Saturday, October 8, 2011

How to Draw a Cat

I love art. I love cats. I love my cat. Naturally as soon as I ever had a cat, I wanted to draw my cat. I just wasn’t very good at it back in the Dork Ages when I got my first cat.

I was pretty good at rats though. I had a white rat for a pet when I was eleven or twelve. He was very tame and I observed him constantly. I doodled him with every drawing instrument I could pick up. Technical pens, ballpoint pens, dip pens, pencils, you name it, I drew Puck with a line drawing instrument.

I was a kid. I didn’t notice that I’d done over a hundred inch-long pen sketches of my pet. I studied different parts of his body and got those right after several tries. I knew his rear end hunched up higher than his shoulders. I found out how to imply his tiny toes on forepaws and hind paws. I got the line of the top of his head right and the shape of his little nose in profile.

By the time my rat was a year old, I could sketch him rapidly in any pose just from memory. White rats danced around the edges of my homework after I finished it in study hall. I can still create white rat sketches from memory.

Somehow I forgot about drawing rats so accurately by the time I grew up and finally got a cat. My attempts to draw that cat were a Toxic Fail. She looked more like a white weasel with orange juice dripped on her in patches.

I got discouraged, quit trying to draw her from life and went back to something my friends applauded, dragons. I completely forgot about all the times I sketched my rat and felt good because I got that furry bulge at the base of his tail right, or the dashed-line white fur technique, or any of my ratty discoveries.

I concentrated on drawing the whole cat instead of just watching her nose and trying to get just the nose right on my next sketch. I didn’t systematically work through every important anatomical structure. I just tried haphazardly to sketch her.

Eventually I was able to get a cartoon cat that was recognizably a cat as long as I drew it in solid black with reserved white eyes and no highlights. That was the level of my cat drawing for a few too many years, but I succeeded in selling some cat-toons.

A famous cartoonist once told me “You don’t need to draw well to be a cartoonist. You need to draw consistently and come up with really funny gags.”

My funny gag was the instructions on a bottle of Cat Shampoo. I did an entire series on “#1. First Wet the Cat.”

So don’t sweat it if your early efforts aren’t perfect. People may still give you a few dollars for it if you give it a good funny gag.

But you still want to draw a cat that looks like a cat, right? Not a demented mongoose, not a dog with a chopped down muzzle, not a Picasso feline with both ears on the same side of its head. You have a cat, you love your cat, you want to do a cat portrait, not a cat-toon.

The answer is to draw your cat very small and very often. Go back to what I tried as a kid when I taught myself how to draw my rat. Study photos of your cat. Sketch from the photos. Sketch your cat from life, just not very large.

Doodle little cats on the phone pad or a Sticky Notes pad whenever you’re on hold, even if the cat’s not there. The more you can remember while doodling, the more accurately you’ll be able to sketch your cat when he’s around but he moves every two minutes.

At home, try two minute gesture sketches of your cat in a sketchbook. Just start drawing and stop when your cat moves. Start a new pose as soon as the cat sits still. Don’t be embarrassed to draw those simple, silly potions like “brick position, facing away.” Getting those knees up above the rounded hump of the cat’s back from behind is an accurate cat drawing.

For all you know, someday you’ll be painting a city scene. Exactly where you need a focal point, there’s an open window where a ginger cat facing away dangling her tail out the window is a perfect warm accent. No cat pose is too silly, too simple or too stupid to sketch.

Try penciling your cat. Then ink the sketch in different ways to develop your own unique way of doing fur texture. You can ink it with anything, an archival technical pen or Pigma Micron or a cheap biro (ball point) you picked up in a bag at ten for a dollar.

One advantage to sketching in pencil first is that you can get a good look at the pencil version. Recognize there’s an error, fix it in the pencil layer and then ink it. Or just fix it in the pen stage and erase away your extra pencil marks when the ink’s dry.

