When you are painting animals, you will end up using plenty of photos for the obvious reason that animals just won’t stay still and, if they are wild, they will not let you near them. Sketching from life is fantastic, but back in the real world, photographs are a lifeline.

Please be aware of copyright laws. There is no problem if you are simply using a photo to paint from for pleasure, but the moment you share it online, exhibit it or sell it, you may be infringing the rights of the photographer. They will have got up at 5am to take that photo of the hare, with a lens that cost them £1,000 so just using their photo without permission is not on.

Luckily websites like Paint my Photo (pmp-art.com) and Pixabay (pixabay.com) have beautiful high-resolution images that are royalty free. Or just ask. Many photographers will give permission for free. This gorgeous reference photo (below) is from Pixabay and can be used without attribution. I cropped it to the square format I prefer.

Plan your work

As a guideline we work light to dark, background to foreground, all because watercolour is transparent. We need to plan the whites, as the white of the paper brings the whole painting to life. I like to add darks early on. The area where there is most contrast will draw your eye so put this at your centre of interest.

Create a thumbnail sketch (below).

Once the composition and values are thought out it leaves you free to focus on fresh, lovely colour.

My thumbnail helped me identify that I wanted the cat to be smaller in the frame than I initially thought. I also identified a nice S shape through the eyebrows and markings. I wonder if I can incorporate it in my final painting?

Loose pencil sketch

Do you want the pencil lines to show in your painting? I prefer not and find that you can usually erase lines through a thin wash. Either way make loose, expressive lines by holding your pencil at the end. If you want the drawing to be erased, draw it slightly bigger than you need or use a watercolour pencil.

I chose a half sheet of Bockingford NOT paper. This gave me space to alter the composition even at the end. A simple drawing with a HB pencil, showing the overall sizes and shapes is all you need – try not to make it too complicated or dark. Look at it in a mirror or turn upside down to check it is right.

Using fewer colours will strengthen your painting and free your mind. I try to limit my palette to a maximum of seven colours. Consider whether you want to use the subject’s colours or your own colours. Mix into a semi-skimmed milk consistency. Now you are good to go.

Demonstration: Cat

Step 1

1. Start with the eye. Let’s be honest, if you muck up the eye, you have mucked up the entire portrait. Better to do that in the first five minutes than get to the end and have wasted hours. It also helps bed the eye into the skull rather than have it look like a sewn-on button.

2. Look carefully to identify highlights, shadow and colour variations. Cat’s eyes are like marbles. Simplifying and retaining the white highlight (use masking if you have to, but you shouldn’t really need to) paint the iris including behind the pupil. While damp, gently touch the edge with a complementary colour and you will find it feathers into the damp area. Use a thirsty brush to lift colour to give the illusion of three dimensions.

Step 2

Now move on to the dark around the eye. If some of the iris colour bleeds into the surrounding fur, so much the better. Use deliberate brushstrokes as if you are stroking the fur – go in the direction it grows and the marks will look far more natural.

Step 3

With a clean wet brush pull some of this dark away to start creating that nice S shape I found in my thumbnail sketch. Add more markings, working wet up to wet, dampening the paper first in places where you want the mark to be softer. Be conscious of which edge is drying and be ready to soften any off to avoid hard edges in the middle of the fur.

Step 4

Time to add the whisker marks while the area is damp. If it is too wet they will run rather than merge. Place the nose with perylene maroon and the far eye is very simple. Soften an edge around the chin.

Step 5

Now work outwards on three fronts – the pale under the chin, the top ear and the nearest ear– developing each in turn to keep movement going.

Step 6

With all the major shapes and patterns in, let it dry and assess what needs lightening (the eyebrow and nose), what needs to go in (the pupil to stop it looking like a zombie cat), and what needs softening (the chin and the far ear fluff). Pencil in shapes that you will paint around negatively, such as the far eyebrows and whiskers.

Step 7

I decided on a predominantly gold background and wet around the whiskers before touching in the loaded brush and tipping the paper to help the paint flow softly in the direction I wanted. A little splatter gave the cat something to look at.

Step 8

Only now do I reach for my Rigger and gouache to put in the nearest whiskers and add a little colour from my palette to make them more interesting, trying not to overdo it. Did you notice I put a tiny blue shadow in the highlight of the eye to show where the pupil is?

The finished painting Cat, watercolour, (35x35cm)


Q. How do I stop my watercolours from being too pale?

A. You might not have them creamy enough to start – remember, watercolour dries 30 per cent lighter – or, when you are cleaning your brush and dipping it back into your palette, it is still loaded with water and you are diluting the colour at each dip.

Q. What can I do if the ears have gone off the page?

A. That’s why you need to plan your painting in your thumbnail. Don’t panic, it’s the eyes and whiskers that count.

Q. How do I check my tones?

A. Do you have a good balance of dark and light? If your tone is not right all the pretty colours in the world won’t save it. Squint and what do you see? Or take a black and white photo on your phone. Now adjust – adding a glaze or lifting colour gently.

Q. How do I loosen up my watercolour work?

A. Use a large brush on a large piece of paper for as long as possible. Hold your brush towards the end and stand if the last ten per cent maximum and stop too soon – you can always add but taking away is difficult.

Q. How do I stop my colours going flat?

A. Have you dabbed at the paper? If it is damp and you go back into the area, you disturb the wash and it is more likely to go dull and flat. Check the quality of your materials. Are you using Student paints on cheaper paper?

Q. What do I do if I’ve lost the highlight in the eye?

A. Use a spot of gouache on your Rigger or if you are brave, carefully scrape or cut the surface with a scapel and peel it back to reveal white paper. This needs to be done on dry paper right at the end.


Paint the cat again but make it predominantly purple or blue or a non-cat colour. If you get the tones right it will still be a lively portrait of a cat.

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

For fun ideas for drawing and painting cats with Linda Birch, click here

Liz Chaderton

Liz is a professional artist based in Berkshire. She runs classes and workshops, exhibits across the country and has work published by Wraptious and Artko, as well as with companies in the US and New Zealand. Visit her website www.lizchaderton.co.uk for details or her blog for tips and ideas lizintheshed.wordpress.com