How to illustrate animal eyes

When drawing animal eyes, there are some critical – yet simple – steps and techniques to follow that will improve your illustration.  

Because the viewer of your image will be drawn to the animal's eyes, you need to depict them correctly. It's a good idea to practice sketching different eyes to become familiar with their structure. Draw what’s there, rather than what you think should be there.

Here I'll walk through the key considerations to make when drawing feline eyes, in this case a leopard, using pastel pencils on Pastelmat. 

The good news? These same principles will apply for most animals...  

01. Animal anatomy

Getting the anatomy right will help you draw the eye correctly
(Image: © Jill Tisbury )

Being aware of the eye’s anatomy will helps you understand where everything should be and what happens to the fur or skin covering that area. For example, the lacrimal gland over this eye will cause the fur to curve up and over it ridging slightly, forming the eyebrow and giving a shadow underneath it. Reflect that when you add the fur.

02. Eyeball emphasis 

Shading will help curve the eyeball
(Image: © Jill Tisbury)

This sketch shows how the underlying structures influence form. Remember that the eyeball is a globe, and not a flat disk with the top covered by the upper eyelid. Check the pupil placement on your reference – it’s tempting to place it in the centre of the eyeball portion that you can see. Here, use a paper stump to smudge shadows under the lower lid.

03. Reflect what they see

Imagine what the animal is viewing for real authenticity
(Image: © Jill Tisbury)

You’ll only see a perfectly round white-dot reflection if the eyeball is reflecting a cloudless sky with bright sun. Typically, the reflection will contain trees or similar structures, as is the case in the example, with blue sky at the top, and a band of white cloud reflection in the iris, filled in with a range of ochres.

04. Furry surroundings 

The area around the eye is important in creating a lifelike drawing
(Image: © Jill Tisbury)

At this point you can add in the surrounding texture – in this case, fur. The comparison helps to gauge the strength of the colours in the iris and adjust the values correctly. 

You’ll also be able to see where the shadows and highlights need to be deepened or lightened – typically on the eyeball under the brow, and in the corners.

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