Fish Taxidermy

Painting Fish Eyes 101

The advantage of painting your own fish eye is that you can look at reference and paint accordingly to what your reference is telling you. However the taxidermy commercial fish eyes that are available today are just fine for fish taxidermy and are the norm for taxidermy studios across the country. But when painting fish eyes you are able to change pupil sizes along with color variations depending on the fish you are mounting. Having the flexibility and total control of how your fish eye looks is what sets you apart from the rest of the fish taxidermists of the world. To get started in painting fish eyes you will need to buy a handful of Jeff Lumsden’s Still Life Eyes. When buying blank fish eye lenses, buy in multiple lens sizes (10mm to 18mm) so you will be stocked up and be ready to go no matter what fish is delivered to your taxidermy shop for fish taxidermy. You will never ever have to wait for a fish eye order to come in again, because you will be stocked up on fish eye blank lenses.

Before we start painting fish eyes go to Google Image search and search for fish eye pictures that you want to paint. Look for pictures that focus in on the head and eye of the fish. You may have to play around with the search query to find exactly what you’re looking for. When you click on a good reference pic Google will show you similar pictures to the one you just clicked on. Click on the view more link below the file name. A new page of Google Images will be shown and most if not all will resemble your original reference picture of choice. Pick out four of the best pictures that give you a good reference of the fish eye you want to paint. Download them to your tablet, phone, PC or whatever you are using in the shop to aid you in taxidermy reference pictures. If you have a Wi-Fi printer in the shop or home, print them out and then laminate them. This way you will be set for life, and be able to pull those pics out anytime you painting fish eyes. Another way to get good reference pictures is to go out and go fishing. Take close up pics of the fish you catch and transfer the pictures to your iPad or tablet.

Fish Eye Reference

With the introduction of painting fish eyes out of the way and our reference pictures in hand we will demonstrate on how to paint a largemouth bass fish eye. Largemouth bass are the most popular sport fish in North America and chances are as a fish taxidermist you will be having one or more come into your studio.

Step 1: Draw a crosshair on the outside of the eye with a taxidermy grade Ultra Thin Sharpie Black Pen. The crosshairs should cross each other dead center of the eye, which will be the center of our pupil. Next by looking at our reference, draw a pupil shape on the same side of the eye. Pupils in a fish eye are not round. Some are a soft almond shape forward with a soft round curve in the rear. Some are more defined forward. If you’re unhappy with your pupil shape wipe off the marker with some rubbing alcohol and repeat this step until you get it right.  Never use any harsh chemicals on the blank fish eye lenses. Alcohol or Windex will be enough. An important step here is not to oversize the pupil. The pupil should be no more then 1/3 in size to relation to the iris.

First step to fish eye painting

Step 2: We will now take a Black Paint Marker that our fish lense will accept (not all paint markers are equal) and trace the pupil on the inside of the eye. In other words trace over the Sharpie you drew on the outside of the eye, but do this on the inside of the eye. If all looks good then remove the marker from the outside of the eye. Do this by using a paper towel and rubbing alcohol.

Step 3: Go ahead and fill in the rest of the pupil using your paint marker. Again we are painting the inside of the eye. If you go outside of the traced pupil edge with the paint, don’t freak out just yet. Yes our pupil should exhibit a clean and crisp edge all the way around. When the paint is dry you can use a tooth pick to clean up the edge. Or if you prefer you can use a Q-Tip with some alcohol. Either way works. We must have a clean sharp edged pupil before we can go forward. So let’s be sure we are there before going forward.

Painting Fish Eye Pupil

Step 4:  Before we move forward, we need to secure our eye so we don’t handle it as we proceed. To do this you can buy some heavy duty double sided tape to hold our fish lens in place.  Get a piece of cardboard and stick the tape to it. Now stick your eye to the tape so the inside of the eye is facing up. Next take some sealer, in our case taxidermy grade paint and powder sealer, and seal down the pupil. We will then dry the sealer with a hair dryer.

Gorilla Double-Sided Tough and Clear Mounting Tape

Step 5: If we look at our largemouth bass reference pictures we will see that the pupil has a gold ring around it. We will recreate this gold ring by using a gold metallic fine tipped paint pen. Again we are looking for a crisp clean ring around the pupil. The key here is that we want our gold ring to be thin as in our reference pictures. If you have to clean the edge you can do so with a sharp tooth pick, like we did with our pupil. Once complete go ahead and seal it with your lacquer sealer followed with drying.

Now we are at the part where we start to add all of the rest of our color variants and depths. If you look at your references you will know that most largemouth bass eyes vary in color. It may depend on the region where the fish was caught, the water temperature and time of year caught. Every bass eye will have variations and depths of browns, including metallic browns and gold’s. So with that in mind there really is no universal way of painting a largemouth bass eye. The bottom line is, go with your reference that you downloaded. Better yet, ask the angler that caught the fish if they have any close up pics of the fish, particularly the head. This way you are sure to get it right when painting the eye.

From here forward we will be using dry powders to complete our largemouth bass eye. Pearl Ex and Neuberg Ebel powders are what we use here in our taxidermy lab to get the job done. The following procedure that’s about to be offered is not set in stone. It is just a guideline on how we achieve the results we are after in painting a largemouth bass eye. Some taxidermists will actually airbrush a good portion on the eye and do well at accomplishing the same effects.

Step 6: Going by our largemouth bass eye reference we have chosen Pearl Ex Antique Bronze #660 as our base color. This is applied dry, straight from the jar with a small artist brush. We will put this color over the pupil and completely inside the base (flat part) of the eye known as the iris. We will once again seal the eye with our lacquer before heading to the next step.

Step 7:  By going over the Antique Bronze blotch in some Pearl Ex Super Bronze #664. Don’t overdo this step. We just want to add some depth and charter to the Antique Bronze. To get the full effect of your work remove the eye from the tape, flip the eye over and lay on a white background. If you hold the eye up to a light, it will be transparent and probably not very attractive. But give it a drop back and the eye comes to life. How does it look so far?

The next step will most likely be the last step for most of us. However if your bass eye reference exhibits any of the gold’s or silver that can at times be found in a bass eye don’t hesitate to add them in.  For example we have seen some bass eyes show a hint of silver in the lower 1/3 front. However we would have added this color first before the antique bronze. Any gold can be added after the bronze. Just be sure to seal in-between colors.

Step 8: We will now shadow the rim of the iris to the edge of the lens by brushing in some Neuberg Ebel Statutory Bronze #47. If your eye is still secure to the tape hold it sideways and rotate while powdering the rim. Seal it down with your lacquer.  When done remove the eye from the tape, and place the eye onto a white background. Now watch as your custom painted bass eye comes to life. Congratulations you have just painted your first bass eye.

By CJ Herring

CJ Herring has been practicing taxidermy for 22 years and resides in the hills outside of Cooperstown, New York. A crippling and disabling brain tumor took control of his life in early 2018. In 2019 CJ took a major turn for the worse and was diagnosed with Acromegaly and underwent brain tumor removal in 2020. CJ also suffers from end stage Osteoarthritis from the hips down. CJ continues to write about taxidermy and still manages the day to day operations of the Taxidermy Lab Facebook group.