Art Theory: Grey Eyes

In mythology, the goddess Athena was said to have “grey eyes.” Not because her eyes were actually the color grey, but because grey eyes represented a certain style of visage. Calm, steady, unnerving, wise, powerful, resolute. Like a cloudy sky.

This is artwork of the goddess Athena in the mobile game Puzzle and Dragons (which I’m currently addicted to), and I feel like she conveys the concept of grey eyes very well. Her art hits all the right notes. Her face has that charisma about it which is hard to describe. Her pose is angled so that she’s not leaping into action, but it’s still kinetic enough that she’s pushing forward through space.

After I read about this, I became curious. How might one draw a character in such a way that they could be described as “grey eyed”? What components need to go into the artwork to make that happen? It’s such a nebulous concept, but the end result can really be felt. There are plenty of ways to draw characters who are angry or sad, but I have no idea how to draw a character who has that style of quiet determination. Not loud and garish, but still somehow strong enough to make people think “I need to pay attention.”

It’s so hard, because “determination” naturally looks very similar to a face’s base resting state. Neutral mouth, open eyes, forward gaze. Try to make a determined face in real life. How does that even feel? How would you portray determinationonto your expression? Does it even end up looking different from a bored or apathetic expression? It’s hard, and I don’t know how to do it. So I decided to study a bit more and try to nail down how to create a grey eyed look.


Like any Japanese game, Athena can evolve into different forms in Puzzle and Dragons, and these alternate forms are really interesting to look at because even though they are all clearly depicting the same character, they kind of lose the grey eyed feel. Chariot Athena just tosses the whole thing out the window. Flying-magic-spear Athena kind of brings back the grey eyes, but not as well as the original artwork does in my opinion. But despite that, they are all exactly the same character. Nothing really changes about her, except a few little details with her outfit.


Here’s another set of characters to look at. The two on the left were drawn by me, and are depicting different characters. The one on the right is an alternate version of the centermost character that another artist drew in an attempt to match my style. How do grey eyes work with these characters?

I felt that the centermost character that I drew had grey eyes going on. She has that kind of expression. It’s not really anger, and it’s not really intimidation. But there’s determination, and coldness, and a strong resolve. Like a piercing gaze. The fascinating thing is, the dude on the left just doesn’t seem to have those characteristics, even though they were both drawn with the same style. I almost feel like the left dude is kind of tired, weary. Almost brooding, but not quite as melancholy. And the dude on the right just loses the grey eyes completely. The squint makes him look angry, pissed off, annoyed, disturbed.

The ridiculous thing is that I wasn’t even thinking about grey eyes when I drew the characters. So I don’t really know how I made the centermost character look that way. But one thing I do remember is that while I was drawing her, I drew inspiration from Sandra Bullock’s appearance in the film Gravity. Yes, I know that the character looks nothing like Sandra Bullock, but it just kind of felt that way to me at the time.

Does Sandra Bullock have grey eyes in Gravity? Sure, she has her moments. There are times when she really pulls herself together and brings out the bravery to do all the crazy things she does. And then there are times when she breaks down out of fear. It’s just that kind of movie. In this specific shot, I’d say she doesn’t really have the eyes, but I can’t find a shot that does.

On the other hand, here’s a character who really looks like he’s got grey eyes going on. This is a promotional picture of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v Superman film (which I’m super hyped about). Lex Luthor is usually portrayed as a cackling evil maniac, but I really like how he looks in this film. It’s not a malicious look, it’s not an evil look, it’s not how we normally think villains look. At the same time, it’s not overly melancholy, it’s not meditative, it’s not contemplative. It’s determined and resolute and powerful. It’s a man with a plan, and he knows there’s a rocky road ahead but the thought of turning back hasn’t crossed his mind. Those eyes are pretty grey.

This is a good starting point to work off of. In general, character art works better when you start from reality. Of course, there’s a whole realm of stylization, but it’s nice to start stylizing based off of reality. Luthor has a lot of small details that help sell his grey eyed look. What are those small details, and how could they be embellished and emphasized to create a stylized grey eyed character?

Part of me is really attached to the way his left eyelid hangs over his eye (I’m using “left” from viewer’s perspective). His right eye just looks too open and bright for me to feel weight behind it. At the same time, go too far and you just get characters who are squinting. You can see that Luthor isn’t squinting. His brow isn’t furrowed in anger. Whatever anger there is, it’s broiling beneath the surface rather than bursting out. It’s subdued rather than obvious.

His head looks like it’s tilting slightly forward (forehead forward, chin down to chest). Not very much, but just a little bit, and I think that a subtle tilt definitely contributes to the grey eyed look. All of the Athena evolutions had their heads tilted forward, and my center character had a tiny bit of tilt going on.

On the other hand, Batman in Arkham Knight seems to take it too far. Even if you cleared out the brow furrowing (which seems like it’s practically carved into his cowl), his frown pushes his appearance away from “grey eyes” and more towards “I’m going to beat you up until you can’t move.” But if his mouth was a little more neutral, like Luthor’s mouth above, I think he would be pretty close to getting a grey eyed look.

So far, all that I’ve really got is a slight downward tilt, a neutral mouth (leaning towards a frown), and an unwrinkled brow. Eyes need to be in their natural state, with no squinting or widening, so something else needs to hang over the eye and act as a pseudo-furrow, because the eyebrow has to be clear. It’s a fine line, and there are plenty of ways to screw it up. Tilt too far, squint too much, frown too strongly. Still, I hope I can draw grey eyed characters with a little more intent behind them now.

One response to “Art Theory: Grey Eyes

  1. All the grey eyes are tilted but standing still showing readiness but not action yet

    How do you make someone look prepared? I guess from this article I would give them a feeling of ready to move plus neutral mouth

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