Painting & Drawing blog:


Examples to study by famous artists

It was once 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 that!

Cats have always been a surprisingly popular subject choice amongst both well-known and lesser-known artists. In the worst hands they proved common subject matter for some appallingly sentimental paintings. 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 there are wonderful examples by artists like Pablo Picasso,  Alberto Giacometti or Paul Klee which celebrate the darker side of our feline friends.

The history of art is liberally sprinkled with cats – you find them sitting smugly on the laps of the subjects of portrait paintings, prowling round the fish bowls in still lives and stalking mice 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

Here are two beautifully well observed sketches in 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 executed in graphite pencil and watercolour.

The first image is drawn on a coloured ground with white watercolour highlights. With the exception of pastels it’s rare to find contemporary drawings made on darker paper but it produces a lovely result. Generally we always expect to draw on white paper these days but 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.

Cat by Gwen John

 Cat, Gwen John, 1904–8, Tate Gallery

The draughstmanship in both images is excellent. I love the sketchy quality of this drawing as John rapidly tries to capture Edgar in movement – in particular the tensed claws as he lifts his paw to lick it which are each indicated by a single pencil stroke. The subtle colours are also typical of her.

A Cat Curled Up, Sleeping, Édouard Manet

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

Next some even more sketchy cats by another famous artist. These demonstrate how little detail you need to capture an animal in pencil, if you are as talented as Edouard Manet! They are tiny little sketches drawn on paper less than five inches square. The rough pencil marks beautifully capture the way a cat’s thick fur is pushed up in tufts as it curls its muscular body.

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 the fact that Manet’s cat isn’t sleek but rather bony, and the tensed strength in its muscles is fully captured. You feel you can read this particular animal’s character, even from behind.

A cat by Arthur Rackham

A cat, Arthur Rackham, 1925, Grimm’s Illustrated Fairy Tales, The British Library

A wonderful ink drawing of a rather dejected little cat drawn in pen, drawn by one of England’s most highly regarded illustrators, Arthur Rackham. It depicts 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”.

Although drawn for a book illustration this cat is a very realistic one and Rackham captures the wet tufty fur of the bedraggled cat drenched by the rain with an economical style.

A cat peeping through a fence by Cornelis Saftleven

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

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 intricate detail of fur and whisker.

It may be something of a novelty with its clever trompe l’oeil effect (even the artist’s signature appears as if scratched onto the wooden fence that the cat peers out from ) but it’s finely painted and almost unique in the way it so compellingly gives a cat the centre stage. It’s full of character and an unsentimental image of an animal that’s clearly a independent hunter on the prowl for mice, and not a pampered pet.

Six studies of a cat by Thomas Gainsborough

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

Six little cats next (or rather one single cat in a number of typical poses) beautifully observed by one of our greatest artists, Thomas Gainsborough. Like Gwen John he shows how well animal drawings can work when executed on a warmly-coloured paper to represent their mid-tones, with the highlights picked out in white chalk. 

A story told about this drawing is that Gainsborough sketched the cat whose owner he was staying with in order to pass the time, and gave it to his hostess after his visit. He was clearly fascinated by it however and the drawing exemplifies how endlessly watchable cats are.

Théophile Alexandre Steinlen

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

The acclaimed 19th century graphic artist Théophile Steinlen is famous for creating the world’s most reproduced poster, the famous Tournée du Chat Noir de Rudolphe Salis which is one of the best known images of Fin de Siècle Paris and a wonderful spiky, uncompromising cat. Steinlen was a great cat lover and worth looking up for his many well-executed drawings and paintings of them.

The cats on this poster are my favourites of his however and although they are simple and illustrative, I think that the colouring of the tortoiseshell 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 tatty fur coat if you were to give him a stroke.









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