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‘The Eyes of a Butterfly’ with Kevin House

In this tutorial, you’ll pick up some solid vector techniques and brush up on your opera at the same time—all courtesy of Kevin House’s Madame Butterfly. A powerful combination!


Since Puccini’s first premiere of the opera in 1904, there have been many different ways that Madame Butterfly has been depicted. With my version, I was shooting for an uncompromising, straight on view in a somewhat stylized yet realistic airbrush style.

A favourite part of my design was Madame’s eyes, so the focus (excuse the pun) in this tutorial will just be to share with you how Madame’s eyes were drawn from vectors.

This tutorial adopts a linear step by step approach for instructional purposes, the actual process is much more of a back and forth undertaking.

“In general, my design process is more of an organic one as I build the elements working towards a finished piece.”


As we’ll cover a lot of ground in this tutorial, it’s probably good to have the following core skills in Affinity Designer:

  • Drawing with the Pen Tool
  • Applying colour and transparency gradients
  • Adding effects

Using a sketch

I like to draw from a sketch, so you can download the Affinity Designer project file with sketch and underlying artwork that’s all ready to go.


Select the ‘Madame Butterfly eye sketch’ layer, then choose Zoom to Selection from the View menu.

Now, change the layer’s Blend Mode to Multiply and Opacity to 50% to make the trace a little more subtle to work from.

Create the main eye shapes

Using the Ellipse Tool and the Pen Tool, draw the eye’s iris, pupil and eye opening, ensuring the eye opening is a closed path. Clip the iris and pupil shapes into the eye-opening shape by dragging and nesting them in the eye opening layer in the Layers Panel.

You can switch off the sketch layer on the Layers Panel now.

Fill the iris and pupil

Using the Fill Tool, drag out a gradient across the iris to the pupil centre, changing the gradient Type to Radial; assign a dark brown for the outer stop and a lighter brown for the centre stop. From Effects Panel, add a small amount of Gaussian Blur.

Fill the pupil with black and add a Gaussian Blur of approx. 4 px.

Now that I have a filled the eye-opening shape, its strong black outline stroke can be dispensed with—it has served its purpose.

Colour and adjust eye white

Contrary to popular belief, the white of an eye is more pink than white. Select the eye shape and fill the eye shape with a light pink colour. To give a nice sense of depth and make the eyeball appear to recede inside the opening, add an Inner Shadow effect with adjusted Radius and Angle values, using a slightly darker version of the light pink fill. It should be very soft.

Colour and adjust eye liners

Using the Pen Tool, draw a curve over the top of the eye opening from right to left. Using the pressure chart in the bottom-right corner of the Stroke Panel, shape the pen’s stroke by forming a curve—this makes the curve tapered and more realistic.

To finish the top eye liner, use a dark purple for the eye liner colour, then add a 5 px Gaussian Blur to the stroke to soften it.

Repeat for the lower eye liner, making it fuzzier with a stronger Gaussian Blur than before.

You may have noticed that this fades off to the left, made possible with a transparent gradient drawn with the Transparency Tool.

Eye shape and bottom eyelid highlight

Adjust the bottom curve of the eye shape to bring it up in line with the dark path. This will reduce the size a little as shown. Select and delete the dark curve under the eye as we don’t need it anymore.

Using the Pen Tool, draw the lower eyelid highlight as shown and fill it with a light pink. Using the Transparency Tool, click from left to right with the new shape selected to fade it out on the right end.

The solid eyebrow curve can now be replaced with a more subtle, tapered stroke with a transparency gradient fading each end of the eyebrow.

Eye white shading

Let’s give some definition to the “white” portion of the eye using some simple shapes, the Transparency Tool and Gaussian Blur.

Using the Pen Tool, create a shape to act as the left-hand-side shadow cast from the ball of the eye. As we’ll be fading it off the right side, the left side of the shape is the important side here. Fill it with a darker pink to act as the shadow.

Use the Transparency Tool to fade it off on the right side and add a 3 px Gaussian Blur.

Repeat the procedure for the right-side shadow.

Iris interior

Let’s add some life to the inside of the iris now. With the Pen Tool, draw a ‘sausage’ shape to mimic light trapped inside the iris. Fill it with light brown, and with the Transparency Tool, drag from its midpoint and off to the left to fade out the colour (as shown), then add Gaussian Blur.

Copy, paste and flip horizontally that same shape and move it into place on the left side of the iris (as shown). We want this one to be even softer as the light source is coming from the top left and reflecting on the right side of the iris, so reduce the left shape’s layer Opacity.

Pupil blur

Now to create a soft large blur to soften the pupil for a more realistic look. Add a slightly larger circle shape directly above the existing pupil and add a strong Gaussian Blur to it.

Iris reflect

On the iris, let’s add a subtle reflection of colour being picked up by the glassy surface. To a pen stroke of a pinkish colour, use the Stroke Panel’s Pressure chart to taper the stroke, then apply an 8 px Gaussian Blur.

