Introduction: Sculpting a Character With Realistic Eyes.

About: I'm a professional visual effects artist, but also a keen sculptor, painter and crafter!

This will show the basic process to create realistic eyes and then sculpt a head from polymer clay using them. In this example I will use Super Sculpey original, which I've found gives good results. We begin with making, painting and finishing the eyes, moving on to building basic shape, adding in a face roughly, then building in an expression and ending by adding in the fine details.


  • Polymer clay e.g. Sculpey
  • Acrylic paints
  • Clear nail varnish (or similar clear craft varnish)
  • Cocktail sticks
  • A basic stand (dowel and a base)
  • Tin foil (optional)
  • Basic sculpting tools
  • Knife or blade
  • Cutting mat or work surface
  • Paint brushes
  • An oven

Step 1: Creating the Eyes

Roll small amounts of sculpey into balls. They don't have to be perfect spheres but it is useful to have pairs of similarly sized ones.

Place cocktail sticks or other sticks into the pairs of eyeballs, but not all the way through (this will make them easier to paint).

Place these on a baking tray into a preheated oven at 135C/ 275F for 15 minutes. After the time, turn the oven off to let them cool down slowly.

Step 2: Painting and Finishing the Eyes.

Once out you can stand these in upright in clay or blu-tack for ease of painting. First apply multiple layers of white paint.

Follow this with the iris colour, as you can see, it works best to mix multiple shades and have the outer iris darker than the centre. Then carefully paint in the pupils with a black paint.

Now for the special trick! apply clear varnish or clear glossy nail varnish heavily onto the eye balls. Try especially to leave a large smooth blob on top of the iris. This gives the effects on the lens of a human/animals eye.

Apply 3-6 coats, waiting to dry in between layers, until completely glossy and the lens is thick. Wait for these to dry and they can then be used in your sculpt!

Step 3: Starting Your Sculpt

Begin with a base, this can be a vertical dowel, just there to place the head on to allow for easy sculpting.

Make a small ball of tin foil on the top of the dowel, this will help prevent the head sliding down the dowel and also bulk out the base with cheap foil instead of expensive clay.

Break your block of clay into small chunks, balls or sausages work just as well. and then cover the whole shape with clay.

Adding more clay and begin to form it to get a general shape for the head.

TIP: Get multiple reference photos for the kind of head you are aiming to create, here I was making a very humanoid character. A variation of human and animal reference is very useful, even when making more abstract and fantasy characters or creatures. Constantly refer to these while sculpting for more realistic results.

Roughly plan the centre of the face, and where the eyes and mouth will go, and then create holes for the eyes, You may have to use a sharp tool to indent through the foil base. Embed the eyes, taking time to try and make them as even and facing the same direction as possible.

Begin to add clay, in sausage form to build up the brow, cheeks and nose bone, referencing a skull picture helps give a good idea of the shapes around the eye sockets.

TIP: The eyes and brow often are only just above half way down the face vertically, its a common mistake to place them too high, making a small forehead.

Step 4: Facial Features; Eyelids

Indenting lines for the mouth and ones coming from the eyes along the cheeks, and cheek to chin represent the muscles and facial anatomy.

TIP: When beginning, sculpt a blank expression to see symmetry and general form more easily and then add the expression later, but before adding detail.

Begin with the eyelids, again using reference photos or even a mirror for your own face! They don't have to be too perfect yet as detail will be added later.

TIP: in general, is is rare to see the tops of a persons iris, unless they are staring or surprised. This can be a common mistake making characters look 'creepy' when unintentional.

Step 5: Facial Features; Nose & Mouth

Next comes the nose using a sausage as the main part and then two smaller shapes for the nostrils, smoothing out and morphing into the desired shape, adding the nostril holes, going upward as opposed to straight into the centre of the head.

Now for the mouth, one of the trickiest parts, use a flat piece of clay and cut to shape beneath the nose, then use a blade to cut away the shape of the top lip, try to avoid adding a sausage on the top lip as it can make it look like your character is pouting. A thick sausage can be added for the bottom lip though, and then carefully smoothed at the edges to connect it to the face.

