In this tutorial, we’ll discuss the basics of drawing cartoon eyes, how eyes work, and how you could use these concepts to develop and experiment with stylistic renditions of the eye.
For additional guidance, I recommend looking at live or photographic references, even if your goal is not to draw realistically or from life. A mirror can also be a great way to get a quick glance at proportions and how the face generally “works”.
1. Understanding Cartoon Eye Basics
Even when drawing stylistically, it is still important to note how the eye itself works. I like to think of this as a case of knowing the rules so you can effectively break them.
So, let’s start with the eyeball. Generally speaking, the eyeball is a spherical shape. Note, we are not necessarily talking about the eye as it normally looks on the human face—just the ball. Note the rounded surface here, indicated with some simple cross contours in pink.
However, we obviously don’t normally look at eyes this way—without eyelids and independent of the face. Why, then, should we consider the eye’s shape?
Well, I like to think about the relationship between eyeballs and eyelids much like fabric on an object—eyelids wrap around the eye. They are not flat or straight on the eye. Instead, they’re rounded, going around the spherical shape of the eye. This premise is illustrated in blue, below.
Take note of the upper and lower eyelid. The shape of the eyes and the eyelids will vary from person to person. Notice how the examples in blue, below, are not straight lines. They still keep the rounded nature of the eye’s surface in mind.
The iris is the round shape in the eye that typically has color. The pupil is the dark, round shape inside the iris. It expands and contracts, typically in response to light. Humans have round pupils, but you may see other shapes in different animals. Cats, for example, have slit-like pupils.
Generally speaking, eyes tend to be an equal distance apart, with about one eye’s distance in between. Again, this is in terms of realistic proportions—stylistic works may exaggerate these proportions.
Keep in mind, however, that “breaking the rules” can have mixed results! For example, larger eyes might turn out visually appealing, but eyes that don’t have a strong, visual relationship to each other could come off as unusual or visually awkward (unless that’s what you’re going for!).
While we’ll focus on cartoon eyes, in this tutorial, it’s also important to note the eyebrows. The eyebrow typically falls above the eye socket, on or near the brow ridge. Like the eyes, the brows can come in different shapes and sizes.
Take note of how these ideas affect the eyes when we change the angle in which we view the face. In three-fourths view, we see a little more of one eye than the other. In profile view, we primarily see one eye, but we see the eyelids from a different perspective.
2. How to Draw Simplified Cartoon Eyes
Cartoon eyes typically have less detail than a realistic rendition of the eye. How, then, do you know which features to include and which ones to omit? How do you draw in a way that still looks like an eye, but isn’t true to realism?
Personally, I find that the key is keeping in mind how the eye works. Your viewer will have preconceived ideas about eyes, how they should look, and where they should be on the face.
Below are three different, stylized approaches to eyes. Notice that, even though they are quite different, they all visually “read” as eyes on the character’s face. We can break plenty of rules here without necessarily losing that communicative quality.
So, why is that?
Well, at the most simple, communicative level, viewers often associate eyes with two circles on the face. That’s often a key part of drawing from a stylistic perspective—finding the balance that you like between communication and proportion. There is no right or wrong answer on that!
This idea of communicating in symbols is sometimes a barrier to overcome when trying to draw from sight (i.e. drawing what you “see” versus what you “know”). For example, look at the image below. We all “know” that eyes don’t actually look like this in our day-to-day lives. However, we recognize this as an eye. We know that this symbol represents an idea.
So, when drawing cartoon eyes, we can use both of these ideas—how the eye works and how to communicate this concept with the viewer. In fact, we can take these ideas and further use them to communicate things like emotions or even general character traits.
Here are some examples. The only difference between the two is the eyes. However, notice how the first example looks rather sad and innocent, while the second looks stern. Elements of art like scale and shape can help visually communicate concepts like this.
3. How to Draw Exaggerated Cartoon Eyes
Personally, I love drawing large, stylized eyes. Doing so can bring additional emphasis to that part of the character or composition. It can also change how your work communicates. Generally speaking, cartoon eyes tend to take advantage of exaggeration for expressive or aesthetic reasons.
