DIY IDEAS: Hand-Painted Dragon Eyes

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DIY IDEAS: Hand-Painted Dragon Eyes

When I first learned how to make these eyes I was very skeptical that some fingernail polish and virtually zero artistic talent could succeed at making something that looked as detailed, intricate, and complex as an eyeball – dragon or otherwise. Still – they looked like too much fun not to at least try it and the results were surprisingly awesome so let's get started!


Step 1: Assemble the Supplies:

My workspace and tools

  • Glass cabochons
  • A towel or paper towels
  • Black paint or fingernail polish
  • 2-4 Colors of non-glittery fingernail polish in varying tones
  • 1-2 Colors of glittery fingernail polish in complementing colors
  • ModgePodge or other sealing/finishing medium
  • Small paint brush (for the ModgePodge)
  • 1-2 scratching tools

Choosing cabochons: Pretty much any glass cabochon will work but some do work better than others. For example, you can use the glass beads that you buy in bulk for fish tanks and vases but they're not symmetrically round or all the same size so you'll get a much more realistic effect from a nice round cabochon, especially if you want to make pairs of matching eyes. Another downside of those glass beads is that they have ripples in the surface on the back which are going to show up in the finished eye and make scratching difficult as well. You can find smooth, perfectly round glass cabochons at craft stores but as someone who went to three major national US chain craft stores I can tell you that you'll find a much larger selection and better price for them here on than you will in any store.

My collection of nail polish colors

Paint vs. Fingernail Polish: You can use either and I'm not entirely sure it even matters as far as the finished product goes but I will tell you the three reasons that I prefer fingernail polish.

  1. It's cheap. You can get fingernail polish at the dollar store and that's assuming you don't already have a dozen or more bottles in your bathroom.
  2. Every color comes with its own paintbrush so you don't have to worry about buying brushes, cleaning them between uses, having enough brushes for a big variety of colors, or even pouring paint onto a plate or palette.
  3. VARIETY! The thing that really makes these eyes pop is the few layers of shiny or glittery color and there is a uniqueness in fingernail polish that you really can't find in paint. Even metallic or glittery paints just don't seem to get the same sheen that fingernail polish has.

The colors I used for this tutorialChoosing colors: If you have a big enough selection or if you're planning on going shopping then the best way to do this is to try and figure out what color of eye you want to make and then choose your colors around that theme. For example, if you want a green dragon eye you'll probably want several shades of green ranging from medium to dark, along with a glittery green for your base color, a glittery gold, and perhaps a nice bright yellow for some real pop around the pupil. Off-setting colors is always good as well such as putting oranges, reds, and yellows all into a single red eye or adding blue and silver to a purple eye.

Scratching tools: I like to have at least two different tools so that I can get different layering effects as I go through the colors. A sharp pointy tool is essential – something like an ice pick or an awl is ideal. For the second tool, I like to use a wedge shape which is commonly found in wood-carving sets but an exacto knife seems to me like it would work just as well, or perhaps the corner edge of a razorblade.

You'll notice in the pictures that I have several other tools or items that I didn't list above. These are optional and make the project easier but aren't required:

  • A small, cheap, glass picture frame with graph paper inside
  • Small dabs of modeling clay or silly putty
  • White fingernail polish

Once you get good at pupils you can try your hand at scratching a tiny hole just slightly off the center of the pupil and filling it in with a dab of white fingernail polish to create a 'glint'.
So, now that we have our supplies together, let's get started!



Step 2: The Pupil

A glass cabochon with a slit and feathered pupilIf you're using the graph paper then you'll want to outline or select a square area that is roughly the same size as your cabochon. Place the eye flat side up on that square and center it. Position yourself right over the cabochon so you can look straight down through it as you apply the paint for your pupil and use the lines that you see through the glass to help center and distribute your paint evenly but be sure to hold the edges steady with your thumb and forefinger to keep the cabochon from moving or turning on you while you're painting on it.

There are lots of ways to do a pupil; round or elongated or slit like a cat's eye, solid edges or feathered, etc. I'm going to go over how I made the eye shown in these photographs. First, I made sure I had enough paint on my brush to apply a little puddle on the cabochon but not too much because I didn't want to lose control over the application of the paint. I started at the center and worked my way up and down from there to create a slit. Next, I took my awl or ice pick and carefully scratched it through the paint starting at the center of the pupil and dragging outward while the paint was still wet. This created the feathered effect that you see in the pupil.

As the paint dries (which fingernail polish tends to do quickly) you might notice bald spots in the pupil where you've scratched. This is okay! Just add a dab more paint to those areas as needed and keep scratching until you get your pupil where you want it.
Rookie Mistake: When I did my first few eyes and when a few other new beginners did theirs, the common first mistake is to make the pupil too big. It's not a terrible thing if this happens to you. Remember that pupils expand in low light so think of your big pupils as belonging to an animal with excellent night vision and move on. You'll likely end up scratching a lot of that paint away later and it's not worth throwing the whole piece out (because that was my first instinct but I forced myself to finish it anyway and I ended up loving it).


Step 3: The Iris

Glass cabochon with the black feathering around the outer edge addedFor this first step you want to ensure that you have very little paint on your brush – I'm talking, you want to be questioning whether or not it's even leaving any paint on your cabochon. You're going to be taking your brush and very lightly applying a thin feathering of paint around the outermost edge. I call it feathering because, when done best, it's not going to be smooth edges, it's not going to be evenly distributed, and it's going to be mostly see-through. It's best to just lightly fleck the tip of your brush along the edge of the cabochon all the way around and because you 're applying so little paint, you can begin scratching right away!

