eyes, the four portrait painting techniques contained within this article are quite important to keep in mind. Click here to download the full article on painting eyes, specifically as it pertains to pastel portrait techniques.

Read below for a demonstration on portrait painting techniques from William Schneider on how to paint eyes in pastel.


It’s been said that eyes are the window to the soul. For an artist, the eyes are—at the very  least—the natural focal point in a portrait or figurative piece. In my workshops, students become noticeably excited whenever I demonstrate painting eyes, because—for most  beginning artists—the eyes present a particular challenge. Why is that the case when artists have looked at their own and others’ eyes all their lives? Perhaps, it’s the very significance of the eyes that interferes with true observation. One of the first symbols children develop is a symbol for the eye—usually an oval with a circle in the middle. So, artists have to fight to observe the actual shapes and values that form the eyes; otherwise they revert to painting a symbol.

Understanding a few basic concepts about pastel portrait techniques has aided my observational skills and helped me capture the life behind this all-important facial feature.


Painting Eyes: Portrait Painting Techniques


William Schneider, Step 1: Defining the Eye Socket | How to Paint Eyes

Step 1

Step 1:

Working on a sheet of Wallis sanded paper, I place a tone to represent the flesh in the light (layers of light red, yellow ochre and phthalo green blended with the heel of my hand). Then, I define the eye socket—a dark maroon, modified with olive green and red, again, blended with my hand. The renowned artist, Harley Brown, taught me to break my pastel sticks in half and use the sides as if I were using a broad brush in oil painting. This method helps me create a looser, more realistic effect, and I’ve used it throughout this  demonstration.






William Schneider, Step 2: Placing the Eye | How to Paint Eyes

Step 2

Step 2:

I sketch the placement of the eye lightly in charcoal. Then I use a deep brown to define the shadow of the upper lid. I also add a darker red to establish the deepest shadows in the
eye socket. Even at this stage, I’m softening the strokes with the side of my finger.







William Schneider, Step 3: Establishing the Pupil and Iris | How to Paint Eyes

Step 3

Step 3:

I use black to place the pupil and a dark brown to establish the general shape of the iris, blending and softening my strokes as before with the side of my finger. I add a few strokes of light orange-red to separate the nose and cheek bone from the eye socket. I also add a couple of strokes of a mid-value olive green to the top of the eye socket where it rolls into the light.







William Schneider, Step 4: More Clearly Define the Area Around the Eye | Painting Eyes

Step 4

Step 4:

I define the corner of the eye with a mid-value red and “carve” around the iris with a gray—darker near the top of the eyeball and lighter near the middle. I also add a light flesh tone to depict the top plane of the lower lid. I add a bit more light flesh tone around the eye socket and a light purple where the facial planes start to roll to the side, still softening and blending the strokes. I depict the eyebrow with a brown and a light gray-green on the top edge where it catches the light.







William Schneider, Step 5: The Spotlight | Painting Eyes

Step 5

Step 5:

Now I place the highlight with a couple of strokes of a light blue and light phthalo green. I leave these strokes unblended. The “spotlight” is a softened mixture of orange and olive green. I place a couple of light strokes to indicate highlights on the flesh around the eye sockets and on the lower lid, and I’m done.







William A. Schneider attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago. He has signature status in the Oil Painters of America and The Pastel Society of America. His award-winning work has been featured in a number of magazines and books.


Click here to read the rest of The Pastel Journal’s February 2008 issue.

Want more portrait painting tips? Learn how to paint a portrait here with Bev Lee‘s demonstration.

Or if you’re looking for new portrait painting techniques, try painting portraits using the block-in method. Robert T. Barrett has an entire tutorial for you!



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