I am writing this article, because I have two cats. I have also had a career around cats, as I have been a painter and an illustrator for 35 years. Illustrators are like actors; they get typecast. I was known in the genre of children’s books for my cats – usually alongside witches. So in this article I want to look at ways of drawing and painting cats – that is, what to look for and ways of working that bring out character as well as observation.

First, please don’t paint cats if you don’t like them; it will show. Secondly, if you want to draw and paint cats, watch and observe them closely. It is this careful looking that will render valuable information. Here are some of the things to look for…

How to reproduce form

Standing four-square, the shape of a cat’s body is boxlike, with a leg at each corner. The spine follows a mid-line down the top of the box, leading to the tail and the neck at either end. The angle of the box will change as the cat changes stance and on this frame you can build the form of your cat (Figure 1, below).

Figure 1. Use simple shapes to help you construct a cat’s body. The body is a box with a leg at each corner. The face full on is hexagonal. The cat makes a circle when sleeping.

When curled up, a cat forms a circle, which is a good way to start a pose. When facing front, cats’ faces are hexagonal or triangular, depending on the breed.

If you are serious about drawing and painting cats, find a book on animal anatomy. By knowing what goes on beneath the cat’s form, you will draw and paint them more successfully.

Texture and marks

Stroke the cat and look at the way the fur grows. It starts at the nose with fine shorter hairs and progresses up and over the face, moving outwards. The fur continues back towards the tail and down the legs. The belly fur moves in the same general direction.

At several points you will see ‘crowns’ where the fur changes direction. This you can see on the chest and loins between the belly and back legs. If you are rendering fur in any detail, you need to know this.

The eyes have it

The eye is a round orb set in a socket. When drawing an eye, begin with a circle and shape the lids around it. As the top lid overhangs the lower one, it will often cause a slight shadow. Adding a top shadow helps to bed the eye in properly. The pupil of the eye dilates and retracts according to light or emotion – cats’ pupils dilate if excited or threatened.

Any light on the pupils will be either slightly cream, due to sunlight, or pale blue if daylight is overcast. One of the pitfalls in working from a photograph is that the camera causes a bright white light in the pupil. Better to go for pale cream or blue to create a more natural painting (Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. Remember that the eye is a ball, which is overshadowed slightly by the top lid.

Ideas for sketching

Figure 3. I drew Felix with a sinuous pencil line to help portray his fur and the movement of his body.

When we first homed our rescue cat, Felix, he was forever darting around and exploring his new surroundings. It was difficult to catch him still long enough for a drawing. He was also very lanky on account of his previous poor care. I made this sketch as he stopped for a few seconds (Figure 3, above). Because he has short fur, I used a broken sinuous line to capture him, as he was just about to move off again. On the other hand, our other cat, Alice has long fur and a very distinctive shape. Her fur appears to fly as she runs and spreads out as she sits. I used a controlled ‘scribble’ to render her thick coat here (Figure 4, below).

Figure 4. I captured Alice’s long fur with a controlled 2B pencil ‘scribble’

What to look for when sketching

Sketching is mainly about trying to sum up in a few lines some essence of the subject before you. If you need details about the animal’s features then this form of drawing is referred to as a ‘working’ drawing. I hope the following will help you produce successful sketches:

1. When sketching quickly I use a 2B pencil, as it will render tone as well as line. Using a rapid controlled scribble will render movement as well as tonal colour, as can be seen in Figure 4, above.

2. Look for the rhythm of the cat’s movement as much as possible. Look closely at the cat’s stance, for example as he or she crouches, sits or runs, and try to memorise what you see.

3. Use a large sketchpad if sketching any animal. Your model will move constantly so you need to begin another drawing then another. Sooner or later your model will adopt a similar position to the first drawing and probably also the others, and this way you will have recorded a number of sketches successfully.

It is almost impossible to create a finished painting from a sketch unless you also make a working drawing, usually completed when the cat is resting, in order to record details, such as eyes, nose and ears. You can, however, take a few photographs to remind you of details. Remember, very few animals will pose for you; that is not what they do!

Sum of parts

I once had a black and white cat, and discovered that if I drew the black parts of her while she was sleeping, I created a cat without trying. It is all about fitting shapes together. If you don’t have a black and white cat try the following, it works well for any animal.

On this illustration (Figure 6, below), taken from the photograph (Figure 5, below), I didn’t begin with an outline, but drew the shapes of the component parts, such as the head, neck, belly, hindquarters and the tail. I left a slight gap between the shapes then joined everything up with an outline, although normally I would rub out the initial shapes afterwards. This method makes a much more accurate and realistic drawing.

Figure 5

Figure 6 .The form is broken into component parts with a slight gap between them, joined back together with a line. This works very successfully if drawing an outline is difficult.

Character forming

Without resorting to cartooning, try giving your cat some character. When illustrating I had a character, who was a destructive reprobate of a witches’ cat, called George (Figure 7, below). He possessed the most atrocious fur coat and was probably well endowed with fleas. I used a dipping pen and Indian ink together with finger-printed ink to add texture. Based on the pose from the photograph of Patrick (above), I changed the cat’s character completely; he is now ‘George’.

Figure 7. This is George, a dishevelled character from a book. I used pen and ink and inky fingerprints to portray his character.

Using watercolour and pen I created another character, this time based on Alice when she was younger (Figure 8, below).

Figure 8. Here is a line and wash sketch of Alice, imagined as a small dressed kitten.

Tell your own story

Portraits of cats can look boring as they somehow lack character and look like photographs of themselves. I believe cats should also inhabit their surroundings, doing things like hunting, dozing or exploring. I watched Felix experience snow for the first time earlier this year, and he made a dramatic shape against a snowy garden (Figure 9, below).

If you want to draw and paint cats, you have to like cats, observe and record them, and see them as the characters they are – then bring this out in the work you do in any medium. Enjoy!

Figure 9. Felix in Snow, oil on board, (30.5x25.5cm). Here is another way to portray a cat, as part of a larger scene. This painting commemorates Felix’s first foray into snow.

Click here to paint a cat in sunlight in watercolour with David Webb

Paint a cat portrait in watercolour with Liz Chaderton here

Linda Birch

Find out more about Linda and her work by visiting www.theartistlindabirch.co.uk

This feature is taken from the August 2018 issue of Leisure Painter

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