Step 6: Facial Expression

For this character I opened the mouth wide for a shouting expression, this meant the cheek bones become more defined, the sides of the mouth strained and stretched and the eyes squint more, the brow furrowed.

What this means is the mouth shape becomes more circular and the chin lower. You can use a tool or finger to create the hole for the mouth, add thin sausages vertically either side connecting beneath the eyes to define the cheeks. Smoothen the inner mouth.

Thicker sausages can be carefully placed horizontally along the top and bottom jaw in the mouth for teeth. and then a fine sharp tool can be used to cut the shape of each individual tooth. A small flat circle can be added inside the mouth as a tongue.

TIP: One way to help check the overall shape and the symmetry of a sculpt is to think about its silhouette, or outline. Look at your sculpt from different angles, straight on, side on, from above etc. Ignore anything within the face and just check the outline it creates. Check for symmetry and compare parts of the outline against reference photos.

TIP: For checking how the face distorts in various poses, using a mirror and creating the face yourself can be a really good point of reference.

Step 7: Facial Features; Ears

The ears in this project were made large and hobbit-like, but still human reference was used for realism. The lobes attach just above where the jawline meets the skull. The shape of a real ear can look very complex but first get the over all shape, then the ear hole and build each crease from there, referencing a photography.

TIP: Ears are not vertical on the head and do not stick out flat, they should be pushed back and slanted backward more.

Step 8: Details

Now for the finishing touches, the detailing, fine tools can be used for wrinkles. draw in the biggest ones first, then smoothing with a finger and going over the same line again with the tool, repeat for a more natural and less 'carved in' effect.

Take note of where creases and wrinkles lay in photos graphs or real reference. Older characters' wrinkles are far more pronounced, but even children will have lines around the eye lids and creases when they pull expressions for example on the forehead or around the mouth.

It can be useful to reference a more wrinkled person, putting those wrinkles into your own sculpt and then smoothing to a point where they are barely visible but still add character and subtle detail.

More detail is then worked on, creases above the eyes were added due to the shouting expression, but are often far less visible. Eye bags were defined, and time was spent especially around the detail for the eyelids.

TIP: We are drawn to look into the eyes of a person or character, so more time should be focused around this area especially. We are all experts in knowing when eyes don't quite look right, but without realising.

Notice how there are no defined wrinkles where the skin is being stretched over the skull, such as over the cheek bones or on the top of the head. Large creases are made at the back of the neck and below the jaw.

Step 9: Final Sculpting Steps

A neck was added during this stage. As you can see, thick, flat sausages make up the muscles and tendons that appear from the base of the skull, behind the ears, come around the throat and connect in the centre of the chest above the sternum. These are far more pronounced in skinny characters or when the character stresses them, for example in a scream or grimace expression.

Once the general shape was made it was the cut to have a flat base, this is so the sculpt can stand up by itself without the dowel, after the sculpt is finished.

This point is a good time to add things to your character, such as hair, horns, piercings, and clothing etc. you can play around with these and then add on top of your existing sculpt.

Now after this time you should reach a point where you are happy with your sculpt! One of the struggles can be knowing, or choosing, when to stop. You will always spot problems and could continue for a long time on a sculpture after necessary.

Step 10: Cooking and Finishing

The final step is to bake your sculpt to harden the polymer clay, so it could then be painted, if you desire. Reference you specific clay's instructions. Polymer clays can crack easily if overbaked, especially on thin areas, so i would recommend being careful to not go over the recommended time or temperature. For this sculpture I put it in at 130C or 275F for 20 minutes, then turning the oven off but leaving the sculpt in for a further two hours until it had fully cooled.

Another causes of cracking would be the clay cooling too quickly after being cooked. For this reason I would recommend if possible to leave it in the oven after it has been turned off and letting it cool with the oven down to room temperature over a couple of hours.

Once you take it our the oven you can display it, paint it, adorn it, gift it. And then begin on the next...

Thanks for reading, I would love to see what you come up with!

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