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Color Pencil Portraits - How to Draw the Eyes


Color Pencil Portraits - How to Draw the Eyes


When we begin to draw a portrait we should start with the eyes as they are the most important feature of the face.  If we look at a face, we instinctively look first at the eyes because they tell us so much about the person. There is an old saying that ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’ which means that they openly communicate the emotional and psychological state of the subject.  They can express how that person is feeling: whether they are happy or sad, sincere or deceitful, calm or anxious, content or angry and so on.

It is best to deal with such a major feature at the start of the drawing. If you get the eyes right at the beginning of the portrait, it will boost your confidence to continue. If you get them wrong, then you have not wasted your time over the rest of the portrait when you have to start over again.

Step 1 - Draw the Eyes in Line


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 1


There are several things to consider when we start to draw the eyes:

  • Generally speaking, one eye is more or less a mirror image of the other, but it is the small differences between them that identify the subject as the individual you are drawing.
  • Through close observation you may notice subtle asymmetries in the balance of the eyes, such as the positions of the iris, the different shapes of the eyelids, the pattern of creases around the eye and the position of the eyebrows.

  • Accurate observation at this stage of the drawing is the key to establishing a good likeness and building a solid foundation for the rest of the work.


Step 2 - Start to add Tone and Color


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 2


  • Using the mid-brown color pencil that we chose for the line drawing, we pick out the reflected light and dark tones within each eye, blending them into the radial pattern of the iris.

  • It is best to leave the brightest areas of the eyes unshaded, as the unaltered white of the paper will be lighter than any white color pencil pigment.
  • Notice also that the 'white' of the eyes is almost never white and for this we have used a gentle eggshell blue which we will modify with darker tones at later stage.


Step 3 - Build up the Tones of the Iris


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 3


  • Next, we chose a darker color to deepen the tones of each pupil and iris. The resultant increase of contrast should enhance the glassy qualities of the eyes and give them a greater impact.
  • You will notice that the tonal contrast on each iris is beginning to look quite different. This is due to a brighter light shining from the left and the shadow cast by our subject's hair on the right.


Step 4 - Apply Color Tints to the Iris


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 4


  • Now we begin to build up the colors reflected in the iris.

  • When we mention the color of someone's eyes, we generalize by saying that they are perhaps blue or brown. However, there is no room for generalization when we are drawing a portrait. We have to look closely to discern what colors are actually there.

  • In this case the eyes are 'brown' but on closer inspection they contain hints of yellow, orange and green.
  • As color pencils are a transparent medium it makes it easier to blend these lighter colors over the darker tones that we established at the previous stage.


Step 5 - Balance the 'White of the Eyes'


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 5


  • To finish off the 'whites of the eyes’ we need to shade in their darker tones and tints of color. It is important to blend and balance these with the tones and colors of the iris in order to create a unified and natural appearance.

  • Our color pencil technique requires a patient, careful and focused approach to drawing, gradually building up the detail in stages to achieve as faithful a likeness as possible.


Step 6 - Add a Surrounding Flesh Color


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 6


  • The next stage is to introduce the flesh tones around the eyes in order to set them in their natural context.

  • We begin by evenly shading the skin around the eyes with a flat flesh color.


Step 7 - Apply some Basic Flesh Tones


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 7


  • When we begin to develop the the skin around the eyes, we need to identify the most distinct areas of light and dark tones.

  • We lightly shade in the darker areas of skin tone with the mid-brown color pencil that we used for the line drawing,  

  • As these areas are transitional tones, gently changing from light to dark without any obvious edges, it is difficult to define their exact size. Therefore, we need to proceed very lightly and slowly, carefully building up the shading until we are confident of their dimensions.

  • It is important not to overdo your shading at this stage. Slow and steady is the way to go.


Step 8 - Intensify the Darker Skin Tones


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 8


  • Once we are confident that we understand the organization of tones around the eyes, we can begin to strengthen and intensify their impact.
  • Using a darker brown pencil, we slowly adjust the darker tones of the skin.


Step 9 - Use an Eraser to Add Highlights


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 9


  • To heighten the effect of the skin tone, we also need to lighten certain areas.
  • The best way to do this is by using an eraser to gradually expose the white of the paper. This technique will give us the most vibrant highlight possible.
  • White color pencils are seldom used in color pencil drawings on white paper. As we mentioned earlier, color pencils are a transparent medium and the best way to achieve the maximum brilliance from your colors is to let the white of the paper shine through them.
  • White color pencils come into their own as a medium when they are used to highlight tones on darker colored papers.


Step 10 - Add some Warm Flesh Colors


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 10


  • The surface of skin is quite complex changing from warmer to cooler tones depending on the blood flow beneath its surface.
  • Consequently we need to use some warmer and possibly some cooler colors to simulate the vitality of the skin's surface.
  • At this stage we have begun to lightly blend some red into the skin tone in order to build up its natural warmth.


Step 11 - Add Eyebrows, Eye Lashes and Balance all Elements


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 11


  • After all the preliminary work that we have done to establish the drawing, tones and colors of the eyes, we are now well prepared to depict the final details that will enhance the realism of our portrait.

  • First we need to adjust the color of the skin so that it has same tonal values as the eyes. This requires that we darken, refine and blend the skin tone until it matches the depth of tone and degree of detail in the eyes.

  • Next, we need an assortment of very sharp, hard color pencils ranging from light brown through dark brown to black to tackle the detail around the eyes.

  • We now need to proceed very carefully to delicately pick out the eyeliner, eye lashes and eye brows, making sure that our pencil lines follow the natural direction of their growth.


Step 12 - Complete the Hair


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Step 12


  • To conclude, we add the hair using a range of white, yellow, yellow ochre and brown color pencils which has the marked effect of throwing what we have already drawn into context.
  • Finally, we need to slightly darken the skin tone with warmer colors to balance and unify our color pencil drawing of the eyes.

A Step by Step Summary


Drawing the Eyes with Color Pencils – Steps 1-12


  • In our illustration above you can see how our color pencil drawing is built up in a series of layers that gradually refine the line, color, tone and texture of the image to create a convincing representation of the eyes.