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Lesson 12: Eyes

Richard Nixon Eyes

Eyes: window to the soul

Of all the facial features, the eyes are the most complex, have the most character, and have the greatest number of moving parts. Contained within the bony orbit surrounding the eye is an amazing complex of muscular levers, pulleys, nerves and bony windows. The eyeball itself is a hydrologic engineering marvel.

We know if you look into a person's pupils, all you're looking at (physically) is a gel-like fluid, yet you sense so much more. Look "into someone's eyes" and you know what I mean; lines around the eyes' corners betray age and experience. Nothing conveys soul like the eyes. Just look in the mirror.

Still, for our purposes I think the most notable parts of the eye can be grouped, abstracted and minimized into a manageable, drawable entity - while still leaving room to capture each individual personality. By knowing how to render their most unique features, you'll be fast on your way to your goal.

The Plan

So here's the overall plan: we're going to start beneath the skin and move our way out. From pupil to tarsal plate, to lids and lashes: a quick anatomic overview. In fact, go ahead and click on this animation link and you'll get a general idea of what you'll be learning:

Click for an "eye construction animation"

And, as is customary now, you'll approach each lesson using Betty Edwards well-gleaned tools for shifting you directly into the artistic mode of your very own brain. You'll also see a link for the Eye's Master Link Page in all left hand column's of this lesson. In it you'll find an overview and brief summary of all the sections of this lesson. So let's go.

Anatomy: a quick overview

The two eye balls fit quite snugly inside the skulls' bony encasement, right there on either side of the nose. They're nestled in fat - which acts as a sort of biologic caulking keeping the two orbits firmly in place - yet still with an amazing amount of mobility.

A skull

The "Extraocular" muscles of the eye:

Each eye has 6 external or extraocular muscles: two for pulling the eye up and down ( 1 and 2: the superior and inferior rectus muscles), two for moving the eye left and right, (numbers 3 and 4: the medial and lateral rectus muscles) and lastly the obliques (5 and 6) for making the eye do all sorts of crazy things like crossing, rotating (you can fell this take place when you put your head sideways - the eyes want to remain oriented to the horizon). In combination they allow the eye it's full range of motion.

A front view of the eyeball


  1. Superior Rectus muscle - pulls eye up;

  2. Inferior Rectus - pulls eye down;

  3. Lateral Rectus - pulls eye towards your ear;

  4. Medial Rectus - pulls eye towards your nose;

  5. Superior Oblique - a little more complicated than just simple torque, but essentially moves the eye diagonally up;

  6. Inferior Oblique - diagonal movement down

  7. The Cornea (which has the pupil, the opening, in it's center) is in front of the iris: the colored part of the eye. Generally blue-eyed people have no pigment in their iris. ("Baby-blue" eyes are actually pigmentless. eyes. Many blue-eyed people have very fair skin too - which has less or lacks altogether pigment, which is why they burn so easily).

(I know for a lot you this might be a review. If not, don't worry - no one will ever quiz you on the eye's anatomy while you're drawing caricatures.)

Viewed from the side, the eyeball has a spherical to elliptical shape. The more elliptical your eye, the more far-sighted you are and the thicker your glasses.

Lateral view

  1. The Cornea: the small, delicate curvature at the very front of the eye. If you ever had a "corneal abrasion", this is what got hurt. The entire front of the eye is covered (save the cornea) with a thin membrane: the "conjunctiva". "Pink eye" is a viral or bacterial infection of the conjunctiva, also called "conjunctivitis".

  2. The lens (which is directly behind the pupil and the iris, is where cataracts show up, generally from the calcifying of the gel-like center).

  3. The Vitreous Humor ("Humor" just means fluid...of course people say "he/she has laughing eyes" - maybe they just have lots of vitreous "humor" in their eyes. Sorry, bad joke.)

  4. The Optic Nerve - which is really a bundling of all the nerves from the back of the eye, more specifically from the retina.

So, so far we have the orbit, i.e., the actual eye itself, the bones it's protected inside of, and a few of the muscles which move the eye. That's just for background.

A real quick eye exam

For drawing's sake, there's a a few more things we got to pay attention to. In fact, just for fun I'll take you through a real partial eye exam - it just fits so well with this chapter. If you came in to the emergency department and you were having eye pain and I was the one doing the exam, the first thing I'd have to note on my exam (other than that you can see - that's the most important) is what I see.

Next, I'd be writing (I hope) "Perrla" which means "pupils equal, round and reactive to light bilaterally" - (heroin makes for teeny, tiny pupils; a drink the night before your exam makes for pupils slightly smaller than normal, marijuana and cocaine give you "beeners" - or dilated pupils). Then I'd write "EOMI" : extra-ocular muscle movement intact (all the muscles you saw above are working and your eyes are going round and round.)

What I'd write next on my "PE" (physical exam) would be: "Lids, Lashes, Lacrima" and I'd make a note about them. I know, pretty obviously "eyelids", "eyelashes" and "tears" (lacrima - maybe not so obvious, from the Latin, as in "lacrimal gland". In fact, in Spanish to his day they use "lacrima" to refer to tears.) So that's all the farther I'll go into the exam for now.

I hope you were fascinated by that little mini-detour. What I'm trying to introduce is the "Lids and Lashes". To help me do that take a look at the Rodney Dangerfield eyes below, or Nixon's eyes above and try to visualize the anatomy you've learned about so far. (Bette Davis you're next.) Go to part two for "Lids and Lashes"

Rodney Dangerfield eyes

Go to part two for "Lids and Lashes"

Eye's Master Link Page

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