Top-lid shadow

A top-lid shadow adds a crucial element of depth to the eye opening. With the Pen Tool, create an irregular eye shadow shape, filling it with black. Don’t worry about fitting it to the upper lid area right now. Apply 33% layer Opacity and a Multiply blend mode to the shape and drag its layer under the eye-opening layer so it indents—this clips the shadow to the opening. Then apply a 1 px Gaussian Blur.

Iris blur

The transition between the eye white and the iris is a little too sharp at the moment, so let’s add a soft blur to the iris to add a bit more realism. Create a circle (no fill) directly above and a little bit bigger than the iris. Give it a black or dark brown colour and a 4 pt line width. Make sure it’s nested inside the eye-opening layer as well so it’s top area isn’t seen. Give this ellipse some Gaussian Blur.

Eye white brightness and contrast

To make the iris stand out a bit better, it needs more brightness and a little contrast around it. With the Pen Tool, create two shapes that follow either side of the iris outline and fill with white, then fade them with the Transparency Tool and add Gaussian Blur to both. Create a third white shape using the same method.

Adding some tear duct detail

For a shadow area defining the soft tissue in the corner of the eye, with the Pen Tool, create a shape for the tear duct area. Fill with a middle to dark-pink colour, adding a little Gaussian Blur.

Adding ‘wet’ highlights

This is where the magic starts to happen! Highlights and reflections add to the realism, indicating glossiness and surface lighting.

A) The first highlight area is where the bottom lid sits against the eyeball surface. Typically, there is a line of fluid sitting there that will catch the light; this defines that edge nicely.

  • Create a 3 pt light-purple curve with the Pen Tool and taper it using the Stroke panel’s pressure chart (shown); fade the curve at both ends using a transparency gradient (Transparency Tool).

B) Create a few small strokes of varying widths as described for (A) to indicate wet highlights in the tear duct area. We won’t blur these though as we want them to appear wet.

C) The main eye highlight is the most important; this defines the overall glossiness of the surface and the light direction—it really brings the whole eye area together.

  • For this classic traditional airbrush look, use the Pen Tool to draw a simple irregular shape suggesting a reflection—run the top of the highlight along the bottom of where the top lid shadow runs across the pupil. Add Gaussian Blur to this, for that slightly softer edge. Fade the highlight off away from the light direction using a transparency gradient to finish.

Detail - Blood vessels and eye liner adjust

For more realism, let’s add a few blood vessels. They’re small but still noticeable, and they break up the eye’s white area with some visual interest. These are just small dark-pink strokes created as in the previous section.

Let’s also thicken up the bottom eyeliner—just copy the existing curve and repositioned it.

Additional shading and highlighting around the eye

To tie the eye visually into the face a bit better, add some shading and highlighting around the eye area.

Create a shape, with solid fill (mid to dark-purple), behind the whole eye area. Add a strong Gaussian Blur to the shape. Create another shape with light-pink solid fill, then apply a transparent gradient to fade out the shape increasingly towards the centre of the eye. Finish with Gaussian Blur.


Unhide the sketch layer to access the sketch. We’ll use it as a guide for creating the eyelashes.

With the Pencil Tool, draw each eyelash, enabling the Stabiliser feature on the tool’s context toolbar to create nice smooth lines (this stops erratic and ‘shaky’ strokes).

Go ahead and draw out a few lines but don’t do them all because we still need to taper and blur these to get the shapes we need. It will easier and much faster to just duplicate a few lines instead of having to create them all separately.

To get a realistic eyelash look, use the Pressure feature again in the Stroke Panel.

Do a few different sized eyelashes that you can duplicate but don’t duplicate them all yet. We have to soften them first as they are a little too solid looking for delicate eyelashes. Add a little Gaussian Blur and fade with the Transparency Tool. Then duplicate and continue the same process for the lower eyelid.

Finish up

To finish up, we’ll add a nice makeup touch above the right eye using the Ellipse Tool. Colour the shape with a bright dark pink-red colour and change to an Overlay Blend Mode at 98% Opacity. This keeps the ‘eyespot’ nice and bright with a little soft feel.

Finally, add a noise layer at the top of your layer stack—this adds a nice surface texture or grainy feel to the piece. The layer should contain a white rectangle with 100% Noise and a blend mode of Multiply.

This can bring everything visually together and in this case, it really suits that classic traditional airbrush on paper or board look I’m after.

Eyespot makeup added and before/after added noise (left/right)

Final thoughts

The main thing to take away from this project is that you can depict just about anything you want with good reference and a bit of a plan, i.e. a decent sketch to start with and the willingness to experiment and try different methods along the way.

I certainly hope you enjoyed this tutorial and maybe picked up a few new pointers.

For more about Kevin House, visit him at

Documentation manager

Andy manages our software documentation here at Serif and is our chief technical writer. In-between falling off his bike cycling into work, he keeps himself busy ensuring all our apps have up to date and accurate help content, and is editor-in-chief of our stunning Affinity Workbooks.

Credits & Footnotes

Illustrations are copyright © of Kevin House