The Ultimate Guide to Drawing Dog Eyes: How to Get the Basics Right so Your Rendering Doesn’t Fall Flat

In human portraiture, it’s been said that the eyes are the most important part. That’s no different with dog portraits! And there are lots of good tutorials out there about how to render eyes so that they look realistic, deep, and well lit— but none of that will help if you don’t get the shape, position and expression right first. That’s what this post is all about. I’ll show you 6 concrete methods to make sure you get everything down in the right place, so that when you apply rendering techniques you don’t accidentally create a tribute to Dave Devries’ Monster Engine.

Dog eyes are tricky because the different breeds have a much wider variety of facial shapes than you see in humans, so making “one rule” for where facial features sit in relation to each other is more challenging. The methods I’m going to teach you in this post will work for any breed, but will rely on your knowledge of that breed’s specific anatomy. For easy navigation, I’ve divided the subject into several sections: 1. Eye Position 2. Eye Size 3. Eye Shapes from Different Angles 4. Internal Eye Structures 5. Dog Eyelids

1. Eye Position

 

Before you start looking at details such as expression and shape, you need to define two key points: where do the dog’s eyes sit on the skull, and how big are they? We’ll start with location: the first thing to keep in mind is that a dog’s head is a round, 3D object, and what you’re trying to do is translate 3 dimensions into 2. Because of this, 3/4 views are the most challenging: one eye will be a different shape than the other, and they will be in a different positions relative to other identifying features, such as the eyes, ears, and edges of the head. Notice how the distance between the eyes and side of the head changes as he turns? Figuring out where the eyes sit in the front and profile view will help you figure out where they sit in other, more challenging angles. I advise starting here with your subject. Where are the dog’s eyes? 1. a) Vertical Positioning

Your dog’s eyes lie somewhere between the base of her ears (as seen from the front) and the top of her nose. As your dog looks up and down, the distances between nose, eyes and ears change. See how the space between the lines changes in these examples?

Even when your dog’s nose is at or above her eyes, her pupils still fall somewhere between the top of her nose and the base of her ears. You can see the same effect from the side.

The visual distance between her nose and forehead will shrink or elongate depending on foreshortening and perspective, but her eyes stay between the two. The Virtual Instructor has a great article here on drawing with foreshortening and perspective, but for a shortcut, try placing them around 2/3 of the way from her nose to her ears.
 
1. b) Horizontal Positioning
Horizontally, a dog’s eyes still sit between the outer edge of her nose and the base of her ears, but your visual cues will be different. Take a look at the examples below and think about how these relationships would change if the eyes were too close together, too far apart, or not properly centred.
 
 
Before moving on to more difficult 3/4 views, get comfortable with understanding how long your subject’s nose is and where her eyes sit between her nose and her ears, both from the side and from the front.
 

 

2. Eye Size

The size of a dog’s eyes will have a big impact on how viewers react to your subject. Big, round eyes are puppyish and cute. Small, angular eyes appear more focused. Do you want your subject to appear young? Old? Cute? Noble? Keep in mind, a strict carbon-copy of your reference material might be technically accurate but fail to delight.
 
Try playing around with size and see how the portrait’s personality changes. Learning to exaggerate features can be a helpful exercise even if your goal is realism.
 

 

3. Eye Shape

A dog’s eye shape is mostly caused by eyelids; in your reference material notice how they cup the eyeball itself and fold to stay out of its way. Dogs also have a third eyelid – it’s that weird white part you see when they’re dreaming.

 
Dogs are descended from predators, and so most of the time their eyes point forward, for better pursuit of prey. Some breeds, such as pugs and chihuahuas, have a more “bug eyed” appearance, so if you are drawing one of those breeds it’s worth making a note of where their eyes are pointing.
 
 
Regardless of breed, dog eye shapes are all variations on a theme. Their upper eyelid is always longer than their lower eyelid, distorting the otherwise almond-like shape and almost creating a triangle.
 
Eye Shape from the 3/4 View
With 3/4 views, things we know to be one shape become a different one when seen from an angle. This is a challenge even on geometric objects like cars and houses, never mind complex biological shapes like eyes.
 
 
From the front, dog eyes are almond shaped.
Foreshortened, that shape flattens to almost a diamond.
 
Keep in Mind:
  1. A dog’s head is round
  2. The eyes’ position relative to the ears and nose will change depending on where the dog is looking
  3. Unless the portrait is in a perfectly straight, front-facing position, the eyes will be different shapes
 

4. Internal Eye Structures

 
In order to make your dog’s eyes as realistic as possible, you’ll need to take into account the internal structures. Irises aren’t painted on the outside like the spot on a pool ball, but rather floating in the middle like a weird little frisbee.
 
You’ll also notice a bump directly in front of the pupil. This is from the lens, and it’s why you can see your friend looking around even through their eyelid when their eyes are shut.
 
Then you get to rendering! But that’s another post.
 

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