Why use Acrylic eyes, and not glass eyes
I have been practicing Taxidermy since 1978. At the time you could only find a black, yellow, red or brown eye. Sizes also skipped a couple of millimetres, not much choice I can tell you. As a result we could not give much attention to the placing of eyes since one could not achieve the exact look observed in reference photos.
Nowadays we have no excuse. One can now get a special individual eye (S.I.E.) painted solely for the particular bird with the exact size, coloration, and pupil size.
Eyes, if placed right, give life to your mounted piece.
A competent judge will be able to see a well-placed eye. S/He would certainly also be capable of noticing if it is the right eye replicating the bird’s natural eye and corresponding to its plumage. Nowadays a judge is right to take points off if the wrong eyes are used since there is no longer the excuse of not being able to find the right eye.
Unfortunately, quite a few taxidermists seem to be content with any eye as long as it fits in. A good taxidermist will be killing his business if he thinks that his customers do not know any better. With the unlimited amount of reference material available nowadays from books and the net, believe me, customers are much smarter.
One huge mistake that most novice taxidermists make is to fill the eye socket with cotton instead of clay. This compresses when the eye is pushed in and then pushes it back out overnight. This is a drastic mistake, especially with birds of prey.
It is also important to use a good quality clay that dries with minimal shrinkage so that the eye stays in the exact same position as your piece dries.
Take your time with placing the eyes, after all, if the eyelids start to dry, you can always wet them again with a brush and some water.
Choosing an eye
There are no birds with a completely black eye. Shearwater eyes are the closest to black and even then they have an outer white background rim.
Most of us have the impression that, once you have seen a freshly harvested bird’s eye whilst hunting, we know what it should look like. However, you are looking at a dead bird’s eye. The eye would have lost its capability of contracting the pupil and therefore you are not taking note or a photo of the real thing. I have received tonnes of photos in this manner and had to paint the wrong eyes for my client.
Birds’ eyes vary from north to south, east to west, age, sex, season and especially with captive bred birds and their diet. Even during migration, birds alter their eye colour. During the mating season, it is altogether another story. It is impossible for us to paint what an individual saw in one pair of eyes on one of his hunts. When we offer to paint eyes for a rare species we mean one eye for that particular species, if we do not already have it in our collection.
The exact size of the eye replacing the bird’s natural eye is a must. Here, again, it is up to the taxidermist to measure the required size. The size of a particular bird’s eye may vary, and you can see it clearly in Capercaillie; anything from 12mm to 14mm can fit. Other huntable species can also differ in size.
Acrylic eyes vs. glass eyes
Acrylic eyes have brought a feature to taxidermy mounts that were not possible with glass eyes.
For one, acrylic is easier to match, set and place even though they are hand painted, and people are seeing the difference.
We all know how annoying it is to drop a glass eye, thus breaking it. I know lots of taxidermists with single glass eyes that cannot be matched and used. Another disadvantage with glass eyes is that once your mounted piece is placed in a glass dome or showcase it inevitably defines an artificial shine coming from the eye which is very annoying. Probably, using glass eyes on wire poses the biggest problem especially in more humid climates. After a few years, if not months, the wire corrodes in the clay, expands, and breaks the glass eye in half. It happened to me in the past and I have seen it in various collections that I have visited.
Also, with a glass eye, one cannot produce as small a pupil as in a Grebe or Loon. This can be done easily with an acrylic eye.
Another advantage of using acrylic eyes is the depth of the cornea. By the looks of it, this depth cannot be controlled in most glass eyes. Sometimes it is too little or too much or a non–match. Acrylic eyes come from a mould and are therefore all identical and planned with the right size cornea and curvature. When looked at from the side you can see a perfectly uniform pair of eyes.
One disadvantage of using acrylic eyes arises when painting eyelids. Harsh solvents and lacquer-based paints should not be allowed to come in contact with acrylic eyes. This problem is easily overcome by painting over the eyes with liquid soap, artist’s liquid masking fluid or liquid latex. This coat dries in a few minutes and can be easily peeled off when the paint job is done.
Replacing a bad or old glass eye is the very simple process. One can cover the eyelids with wet cotton wool and leave it overnight covered with a plastic bag.
The next day lift the eyelids with a pin and try to pull the eye out. If you are having difficulty spray more water with a syringe onto the clay behind the eye until it is soft again. You will find that it is now easy to remove the eye.
The shape of the eye removed is unlike the new one being placed so you have to put new clay to fit the new eye. I personally prefer a little bit more clay than not enough as it will be easily squeezed into the skull cavity. If you do not have enough clay you have to start again. Pin the eyelids into place and let them dry to finish off the look with the new eyes.
Finally, I wish to point out again that it is not possible to use solvents or lacquer based paints directly onto the acrylic eye. They must be carefully masked with artist’s masking fluid or liquid latex which can be peeled off when a painting is done. However, if you are in a fix, liquid soap can be painted on the acrylic eyes with a brush to protect them.