Tips You Should Know To Draw Expressive Eyes (How To Draw Eyes Tutorial)

Fact-checked by Layla Saman
Updated on: February 24, 2023

How many times have you tossed your drawings into the trash or ripped them in pure frustration just because you didn’t know how to draw eyes quite right? 

Don’t worry, we completely understand how you feel.

It is often said that “the eyes have one language everywhere.” This idea suggests that a person’s true emotion can only be seen in their eyes rather than their language. More so than words or body language, eyes are essential to communication, and they are the most expressive part of the face. 

For example, people tend to consistently associate narrowed eyes—which enhance our visual discrimination by blocking light and sharpening focus—with emotions related to discrimination, such as disgust and suspicion. In contrast, people linked open eyes—which expand our field of vision—with emotions related to sensitivity, like fear and awe. So, there’s no wonder why drawing them can be such a frustrating task, as they are, as people say, “the windows into the soul”. Anyway! Today, our goal is to help you overcome your paper-tossing habits by giving you some valuable tips that will let you become much better at drawing expressive eyes.

So, without further delay, ready your paper and pencils (or drawing tablet), and let’s get to it!

To create realistic, expressive eyes, most professional artists use:

  • An H pencil: “H” stands for “hard”, meaning these pencils have a hard lead; you’d want to go in with an H pencil first because they leave a very gentle trace on paper, which is perfect for outlines and basic shapes.
  • A 4B pencil: “B”, i.e., “black”, is a type of the softest lead; you’d want to use this type of pencil to create darker shadows that add to the realistic look.
  • An HB pencil: “HB” means “hard black”; between “H”, i.e., the hardest type of lead, and “B,” i.e., the softest, HB pencils are in the middle; they are “medium hard” and your best choice for the more intricate details and softer shadows.
  • A kneaded eraser to accentuate the highlights and touch up the mistakes.
  • Sketch paper that features micro-perforations, making corrections easier.

But if you’re more into cartoonish drawing, you can stick to your 2H pencil, which will work fine.

Happy/angry eyes

The first thing to do when you start drawing eyes is to understand the basic eye shapes. Expression in the eyes is shown by the outer shape of the lids, the placement of the irises, how much of the whites of the eyes are visible, and how closed or open the eye is. By exaggerating the shape of angry and sad eyes, you can see how both are triangles but angled differently, with anger being triangles that point inward and sadness being triangles that point outward.

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Cartoonish angry eyes (Credits to the author)

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Cartoonish sad eyes (Credits to the author)

Even in realistic portraits, that general shape will be present for those expressions, and the eyebrows will reinforce the degree of the emotion by plunging down in the same direction as the eyes for anger or pulling off to the side to mimic the upper line of sad eyes.

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Realistic sad eye (art by Wajiha)

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Realistic angry eye (Art by Lil-el-art)

Laughing eyes

Laughing eyes are closed or mostly closed. Wrinkle lines appear at the sides to show how the skin is puckered, and there is a wave in the line of the two lids sealing together to show that the eye is being forcibly closed instead of closed in sleep or boredom. As the corners of the mouth move up to form the laughing expression, the cheeks will also move up and make the eyes close somewhat. In this particular expression, both artists have not drawn the eyes completely closed. It’s up to you how you would like to draw the eyes but remember that when we are laughing our eyes naturally narrow.

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Realistic laughing/happy eyes (Art by Yong Chen)

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Cartoonish laughing/happy eyes (Credits to the author)

Downcast eyes

Eyes that are downcast, whether in sadness, boredom, or sleepiness, have relaxed upper lids and just a hint of the iris peeping out at the bottom. The eyelashes curl out to the side, and often, the darkness of the line of lashes is indistinguishable from the tone of the iris. Additional emotions in the different downcast positions are shown in the eyebrows, mouth, and puckers or wrinkles that show if the cheek and forehead muscles are being pulled into sad, bored, or sleepy positions.

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Realistic closed eyes (Credits to the author)

Cartoonish closed eyes (Credits to the author)

Shocked eyes

When a person is experiencing shock, the eyes become wide open to the fullest extent, and the eyebrows and forehead are pulled up as much as is humanly possible. 

To draw shocked eyes, start off by drawing the eyebrows raised up on the head. They will be raised so much that you can see a little indication of wrinkles above the left eyebrow. The next thing to do is to open up the eyes. The pupil is going to stay the same size, though some artists choose to shrink the pupil a little bit to heighten the shocked expression.

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Realistic shocked eyes (Credits to the author)

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Cartoonish shocked eyes (Credits to the author)

Suspicious eyes

A suspicious face doesn’t have big round eyes or open facial expressions. Instead, the eyes get squinty and the mouth crimps shut in one corner. To communicate the squinty eyes, you can do straight lines before dropping the pupils right in below them. If you want to evoke an increased level of suspicion or skepticism, you can also add a raised eyebrow to the expression.  

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Realistic suspicious eyes (Credits to the author)

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Cartoonish suspicious eyes (Credits to the author)

To conclude:

Besides learning how to draw a person and acquiring skills to draw hands, one of the most complex skills many aspiring artists struggle with is learning how to draw eyes. But drawing eyes becomes much easier when you break down the process into several steps. The key is to start from basic shapes, such as the circle, to illustrate the iris and slowly go from there, then think of the expression you want your drawing to have and have a lot of dedication.

As an artist, you need to learn and grow. Remember that if you want to do masterpieces, you must constantly practice every day. In the end, the more often you pick up your pen or pencil, the better you’ll become.

Here at Skillaemia, you can find the perfect courses to be a master at drawing. Check our Digital Illustration course and explode all your potential to be one of the very best illustrators.

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