A Cat for Levi

For the most part, the art I make is for myself. I usually end up giving it away, but typically I sketch, paint, and print the things I find interesting in my daily life. Now and then though, I’ll do commissioned pet portraits work, including this cat we’ll be looking at today. Meet Gus, a cat for Levi.

The Cat in Question

Gus belongs to Levi, the grandson of Brandon’s second cousin, Paula. She and her husband Jerry live about an hour and a half away from us. We usually go to their house for Thanksgiving and other holidays when we’re not traveling. Over the years, Paula and Jerry have gotten to know my art through my holiday cards and the blog, so they know I can draw animals. Last winter, Paula asked me to paint Gus for Levi. For source material, she sent me a couple of photos, including this one.

This is Gus, and he sure knows how to live. Image: a brown tabby cat sitting nonchalantly on a fuzzy blanket with some pillows behind him.

I decided to use this picture because I liked the ease of Gus’s pose, but I made a few adjustments. Since I wanted to focus on the cat rather than his furnishing, I cropped out most of the pillows and blanket. I also changed the perspective slightly. In the photo, the viewer is looking down at Gus. For my painting, I decided to move it to eye level, again emphasizing his centrality to the composition.

The Challenge of Photography

As I’ve said before, I find painting from photographs challenging. They’re great at providing details, yes, but ultimately they’re 2D renderings of a 3D subject. From my experience at least, painting from them without consulting source material in real life runs the risk of awkward or stilted compositions.

I also painted this scene from a photograph, but having sketches of Boston Terriers I’d drawn in real life proved invaluable to giving these pups a sense of depth. Image: a painting of two Boston Terriers standing on their hind legs while they look out a window.

If I can’t sketch the subject in person, I’ll draw the animals that are around me and apply those observations about their form to the photo. When I painted my sister-in-law’s dogs in 2021, for instance, the sketches I did of my in-law’s dogs own proved invaluable. For Gus, I looked at the sketches I’ve done of Iris and Gustave over the years to get that sense of depth.

Painting Gus

As with all my pet portraits, Gus was the result of a lot of sketching. For the first few days, I sketched the photograph repeatedly. Each time I sketched it, I got a better sense of Gus’s proportions and coat markings.

For the actual portrait, I worked on Bristol. I started with a pencil outline. Once I had that, I went over a few key lines in ink and erased everything else. From there, I added some modeling with ink wash, going over that with washes of color. After several layers of ink and paint, I added fine details on Gus’s coat with pen and ink. For the pillows and blanket, I stuck to loose brushwork, giving a sense of the background without drawing attention away from Gus.

A Cat for Levi

Overall I’m happy with how this turned out. The facial features are a little different from the photograph, but considering I’ve never seen the cat in real life, I think it’s a good likeness. If I ever took this up full time I might consider setting up a camera obscura to get the proportions exactly right, but I’d have to paint a lot of pet portraits to seriously consider that.

When I shared the picture online in an Instagram story, one of my fellow American Studies friends commented that it reminded her of a folk art painting. While I wasn’t actively going for that aesthetic, I can definitely see it now, especially in the stark contrast between Gus’s front leg and his shoulder/back area. I don’t think that’s a bad thing though. After all, one of my favorite cat paintings is a vernacular work from Shelburne Museum.

This was one of my favorite paintings at Shelburne Museum, and probably a subconscious influence on Gus’s portrait. Unidentified Artist, Tinkle, 1883, oil on academy board. Image source: Collection of Shelburne Museum. Image: A folk art painting of a pampered white cat wearing a belled collar sitting on an elaborate red cushion.

Most importantly, Gus was delighted with the painting. In the end, that’s all that matters.

Before You Go…

Do you have a special animal friend whose likeness you’d like to capture? Then you’re in luck because I take commissions for pet portraits! If you like what you see here and in my gallery, please contact me. I’d love to paint your pet for you.

Categorized as Art

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