17 February 2014

Painting cats

I have decided, because I love cats and because I love paintings of cats, that I need to start painting my cats. Particularly because they're not getting any younger, and because I so regret not painting Beatrice more while I had her, not to mention all the others going back 35 years, who came and went, unmemorialized in watercolor. (I didn't actually start painting until age 47, so I do have an excuse for everything previous to this last decade.)

My challenge, however, is that both of my indoor cats--Dante and Miniver--are black. Painting black cats is challenging on more than one level:
  1. Just try to get a decent reference photo, in which you can see their features well enough to paint them--usually what you get is a black, cat-shaped blur with an eye peeping out of it;
  2. The reference photo is also challenging because cats do NOT like to be photographed. Especially if you're trying to do it while using a flash because, them being black and all, it's hard to get any detail without it!
  3. You would think that the solution would be to paint from life, but no. Most cats won't sit still for it. You start looking at them and, if they are friendly, they take it as an invitation to immediately get up from their pose and get closer to you; if they are not friendly, they also get up and walk away, because they are made uncomfortable by people (you) staring at them for prolonged periods.
But…there are a LOT of beautiful cat paintings out there, so other people have bested these challenges. I decided I would too. I have discovered that one thing it takes is to just keep shooting photos until you get one that's acceptable, and that may be after dozens, or not this session, or not this hour, day or week, but sooner or later…a lucky photo lands in your camera.

Second in difficulty to photographing black cats is, of course, painting them. What you have to learn is that black is never just black, it is gray, and blue, and brown, and yes, maybe even pink or yellow. What you have to do is really look at the color and try to see other colors instead of just saying to yourself, "that cat is black" and painting him black. I'm not great at this yet, but I hope to improve by painting cats.

So…here is my Dante, curled up on my bed, head raised from where it has been resting on my pillow, which is covered by my Grandmother Allie's double wedding ring quilt. I thought the bright patchwork would be a nice counterpoint to a (mostly) black cat, and I was right; the quilt was also a major pain to paint, especially when I tried to achieve the suggestion of the quilting itself. Try painting white on white stitching (or in this case, cream on cream, both because the quilt is a bit yellowed and because white on white is, well, white) and you will see what I mean.

I also had difficulty with scratching out his whiskers. People make it look so easy, scratching things out of a painting (some even doing it with the end of their paintbrush), but I had to try three different progressively sharper implements to get a result, which was more subtle than I had intended (and also bit into the paper further than I had planned). I think the problem was that I waited until the paint was dry.

For being the fourth cat painting I have ever made, however, I am pretty pleased with the results. My scanner wouldn't scan the whole picture, and I couldn't figure out how to merge two halves into one whole in Photoshop Elements (I know it's possible but my brain wouldn't encompass it today), so I scanned the most pertinent part (the cat) and then re-scanned the right side so I could show the rest.


  1. Lovely work :) I am not a cat person really, but I love the glossy fur against the colourful quilt patterns in this.

  2. Wow-I know this was about the cat but I just love how you defined the quilt- very nice! I am trying to decide how hard I want to work at kicking up my drawing skills and your work is inspiring! I found you through Julie F-F Balzers blog. Nice work!