What is more elusive than a ghost during the daytime? The waterline in a photo…

Painting eyes is a complicated thing because our eyes are, well, complicated. One of the coolest things is that the eyeball is wet so that the eyelid can blink overtop of it easily. This leads to the bright, clear and defined white highlight that we see on the eye, typically right under the top lashes. Like here…

The light bounces strongly off the wet surface creating this very sharp, white highlight.

But for some reason, artists tend to overlook the secondary highlight that happens on the waterline.

What is that you say? Here…

Did ya miss seeing it before?

That is because typically we don’t see it in photos. I spent FOREVER trying to find photos with the waterline clearly in them. All I kept coming across were thousands of photos showing us how much makeup junk we need to put around our eyes before heading out to the grocery store- like below- but do you still see the tiny waterline highlight against the eye?

This one too… ha! See it now? You won’t be able to not see it anymore.

And in person the waterline is much more visible.

When talking about makeup or referring to cosmetics, the “waterline” is what they call the entire top rim of the bottom lid. There are many videos on UTube on how to put tons of eyeliner (like above) right on the “waterline” of the bottom lid. (Having daughters, I have learned this) This lid “rim” is actually NOT the waterline I am referring to- it is only the thin, wet pool of liquid that creates the highlight that sits at the meeting point of the eye as it sits against the rim.

Below it looks more like a literal line.

Of note-the lashes at the bottom of the eye are not near the eye at all. (another pet peeve of mine when I see this in portrait paintings) They grow out of the outer edge of the rim of the bottom lid. The inside of that rim is up against the eye which is wet and at that meeting point is the small channel of liquid that pools right up against it creating the waterline. So, in most lighting situations it creates a secondary highlight that flows along this rim. Below it is created at both the top and the bottom.

So sometimes it even looks like a very bright, white line. Typically, where the highlight is bouncing off the roundness of the eye, the waterline will be right below it, but the curve of that channel can push it around. Makes sense, right? Especially if you have taken my Law of Light class.

If you paint from photos, it normally does not show up in photo references. I am not sure exactly why. Perhaps it is just too small to show up in most photos, but it is one of those absentee “lies” that we have to watch out for in our own references. It cracks me up when I see paintings posted online of large, close-up portraits or large, detailed paintings of just one eye and there is no waterline. Oops!

Go look at someone near you right now… see it? OK, ok, go look at someone later today and while you are in a conversation with them you will see it. Become familiar with it and how it is always there. Watch for it on the cashier when you are checking out while getting groceries, a friend that is talking to you or even in the eyes of your dog! It is always there.

I was painting a model this past weekend. Even from across the room I could see it – that bright spark right underneath the main highlight- and yet in the photos I took of the model it disappears.

Cool huh? So don’t be too quick to paint that photo to death when creating a portrait. It may be holding out on you.

For more delicious unknown facts about painting a portrait, check out my upcoming workshops! I have lots more to share. More next week.



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