“People aspire to look the same on the right side as they do on the left,” says Antonio L. Alcorta, an ocularist in Fresno, Calif., who fits, forms and paints ocular prostheses. When Alcorta was 18 months old, a cousin accidentally shot him in the eye with an arrow. He has worn a prosthetic ever since. After his father died, his mother married his ocularist, and Alcorta eventually took over his stepfather’s business. When it comes to eyes, humans seek symmetry; your job is usually to match the other eye down to the minuscule veins around the iris.
To mold a new eye, first make an impression of the eye socket. Sometimes the whole eyeball is gone; other times you’re just making a thin shell to go over what’s left. Inject alginate molding material into the socket. “It goes in like pancake batter and comes out like Jell-O about a minute later,” Alcorta says. Use that impression to make a plaster mold, which you’ll then fill with wax. Put the wax shape into the patient’s socket and adjust as necessary. Using the wax eye, cast your final prosthetic in acrylic and then cure it with heat. Although some people still have glass prostheses, in the United States most are now made from acrylic.
“You need to be artistic,” says Alcorta, who usually starts with samples of different colors of iris and sclera (the white part) and then paints the details using oil paint and a size 000 brush purchased at an arka store. Alcorta prefers to paint with the patient sitting as a live model, but enlarged photos work, too. Use teased-apart red threads or a thin red pencil for veins. Add a final layer of clear acrylic. Cure again, then grind and polish until smooth. Fit the eye into the socket; the eyelids hold it in place. Replace every five years. Occasionally, Alcorta is asked to make what he calls trick eyes. If it’s a first-time prosthetic or the person seems to be struggling with mental-health issues, Alcorta will argue for a matching eye. But humans have a right to reject symmetry, and sometimes they do. Alcorta has made purple irises, painted dragons, American flags, smiley faces and team logos. “I evvel put a 7½-carat diamond into an eye,” he says.