Plate surface bristol paper, smooth paper of any kind or a Stillman & Birn Epsilon series sketchbook makes a good surface for pen drawings. You can practice on the backs of envelopes or printer paper, or choose to buy a ream of archival printer paper in case one of your pen drawings turns out so well you need to keep it.

While you’re sketching the whole cat very small to get its relative proportions right, don’t neglect feature studies. Why not spend a whole big page of Bristol on sketching just your cat’s eyes, one eye at a time or both eyes together? Then turn that page over and sketch cat noses all over the next one.

Proceed to the beautiful, interesting shape of a cat’s ears. Sure, you can symbolize them with a triangle pointing up but the real shape is interesting and asymmetrical.

Try line drawings of a paw over and over again. Dip your cat’s paw in graphite powder or something nontoxic and press a cat paw imprint on the paper to see how cat footprints look.

Sketch your cat’s tail in relation to her body length and see whether she has a long tail or a short one for a cat. There’s a lot of variation in feline builds.

That’s where if you don’t have multiple cats, it’s a good idea to sketch from photos too. Use the grid method to get your cat’s proportions and details accurate from the photo reference. Pencil the cat first and then ink the sketch or use colored pencils. Early successes with the grid method will also teach you more about your cat’s anatomy and poses.

Alternate drawing from photos with a memory exercise. Study the photo for as long as you like, then try to sketch the cat without looking at the photo while you do. It’s okay to do this with the same photo reference you drew from with the grid method. You’ll notice new things about the cat when you’re studying it because you’ll remember some of what you learned in drawing from a photo with a grid.

Not all of your experiments will be a success. The way to get real success every time is to date your attempts and number them, so that you have them in chronological order. Every improvement means that sketch is a success even if something else in it is hopelessly wrong. If it’s a demented weasel with cat ears, then it’s a success because you got the ears right. You can work on body length to leg length proportion on another one.

With enough practice, you’ll reach a stage where you can draw your cat’s individual features, build, markings, expressions and favorite poses. Accuracy comes from long practice with the same cat or cats you love the most.

At that point drawing a jaguar, lynx or puma starts to get easy. It’s just a cat with a smaller head, heavier legs, different tail... at every anatomical point you can see the differences between the new cat and your beloved feline pal.

A good way to get in lots of practice is to buy a sketchbook that’s no larger than an Artist’s Trading Card. Borden & Riley make several varieties of wirebound ATC pads, all sized 2 1/2” x 3 1/2” with perforations so you can take out a finished page to sell or frame. One of these pads is designed for pen sketches. Another is lightweight recycled sketch paper with a lot of pages. Any of them are good for practice because you won’t spend as long finishing a drawing at that size.

Store your best ATC sketches in an archival Top Loader or Soft Sleeve. These archival storage envelopes are available at trading card stores, they were invented to preserve baseball cards. You can use them as a way to save your best small sketches or even sell them on eBay or Etsy. If you like, color these feline pen sketches with colored pencils or markers.

Alternate careful drawing from photo references, short gesture sketches from life where you start over when the cat moves with memory sketches. Once you get in the habit of Cat Doodling, you’re on your way to a beautiful portrait of your closest feline companions.

If you happen to have a dog, a parrot, a horse or any other sort of pet, this method will still work to understand and draw the anatomy of your favorite animal. It will also work to create good sketches and drawings of your youngest offspring or favorite rose. Any subject can be tackled this way and once understood you’ll be able to draw anything else with greater ease and skill.

Have fun with it! I’ll be back next week with another new Art Lesson. I’m starting on a new schedule of weekly updates on all three of my blogs, so if you enjoy these entries, click Follow. Ari purrs at you and sheds Cat Hairs of Inspiration on you!


  1. Rob, as a beginning art student at 64, I am appreciating both your art lessons and materials reviews. You put a lot of thought and effort into them. Looking forward to more, Diane

  2. Thank you! So glad you're starting up! Any age is good to start learning art, you're in some grand company for becoming an art student at 64. Go you! I update weekly and occasionally throw in extra posts, like today.