Here are some basic examples of how the eye could be exaggerated to create emphasis or to further craft a stylized aesthetic. I tried elongating the eyes, enlarging the eyes, and shrinking/minimizing them.
Keep in mind that line, itself, can be quite communicative. For example, sharp or straight lines might convey a harshness, while flowing, curved lines could make for a much softer aesthetic. We can use this general idea to craft different aesthetic approaches to cartoon eyes.
The iris is arguably one of the most important parts of the eye—it’s generally where we look when we’re looking someone in the eyes! Likewise, it’s how we know where someone is looking. Our eyes generally look at the same spot, together.
Here are some different examples of how one could exaggerate this part of the eye. Each of these examples is identical, with the only variation in the iris.
Expressions are often exaggerated when drawing cartoon eyes, as well. As an example, let’s experiment with “surprised eyes”.
I associate surprise with being “wide-eyed”, so I’m going to start by putting emphasis on showing extra whites in the eyes. We could do this in a number of ways, like opening the eye wide or perhaps making the iris smaller. We can also use the eyelids and eyebrows to help push the emotion we’re trying to convey further.
So, how do you know what aspects to exaggerate?
Personally, I think it depends a lot on pushing the qualities we know and recognize to effectively communicate.
For example, think about what your face does when you smile. Your facial muscles likely move, which could affect the appearance of the eyelids. On the other hand, sad eyes might be partially closed or even tensed, if they are filled with tears.
As we discussed earlier, keep in mind that the eyelids “wrap around” the eye. They stretch and move, just like the other parts of the face. These aspects can also be exaggerated!
4. Bringing It All Together
Now, let’s take the information we’ve reviewed and bring it all together, step by step. We’ll work with three different examples here. Follow whichever you prefer, or use these concepts to develop and experiment with your own preferred aesthetic!
I normally like to think about expression before I start drawing. However, in the case of this example, we’ll start off with a neutral face.
First, start by laying out the basic proportions of the face. Remember, the eyes tend to be an equal distance apart. This is a good time to think about what aspects you’d like to exaggerate. Will you go with larger eyes? Smaller eyes?
Again, the eyeball is round and sits inside the eye sockets—the eyelids go around and on top. This is why they are typically portrayed with a rounded shape. You don’t necessarily have to visually include the entire eyelid (if at all), but keep in mind how this part of the eye works.
Here, I’ve drawn the eyeball in blue and then placed simple, curved lines on top to indicate where I think I’d like the eyelids to go.
Remember to consider which aspects you might like to omit. Perhaps you won’t include the bottom eyelid, or maybe you won’t differentiate between the iris and the pupil.
Freely experiment with this, but keep in mind that unless you’re drawing a character that breaks the rules, our goal is generally to associate with preconceived ideas and conventions. We want to visually communicate, strongly, that these are the character’s eyes.
One of my favorite things about drawing cartoon eyes is the freedom to experiment with what you want to emphasize and exaggerate. Let’s try a few different directions one could potentially take with this.
On the left, I tried adding a spiral pattern inside the eye.
In the center, I went with some abstract shapes and a large circle reserved for light hitting the eyes.
Finally, on the right, I opted not to include the pupil. Instead, I cut a piece out of the iris.
Let’s consider some finishing touches. Remember, we’re doing two things here: we are keeping in mind how the eye works, and we’re also keeping in mind that we can visually communicate the concept of “an eye”.
So, for example, simple lines visually “make sense” to represent eyelashes, even if that’s not how they actually look. We can exaggerate them to push a pretty aesthetic.
I’ve applied the same concept to other aspects of the face here.
As I mentioned earlier, I would normally take the expression into consideration from the very start. In this case, we worked with neutral expressions, just to experiment with the construction of the eyes.
However, let’s take a look at how some minor changes can alter how the face reads.
A happy face, for example, tends to be more than a smile. Note how keeping in mind the brows and eyelids can push the expression further.
The same applies to other expressions, like sadness or anger.
And There You Have It!
We’ve looked at several approaches to drawing cartoon eyes. Good luck creating and experimenting with your own take on eyes—remember, when in doubt, reference is a great place to start, even when drawing stylistically. Happy drawing!
If you enjoyed this tutorial, here are some others to check out!