The Friday Art Cat: Just Add Whiskers


Just Add Whiskers – How easy is it to paint a sight size of a cat face with no drawing or gridding?

The Photo Reference

I was browsing on Facebook through some lovely images of cats and saw a close up face that I really wanted to paint.  So I’d taken a screen shot of it on my Ipad, then promptly omitted to note down or include the owners contact details.  I started painting it anyway and posted on the cat group (Bengal Cat Lovers), as in “Wanted – is this your cat ?”

As I hadn’t asked permission and wanted to write about it in public, I offered it to the owner free of charge if they wanted it.

Many people are very critical when it comes to making work of photos but can I point out that this is an exercise as far as I am concerned, and not a direct copy.  I did not want to grid or trace it as I wanted to use my observation powers fully, resulting in something that is absolutely not photo realistic but perhaps has its own charm.  There is a long and proven tradition of students making copies of masters’ work – which I think is similar to this in concept.  I am in any case someone who paints and draws from life most of the time, so I am not worried about my skills in that not being exercised enough.  Lastly, cats do not stay still long enough for you to get an accurate face like this! 

Sight Size


So here is my setup. On my dining room (aka Studio) table, I have my 6×6” square canvas board secured with Blue tac on my drawing board, alongside my Ipad in its holder.  They are approx. the same size.

On my grey palette I have placed the following oil colours: Titanium White, Raw Sienna, Lemon yellow, Cobalt Blue, Burnt Sienna and Ivory Black.  I also used Red, Magenta and Yellow Ochre later on.  I try not to use Umbers too much as they “sink in”.

I am using Windsor and Newton’s Liquin this time, as an experiment, to mix with the initial layer only – as it dries quickly I can paint over it.

I started by mixing the background colour – of greyish shades and blocked these in.

Here I am testing my mixed colour on my palette knife colour of the under-eye brown against what is shown on the photo.

Starting blocking in the background in a mid-tone brown shade.

Trying to mix the salmony-pink nose colour. As you can see, the palette knife colour is both too light in value and too bright in chroma (saturation). However, I painted it on, knowing I can dull it down a bit later.

I can’t go on any further without place-holding the eyes.  Otherwise, I will get too lost !  So I estimated where they are, knowing I can adjust later.

I tried to take bearings against the nose, aware of “the Holy Y” as I call it – ie the eyes, nose and mouth – which makes the shape of a Y.  If you get this Y correct, in a human or animal, you are halfway there to a likeness with a portrait, I think.  What I mean by correct is that the distance and angles between these elements are all spot on.

The eyeliner – eat your heart out Cleopatra, Bengals have the best eyeliner!  Super gorgeous.

When you actually add in the eyes in any portrait the whole thing starts to pop and have a life of its own…  It’s sometimes difficult to detach yourself at this point, with these lovely cat eyes staring at you.

This post is really quite a long one, if you’d like to read the full version, please click below.

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Sara Day

I am an artist making work mostly of animals and people, specialising in oil painting and soft pastel.  Three cats live with me – Maine Coon Orlando, Bengal Pandora and black moggy Rio. 

If you’re interested in commissioning me for a portrait or purchasing any of my work, please contact me.




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