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Scratchboard Tutorial: Creating Photo-Realistic Eyes with Life and Soul

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

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Today I am talking all about EYES! The eyes are my favorite part of every single piece. I work on them first, when I'm fresh with a new piece, and take the most time with these specific details. I also believe that they can make or break a photo-realistic piece.

I am going to share with you the steps that I take to create photo-realistic eyes in my scratchboard wildlife artwork, share the tools I use for specific textures, and share video examples of each step.

Most of the scratching and layering that happens on the eyes is done with the small fiberglass brush. I layer very soft scratches with the fiberglass brush on one another to create a smooth texture.

The first image shows what the first layer of scratches usually looks like. I use the fiberglass brush at an angle to get the full flat edge, creating a wider 'scratch'. The scratches are created with very light pressure on the brush, so the layer remains dark.

Video example one - layer one, light fiberglass brush scratches.

I continue to scratch very lightly with the fiberglass brush - in multiple directions - creating multiple layers. I will use stippling to help smooth out areas that become too linear (i.e. I can see too many individual, parallel lines in the scratched area). Combining stippling and soft fiberglass brush strokes helps create a more uniform texture and value. Both are very light, soft, and slow strokes to avoid over scratching any one area.

The stippling was added to the bottom right side of the this image. Note how the two techniques blend nicely together and the line pattern is disrupted by the added dotting.

Video example two - stippling with soft fiberglass brush scratches

Once the base layer of scratching is in and I am satisfied with the overall 'smoothness' of it, I will then go back to the brightest areas of the eyes and start building up the values. This is still done with the fiberglass brush, but it is used with more pressure now to bring out white, instead of just the soft grey.

This step is also where I start to add precise lines or curves to areas of the eye - often on the side or near the bottom lid.

Video example three - building brighter values and creating curvature

Once the main part of the eye is scratched in and I am satisfied with the textures and values, then I go in with both the fiberglass brush and x-acto knife to put in the bright highlights - those bright white spots in the eyes that really give them soul. Adding the highlights at the very end is what brings the eyes to life, helps make them look shiny, and gives you the photo-realistic feel.

Video example four - start to finish on a sample eye

This is the end result from the video above.

Notice that I scratched in two different directions in the iris - from the outside in to the pupil and then in a curved stroke around the eye. Animal iris' often have a lot of texture and movement within them. I use scratches in different directions and ink pens to help add some of that texture in.

There are a few other important things to notice and consider when scratching photo-realistic eyes...the shadow that is cast by the upper eye lid and the whites of the eyes. The upper eye lid will pretty much always cast a shadow over the top part of the eye and including that detail will give your eyes depth. When scratching the whites of the eyes, remember that they will have shadow and dimension to them as well and shouldn't be fully stark white - that will distort the overall effect.

This leopard eye is a great example of other shadows that might appear on the eye. At the upper left, you will notice the shadow cast by the eye lashes. That detail may not be a deal breaker in the piece if you miss it or skip it, but it gives the artwork that much more interest and dimension when it is included.

This eye from a white tiger piece shows very clearly how I use stippling to create the eye lid texture directly next to the eye. For many animals, this area of the eye is usually dark and may look wet. I've found that stippling gives the best texture effect. I use the fiberglass brush for stippling and will add highlighted areas, larger dots, and the lid edge with an x-acto blade.

This is a ring-tailed lemur eye and it demonstrates a lot of what I've already discussed - the importance of shadows, varying your scratch direction, and highlights. This piece also shows how I use an ink pen to add details back in to my artwork - those black hairs surrounding the eye were added back during the scratching process.

Notice in this example, and several of the others, that I have scratched very lightly within the black pupil. The pupils are very rarely completely black and without any kind of reflection within them. Softening the edges or adding a little light to the pupils can be instrumental to achieving the photo-realistic eye.

Light, shape, and highlights are so important when creating realistic looking eyes. Take your time when scratching them in because they are so important to a successful piece!

More information about my tools: Fiberglass Brush or X-Acto Blade

For detailed descriptions of the techniques I used in these videos and examples, head here.

For even more about scratchboard: Frequently Asked Questions blog posts- Edition 1, Edition 2, Edition 3

Have fun creating eyes with scratchboard!!

Find your joy!



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