Using your awl or ice pick, start scratching about half-way between the pupil and the edge of the glass. Yes, where there's no paint at all. Scratch it out, away from the pupil and toward the edge until you drag it through that thin layer of black. Repeat this all the way around and the faster and more uneven you can get yourself going with it, the better. You're going to notice that some of the paint you scratch from the outer edge will stick to the tip of your awl and then deposit itself back onto the glass in the clear area between the pupil and the edge. I call this transference and it's a good thing. Don't worry if it doesn't happen but don't panic if it does either. You're going to be scratching away most of the paint – the idea is to leave thin lines of paint behind, random and staggered and imperfect.

Glass cabochon with pinkish purple feathering added around the outer edgeFor my next layer I used a medium pinkish-purple color and, again, made sure that there was very little paint on the brush. I used the same feathering technique that I'd done with the black in the previous step, going all around the outer edge with it almost exactly as I'd done with the black before but bringing it in just a smidge closer to the pupil. Immediately after I'd applied the paint I took up the awl and scratched most of it away again.

Glass cabochon with medium blue paint added around the outer edgeLayer three involved a medium blue paint which I applied slightly thicker than the previous two layers and brought in slightly closer to the pupil all the way around. Without waiting for the paint to dry, I used the pointy-corner of a wedge-shaped tool and scratched away at it once more. As you can see, my eye was already starting to take shape.


Glass cabochon with light purple added around the pupil and silver added around the edgesFor the fourth layer, I applied a really pale purple around the outer edge of the pupil. You can cover the entire pupil if you want to but I prefer to leave the center showing black so that I don't get too carried away while scratching and scratch too close to the center. This pale color can also be a sharply contrasting color like bright yellow in a green or red eye. It should be applied over the feathery part of the pupil where you scratched in step one and maybe just slightly beyond that toward the edges but only slightly. Let this dry for a bit because the wet paint will re-wet the black and if you scratch too soon you'll get a kind of muddied effect in your pupil.

While waiting for the center to dry, I went ahead and applied a layer of shiny silver around the outer edge; again, painting almost exactly as I'd done with the medium blue but pulling in just a bit closer to the pupil. Without waiting for this paint to dry I took up the pointy awl and scratched outward through both the light purple and the shiny silver but being very careful not to get too carried away and damage my pupil. If that does happen though, you can always go back in with a little dab of black and fix it up a bit. Just be sure to let that black dry for a good 5 minutes or more before this next step.

Step 4: The Base 
Glass cabochon with dark blue paint added from the pupil to the outer edgeIt's kind of funny that I think of this as the base because usually a base coat is the first thing you paint but with these eyes we're actually working in reverse making the base coats almost the last thing we do. My first base coat consisted of a dark somewhat shiny blue color which I painted over the eye from the outermost edge of the pupil all the way to the outermost edge of the glass and, using the corner of the wedge-shaped tool, scratched it away without even waiting for it to dry. This is where those paper towels come in handy because you'll need to clean your tool off periodically as you go. Letting some paint build up on the tool can be nice for more transference like we did in the beginning but too much will cause the paint to peel away instead of scratching and you may not like the way that looks.

Glass cabochon with light shiny blue added over the whole surfaceMy next base layer was a very shiny light blue color. This was very similar to the silver but the paint itself is so transparent that the glitter took on a rather pinkish look as I was applying it to the eye. This was unexpected but ended up making for a really nice contrast effect. Sometimes getting unexpected results from your paint can be really great! One thing I will say, some glittery nail polish has big flecks of glitter in it. I don't like the way that works and I avoid using it on eyes because those big chunks of glitter tend to flake off and leave large unsightly gaps instead of the nice scratching effect we're going for. I used this light blue shiny color over the entire eye including the pupil because it's transparent enough that I could still see where my pupil needed to be. I let it dry pretty well before using the awl to scratch away and this time I went for a staggered effect, starting at the innermost edge of the pupil and going all the way to the outer edge of the eye for three or four scratches and then doing a scratch where I started in the middle of the iris (farther away from the pupil) and scratched to the outer edge. The most important thing is to always scratch from the pupil out, regardless of how close to the pupil you start. You never want to scratch from the edge of the cabochon toward the center because you could damage your pupil.

Glass cabochon with a layer of dark shiny purple added over the entire surfaceMy final base layer was the shiny royal purple that I'd been saving. It's going to be tempting to use your favorite color early on but remember that we're working backward with these eyes so save the best for last in this case! For this step you really no longer need to hold the eye so this is where I nest it into a dab of modeling clay so that I don't have to worry about accidentally dropping it and smudging everything and it's a great place to let it dry between finishing coats as well. This paint went on a little thin so I ended up letting the first coat dry for a good 15 minutes and applying a second coat which I also let dry for 15-20 minutes.


Final Step: Finishing

Glass cabochon with a layer of black applied over the entire surface and previously completed dragon eyes next to itIf you've been sneaking peeks at your eye from the front as you work and feeling less than thrilled with it – DON'T SKIP THIS STEP! Apply a layer of black paint to the entire back of the cabochon. The black paint is going to prevent light from going through the layers of colored paint which is going to force it to refract through the front and back out again. This creates a lot more shine and pop from your colors, I promise! Let this layer dry for 20 minutes or more before moving to the final step.

Use your foamy brush to apply a thin layer of ModgePodge or other finishing lacquer which will take the slightly tacky feel out of the back as well as protect your paint a bit more from accidental scratching or peeling. Let this step dry overnight.

The ideal use for these is in some kind of setting where the back will be protected from scratching because the last coat can only do so much. I like to glue them to magnets and have plans to use a couple in a furniture project that I'm working on but I've also seen them placed in jewelry settings and wire wrapped as well.

So there you have it! 

Finished dragon eye from the frontIf you want to see a video of these bad boys in action, Click Here! I hope you have fun with this project and that you'll take pictures of your finished eye and share them with me in the comments below!