How to Paint Realistic Tiger Eyes in Acrylic

The eyes are the most important part of any wildlife painting. In my opinion you must dedicate the most time to the eyes.

Painting the eyes bright and full of life can turn a good painting into a fantastic one that captivates and draws in the viewer.

The secret to painting realistic eyes are the subtle details that most of us don’t even see. By utilising these and putting them all together it make such a big difference to the final appearance of your painting.

How to Paint A Realistic Tiger’s Eye

  • Tone your surface with watered down brown paint
  • Roughly block in the dark lines with black paint
  • Block in very dark base colours with burnt umber and black
  • Add a line of saturated burnt umber where black and white fur meet
  • Various mixes of white, black and yellow ochre for the white fur
  • Leave gaps between your light fur to add layering and depth
  • Add shadows to the iris when dry using thinned down paint
  • Add some blue to the reflections to give the impression of the sky

Before I start I study my reference material closely, I look at the shadows and highlights I look at the shapes and structures of the eye and most importantly I look at the edges specifically whether they are hard of soft.

Most beginners draw with thick dark lines, giving everything a hard edge even in places there isn’t one. By softening up some of the edges in places and getting rid of those sharp hard lines it can add more depth and realism to your work. So visualising where these are is key.

You can watch the full process of this guide on the Studio Wildlife YouTube channel.

Drawing out the eye

I start by applying a thin wash of burnt umber paint mixed with water for a base tone. I have used graphite pencil to draw out the shape of the eye first.

Next I begin to draw out the dark lines of the eye using black paint. I don’t mind using the black straight out of the tube at this stage because I will be glazing lots of colours over the top later.

I am using an average sized round brush, I am not looking for details but I want enough control to add the darks where I want them to be.

Blocking in the Basic Shapes

Next I block in the darkest colours of the eye using a mix of black, raw umber and yellow ochre. I paint the entire iris this colour as it will act as a base layer for the rest of the painting.

I block in the brown fur around the eye next.  Again I am just using the round brush because I am not aiming for any detail. I am using a mix of burnt umber and black for this part. I use less water as I want the paint to be less transparent.

Wherever there is going to be white fur next to black , I want to transition the two by adding a line of saturated colour, in this case burnt umber. I feel this adds to the realism of the eye and gives it more depth.

Next I am blocking in the darker white areas above and below the eye. For this stage I use a mix of black, yellow ochre and white. I want a dark yellowy grey to act as the base layer for the white fur I will paint later.

I move on to blocking in some rough stripes above the eye using black paint. I am not focusing on details just blocking in the basic shapes. Sometimes I use my fingers to wipe away of blend in paint when I use too much.

Next I brighten up the iris using layers of burnt umber and yellow ochre, here I am just trying to establish a base for the colours and tones than I will work on top of later.

I use blue mixed with the yellow and brown to add some green tones then build up more details using a small detailed brush.

Painting the Area around the Eye

It is at this stage that I go on to refine the shape of the eye slightly adding the black and grey highlights of the eye socket.

Next I begin to paint the skin underneath the eye, this is an area of the tiger with no fur and it has an almost leathery appearance. I am using mixes of blue, black and white on a small detail brush to add the bumps and pores found on that section of the eye.

 I add a touch more white for each subsequent layer making sure never to go passed a dark to mid grey. I don’t want it to appear too light.

I use pure black but watered down to glaze some of the darker lines and shadows over the rest of the eye again I use the detail brush as I want to be as accurate as possible.

The White Fur below the Eye

I move on to the white fur underneath the eye. I have switched brushes and now I am using a small angled brush. I’m using the same mix of yellow ochre, burnt umber and black but I have now added some white so that I can paint the lighter fur.

 Notice how I am leaving gaps between some of the strands to let some of the darker layers show through. This is really important when aiming for realistic fur.

I add some dark marks back in as I covered too much of the base layer with my lighter marks.

I repeat this process gradually getting lighter with each layer building up the fur making sure to leave those gaps for the darker layers. I keep on adding more and more white until I get to my lightest layer.

This is where I use the detail brush to add the finest hairs. I never use pure white this final layer is actually a mid to light grey colour.

I then glaze some burnt umber over the edge of the fur using very watered down paint to add that saturated transition point I mentioned earlier.

To add to the realism I like to paint back in some of the darker lines again to overlap the whiter fur and give the appearance of multiple layers, I use the small detail brush to do this. Sometimes the lighter fur gets dulled down when I do this step so I just add a few more lighter strands once the dark layer has dried.

Painting  the Iris

I move back to the iris now. I actually think this is the most important part of the painting. If you can get the eyes bright and full of life it can really add something special to your painting.

I build up the colours in the eyes using various glazes of yellow ochre, burnt umber and burnt sienna. The bottom of the iris is brighter as this is where the light usually hits at least that’s where it was hitting on my reference photo. The top part of the eye is darker as this is where the shadow cast by the brow would be.

Before I move on I thought I would mention that this piece is part of a commissioned set of paintings that I am working one and the reference for this particular piece was very kindly provided by an American photographer called Michelle Coble.

Make sure when you are painting from reference you are using your own photos, royalty free photos or you have asked the photographer for permission to use their work.

Any way back to the painting, I am just building up the colours and tones using the small detailed brush I work in lines to give the impression of the structure of the iris, I am not being hyper realistic and painting everything just giving the impression of the tiny details.

White Fur above the Eye

Now I move on to the white fur above the eye, I start by painting some black lines in the direction I want the fur to go in.

 I then apply some hairs using the same angled brush and yellowy grey paint as before making sure to leave some of those dark layers showing through.

 I repeat this process adding slightly more white to my paint mix each time to add the lighter fur.

The Final Touches

For the final touches to the eye I use a thin wash of raw umber to add the shadow underneath cast onto the iris by the brow. It is very important that you think about light and shadow when you are painting eyes to make them look as realistic as possible.

Next I am adding in the regions of highlights, these are the reflections seen in the eye. I start with a mid grey that is about the same tone as the light parts of the eye.

I add a bit of white to this to create slightly lighter spots and a slight blue glaze to give the impression of the sky being reflected in parts of the eye.

I do a few final touch ups glazing some shadows around the eye and then I am ready to call it finished.

The Final Result

Here is the finished eye, as I said it is part of a much larger painting so quite a lot of this eye will be painted over with snow.

Here is the finished painting as you can see the eyes are such a tiny part of the picture but adding all of the subtle details can really add life to the painting.

Thank you for reading and I hope you’ve found this helpful. If you’d like to know more about my process why not check out the full video of this painting being created on Youtube!

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