Animal portraits

Here are some of my top tips for drawing and painting our furry friends

learning to paint or draw cats –  examples to study by famous artists

It has sometimes been said that ‘The internet basically exists to help us find pictures of cats’ and judging by the number of Cats in Art articles online this might have more than a grain of truth in it!

Cats have always been a surprisingly popular subject choice amongst well-known and lesser-known artists. In the worst hands they proved common subject matter for some appallingly cutesy and sentimental paintings – the 19th century was a particularly bad period. In the 20th century however the reputation of the cat as independent, untamed and rather wild made them a popular metaphor within modernist art for something primitive and socially unrestricted. It’s a shame that most of my favourite modern cats are still in copyright and not in the public domain but I’m thinking of examples by artists like Pablo Picasso,  Alberto Giacometti or Paul Klee which celebrate the darker side of our feline friends.

As I’ve mentioned the history of art is liberally sprinkled with cats – you constantly find them sitting on the laps of ladies and children in portraits, prowling round the fish in still lives and sitting under kitchen tables in genre paintings. I’m not doing a general round up here however but am looking for really well-executed paintings and drawings to learn from when creating cat portraits, and these can be a little harder to find.

Cat by Gwen John

Cat, Gwen John, 1904–8 © Tate Gallery

Firstly here are two beautifully well observed sketches by one of my favourite artists, Gwen John. John loved her cats and depicted her tortoiseshell named Edgar Quinet in many drawings. They are both in graphite and a little watercolour, the first on a darker paper and highlighted with white and the second on a white background. With the exception of pastels it’s rare to find contemporary drawings done on darker paper but it produces a lovely result and I find it a useful exercise to work on a coloured background, so that the blank paper forms the mid-tones rather than the highlights. The draughstmanship in both is excellent and with the second cat I love the sketchy quality as she tries to capture Edgar in movement. The subtle colours are typical of her.

Cat by Gwen John

 Cat, Gwen John, 1904–8 © Tate Gallery

Next some even more sketchy cats demonstrate how little detail you need to illustrate an animal in pencil, if you are as talented as Edouard Manet. These are tiny little preparatory-type sketches of under 5 inches square. The rough pencil marks capture the way a cat’s thick fur is pushed up when it curls its muscular body.

A Cat Curled Up, Sleeping, Édouard Manet

A Cat Curled Up, Sleeping, Édouard Manet, 1861, © Met Museum, NY, Bequest of Clifford A. Furst

A Cat Resting on All Fours Seen from Behind, Édouard Manet

A Cat Resting on All Fours Seen from Behind, Édouard Manet, 1861 © Met Museum, NY, Gift of Paul Gourary

I love this rather dejected little cat drawn in pen by one of England’s most highly regarded illustrators, Arthur Rackham. It refers to a passage from a Grimm’s fairy tale in which a cat, dog, donkey and rooster go to Bremen to become musicians: “A short time after they came upon a cat, sitting in the road, with a face as long as a wet week”. It’s a fairy tale cat but a very realistic one and captures the bedraggled look of a cat in the rain with an economical use of line.
A cat by Arthur Rackham

A cat, Arthur Rackham, 1925, Grimm’s Illustrated Fairy Tales © The British Library/  Grimm’s Fairy Tales (London, Heinemann, 1925)

This extraordinary little painting reached a huge price when it was sold at auction not so long ago. It’s only 11 x 13.5 cm. (4.3″ x  5.3″) but is crammed with fine detail of fur and whisker. It may be something of a novelty with it’s trompe l’oeil effect (even the artist’s signature appears scratched onto the wooden fence that the cat peers out from ) but it’s finely painted and almost unique in the way it gives a cat centre stage and I like it’s unsentimental view of a creature that looks like a independent hunter and not a pampered pet.
A cat peeping through a fence by Cornelis Saftleven

A cat peeping through a fence, Cornelis Saftleven, 1666, Private Collection

Six little cats, or rather one cat in a number of typical cat poses, beautifully observed by one of our greatest artist Thomas Gainsborough. Like Gwen John he shows how well animal drawings can work when executed on a coloured paper, with highlights picked out in white (here with white chalk). It can be difficult to communicate the colouring on an animal in pencil on white paper, so using a coloured paper with black and white pencil or chalk is an interesting idea.  A story told about this drawing is that Gainsborough gave it to his hostess while staying at her home, and I like the idea that he was sketching a cat to pass the time before giving the drawing to its mistress.
Six studies of a cat by Thomas Gainsborough

Six studies of a cat, Thomas Gainsborough, Between 1763 and 1770 © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The acclaimed 19th century graphic artist Théophile Steinlen is undoubtedly the most famous for creating the world’s most reproduced poster – the Tournée du Chat Noir de Rudolphe Salis which is of course a wonderful spiky, uncompromosing cat. Steinlen was a big cat fan and worth looking up for his many well-executed drawings and paintings of cats. The cats on this poster are my favourites however and although they are simple and illustrative, I think that the colouring of the tortoishell cat and the silhouette of the thin black cat are so perfectly observed. You can almost imagine feeling the black cat’s bones under his no doubt rather tatty fur coat if you were to give him a stroke.

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen

Poster for his own exhibition by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, Paris 1894

And finally………

Much as I didn’t plan on writing a ‘cats in art’ article my taste for the bizarre and the kitsch has inevitably gotten the better of me, and the subject of the cat has certainly produced some of the oddest paintings in art! Here is one of my favourites – the Austrian artist Carl Kahler’s My Wife’s Lovers, commissioned by the American millionairess Kate Johnson to paint a portrait of some of her 350 cats. The title was suggested by Johnson’s husband, and fortunately only 42 of her cats actually make an appearance. It’s an astonishingly large painting at 6 ft x 8.5 ft, and the cats are actually very well painted and worth a close look! This is especially impressive considering that Kahler had apparently never painted a cat before and so had to put considerable time and effort observing their poses and habits.

My Wife's Lovers by Carl Kahler

My Wife’s Lovers, Carl Kahler, 1891, Collection of John and Heather Mozart

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