Tracking The Upward Gaze

Hardest Move Figure DrawingFacial ExpressionsLimitation Upward Gaze

When we look up, the eye reshapes itself in large and small ways to accommodate the movement. Even the obvious lifting of the iris has a subtle aspect: the foreshortening of the iris into an ellipse. The first stage of the upward gaze (B) is the most difficult to capture. Great care must be taken to get the angle of the upper lid right, and to raise the iris high in relation to the inner eye corner. Note how in drawings A—D, the iris is cut by the upper lid line in the same place no matter how it moves.

A. Looking out. A person with a relatively narrow eye opening. Note relationship between pupil and line across middle of corner; when eye is looking outward, line cuts through lower part of iris.

B. Looking up. Even in this first stage of upward gaze, many changes have occurred (1). The upper lid is almost fully retracted. Both inner and outer angles steepened. The upward gaze is more obvious in the eye on the left, where the inner leg is now at a greater than 45 degree angle. As gaze gets higher, arch of upper lid continues to increase by small amounts (2). The pupil has moved slightly above the midline of the corner. The bottom of the iris is now visible, and the lower lid is slightly straighter (3); the higher the gaze, the straighter it gets.

C. Looking higher. As the gaze rises further, the curve of the lids changes more slowly. The upper lid is now more steeply arched—most angles are greater than 45 degrees. The lower lid is closer to being straight across. White begins to appear below the iris, which appears more elliptical, wider than high. The bottom of the iris has now risen above the middle-of-corner line.

D. Upper limit. Limit of gaze is reached when the upper lid can open no further. Above this point the pupil would begin to be covered. Note the flatness of the lower lid; asymmetry of the two eyes—inner leg of eye on left is still less than 45 degrees (4); narrowing of iris ellipse; thickness of upper lid facing us more directly (5).

The Downward Gaze

When you depict someone looking downward, any number of things may be suggested—reading, reflection, resignation. Compared to looking up, the downward gaze is more comfortable and takes little effort to maintain. The chief problem for the artist is distinguished between the very similar appearance of the eyes looking down and the eye shutting.

The differing appearance of the two actions revolves almost entirely around the position of the lowTer lid. When looking down, the lower lid drops just enough to maintain a narrow gap between the lids, allowing room for the pupil to show. There is no muscle responsible for this movement; probably it is the eye itself that pushes the lid. As the lower lid drops, it begins to raise skin furrows below it, like a plow pushing up earth. Except for this instance, there is no other time the lower lid descends.

A good way to see this lower lid action is to look at yourself in a mirror and begin to tilt your head slowly back—your gaze will be forced to drop. Notice the crease that appears under the lower lid. This is the signature wrinkle for the action of looking downward, caused by the lid folding under itself. The further down you look, the deeper the wrinkle gets.

In drawing the lids, take care that they respond to the sense of the ball underneath. The upper lid starts from the inner corner with a straight part, then begins a full curve around the eyeball. The lashes show clearly and are often indicated. The lower lid will dip lowest just below the iris: if we look down and to one side, the low point will follow the iris along. We have a wider range looking down than up, so the variety of possible positions is much greater.

Looking Sideways

Having someone look sideways can also enliven a portrait. Like looking upward, it suggests an active sort of seeing. The further to the side the gaze goes, the more momentary the glance, for two reasons: the more extreme positions are hard to hold, and the head tends to follow the gaze. I've noticed that models have to make a special effort to hold their heads one way if their eyes are turned very far to another.

Compared to looking up or down, however, drawing the eye looking sideways is easier. But don't be misled by the apparent simplicity—nothing about the face is without its subtleties. Here, the shape of the eye changes, as the gaze shifts, from an oval with two narrow ends to an oval with one narrow and one blunt end, mostly owing to a rearrangement of the upper eyelid as the iris moves. When the gaze is straight ahead, the top of the upper lid's arch is in the center of the eye. But the high point moves with the iris when the gaze shifts to the side; it stays above the iris no matter where it goes.

Because the cornea sits like a permanent contact lens over the iris, making a tiny, transparent mound in the middle of the eye, the lids often get reshaped as they cross over the bulge. In looking to the side, the cornea adds extra lift to the upper lid.

The white space on either side of the iris helps us judge which way the eye is aimed. With straight-ahead eyes, the white space will be approximately equal on both sides. If the gaze is just slightly shifted to the side, drawing the eye to get the gaze exactly where you want it can be an exercise of maddening delicacy. Look carefully at the exact shapes of the white triangles bordering the iris on either side.

The iris also appears less circular the more it rotates away from us. Foreshortening narrows its width, exactly as it does when the head turns to a three-quarter view.

Looking Straight Ahead: Highligh ts and Focus

Even when we're calm and looking straight ahead, there are nuances to the eyes. When we change our focus from something near to something far, there is a slight rotation of the eyes. The irises move closer together and farther apart depending on how far away the point of focus is. The eyes point inward to focus on a nearby object: as the object moves farther away, they turn to point outward, and the irises separate.


The shifted gaze is one more way to make faces expressive. Sometimes moving the eyes alone will bring more life into a portrait. Much can be made over the effect of having the eyes looking one way versus another; it's often suggested that Manet's nude Olympia would have created far less of a sensation had she been looking any other way than directly out at the viewer.

The shape of the eyes as they move is irregular enough that we need to draw them repeatedly to learn the fine points of the changes in their form. Often a model will look in a particular direction only occasionally; if we want to capture that gaze, we need to fill out what we can gain from observation with what we already know.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
How To Become A Professional Pencil Drawing Artist

How To Become A Professional Pencil Drawing Artist

Realize Your Dream of Becoming a Professional Pencil Drawing Artist. Learn The Art of Pencil Drawing From The Experts. A Complete Guide On The Qualities of A Pencil Drawing Artist.

Get My Free Ebook


  • mehari
    How to draw eyes glance upward?
    2 years ago

Post a comment