Advanced Eye Painting

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Advanced eye painting techniques by Amy “MacGyver” Pensyl This article was originally written for the November 2010 JoeCanuck Newsletter based on MacGyver's customizing presentation at the 2009 Pennsylvania Joe Meet which can be viewed here.

MacGyver's eye tutorial video



One of the things I’m asked about most in customizing is how to paint eyes. I love eyes. They’re the first thing I notice about a person, I’m drawn to eyes in art, and I habitually doodle them on most pieces of paper in reach. The first time I really achieved a good eye on an action figure was a grand day indeed.

Like everything else in customizing, painting eyes just takes some practice. I think anyone can do this with some basic tips and patience. To practice, choose a head with a factory flesh color so you can clean the whole thing off and start over if it doesn’t look right. Because I’m obsessive, no matter how small the scale is, every eye has lashes, whites, an iris, a pupil, and that little white spot of reflected light. That seems like a lot to fit into that tiny space, but it works, and you can do it. You can probably get away with lashes, whites and a black circle for the iris. But really if you take it that far, a colored iris, black pupil and the gleam will really make your custom figure pop.



I use a 20/0 monogram/liner brush for most of my eye work. These have longer bristles than a regular round brush and it gives me a lighter touch. I also have a liner with just 3 bristles that I use for man-lashes (guys have eyelashes, too, y’know). To get a brush like this, just use a blade to trim all the bristles, leaving just a few in the center of the brush.


White, black, skin color, eye color and lash color. I generally use the same color for lashes as I do for eyebrows. Sigma 6 figures use a reddish brown color to line the eyes, so I stick with that for all my male Sigma 6 figures. You paint needs to be thinned to a consistency similar to ink that will let if flow easily from the brush with little pressure. Also be sure to keep your paint stirred for the best pigment.


For rinsing and priming your brushes. Dipping your brush in clean water and then blotting it on a paper towel before getting paint on it kind of primes the bristles and the paint will flow more easily.

Toothpicks and alcohol

A round toothpick with a very pointed end dipped in alcohol can be a huge rescuer. It acts like an eraser and will help you clean up lines very well. Indispensable! Someone at the Meet called it a “drunk toothpick.” You can also prime your brush with alcohol. This is helpful if you’re using a brush with fewer bristles where the paint might dry more quickly, like my 3-bristle brush. The alcohol will keep the paint fluid longer.

Number One Huge Tip Before You Start

The best tip I think you can get from this is: Less paint is not more. It’s easy when you’re working on a small eye to think that the less paint you have on the brush, the less mess you’ll make. I’ve found the opposite to be true. It’s very important that the paint flows easily from the brush and for that to happen you have to have enough paint. If you don’t, the paint will dry too quickly and you’ll have to go over the area again which increases your chances of messing it up. To get a feel for how much is enough, practice lines and tiny circles with your brush using light pressure until you can get a clean shape in one motion. Also remember to prime every dry brush with water or alcohol before you dip it in paint. You’ll find this idea of less-is-not-more helpful when painting lines, too.

Not enough or too little paint

Start with the whites

Make sure your monogram brush is primed and then load it with white paint. To “load” your brush, the bristles should be full, but not bulging, with paint. You should be able to lightly touch the tip of the brush to the inner corner and draw it along the shape of the eye and just let the paint to flow right where you want it. The whites are the most forgiving part of the eye and they don’t have to be perfect. If your edges aren’t as clean as you like or you’ve gone outside where the white should be, you can draw your drunk toothpick along the edge to clean it up. If you need to clean up an edge and the joining edge is also painted, don’t use the toothpick. Instead, you can go back at any time in the process with matching flesh color and clean up the edges. If you’re painting a female eye, chances are the thicker lashes will cover the imperfection. Let the whites dry.

Sigma Six Indiana Jones factory painted eyes.

Indy with factory painted eyes


Next step is your irises. It’s really important at this point to decide where you want the figure to be looking. Iris placement can really affect the expression of the face and it’s also important that both eyes are looking in the same direction. You don’t want a cross-eyed or lazy-eyed sniper! Most of my figures look straight ahead, so I place the center of the iris slightly above the center point of the white, so the top looks slightly covered by the upper eyelid, but the bottom is fully round. If you look someone in the eye you’ll notice that the very top edge is almost always covered by the lid. Again, with a primed, loaded brush, lightly touch the tip to the eye and move it in a small, quick circle to round out the iris. Paint should flow freely, filling in the circle. Small figures obviously barely require any movement of the brush if it’s loaded properly. Getting the iris the right size just takes a little practice…the iris should cover about half the white. If it seems too small, then just repeat, making it a little larger. Allow to dry.


This step is optional depending on how detailed you want to be. I like all my figures, big or small, to have pupils. I do pupils exactly the same way I do the irises, just making them smaller. Use black paint and position the pupil in the center of the iris. Pupil size varies, so just make sure you can still see a ring of color around it.

Make it Sparkle

Another optional step, but one that I almost never skip. Using the same monogram brush, I load it with white paint and quickly, lightly touch the tip to some point on the outside of the pupil. All you need is a tiny pinprick of white. I usually choose the upper right corner, but make it the same for both eyes. This little gleam really brings a figure’s face to life. Try it and then compare it to a figure without the gleam. You’ll see the difference it makes!

Adding that sparkle

Eye Lashes

Last are the eye lashes. Like I said at the meet, everyone has them, even guys! Without some definition like eye lashes, your figure will probably look…well, creepy. If you want, you really only need lashes on the top, but I usually put them on the bottom as well. For man-lashes I use my 3-bristle brush, primed with alcohol and enough paint. You can use the thicker monogram brush for female lashes for more definition. Start at the outside corner of the eye because the beginning of your line is going to be where the most paint ends up. In one smooth motion, draw the point of the brush along the edge of the eye without hesitating mid-line. Lashes are the touchiest part of painting an eye. Keep a sober toothpick (ha!) handy just in case you need to touch up the lash line along the edge where you’ve already painted the rest of the eye. Just lightly touching the point to the mistake is usually enough to lift the paint you don’t want there. Painting tiny lashes can be very intimidating, especially on 3.75 figures. I found rateeg’s tutorial (check for it on his site) to be really helpful and I use his method for most of my male eyes. Using his technique, you put down a base of the lash color before the white and then paint the white, allowing the edges of the darker color to show around it. This method is almost foolproof! If your figure has very good sculpt definition to the eyes, you can also use a tiny amount of shading ink or thinned paint to form lashes. Lightly run the tip of your brush along the sculpted crease where the white will be and let it dry completely. If you use too much, the paint will run onto the rest of the face. When you start with the white, let that color to show at the edge.

Indy with eyelashes

Indy finished close up.


So there ya have it. Painting eyes. Practice. Have fun. You’ll love the life it brings to your customs. -Mac-

Some additional examples of MacGyver's outstanding eye painting.

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