A Cat for Virginia

A few weeks ago, my parents emailed me a picture a cat belonging to their neighbor, Virginia, and asked me if I could draw of portrait of it for her.

The cat in question, who is unquestionably adorable.

Apparently, Virginia had seen a picture I’d done some years ago of a cat in my parent’s house, and all but absconded with it. My folks thought it would be a nice surprise then, to offer her a picture of one of her own cats, done by the same artist.

This is the drawing Virginia admired. Sadly, the cat pictured here, Boris, is no longer with us.

I’ll be honest: I don’t like drawing from photographs. They’re fine as references for details, but I’ve never liked copying from photos wholesale. I used to draw from photographs pretty regularly in high school, but subsequent art classes and studio sessions have instilled a preference for drawing from life. For me, drawing from a photograph is a translation of a translation, and something gets lost in the process. Don’t get me wrong, every artist has a different practice and I know several artists who work successfully with them, but I don’t count myself among them.

Virginia is one of the sweetest people I know, however, so I happily made an exception in this instance.

I started with a series of sketches to get to know the image better. Just as I know my best writing usually comes from extensive editing and revision, I need to sketch a subject several times before I feel comfortable with it and start approximating its actual appearance. Each time, I made adjustments as I honed my observations.

Eventually, I started getting something that looked less like a cartoon and more like a cat. This study then became the basis for the final drawing. I don’t draw cats regularly enough to consider myself a portraitist, but I still wanted to at least resemble what I saw in the picture.

With my final study in hand, I then began working on the final version. I started with a light pencil drawing on watercolor paper, and then went over the outlines in pen and ink. Once that dried, I erased the pencil. The drawing that Virginia had admired was rendered in charcoal, but since I knew the drawing would be traveling with me, I didn’t want it to get smeared or smudges in transit. Instead, I opted for a mixed media approach using pen and ink, ink wash, and paint.

Once I had the pencil outline, I used ink wash to begin adding values. Once that dried, I began adding paint, alternating between paint, ink wash, and line drawing to add details.

After about three or four hours, I had this:

This ended up being more fun than I thought it would. I had debated whether to keep it black and white or use color, but ultimately I was so taken with the cat’s pretty blue eyes that I felt obligated to render it in color. While I was concerned that working from a photograph would produce a stilted image, I think I managed to avoid that. The daily abstractions I’ve been painting have definitely made me more comfortable with painting in a looser manner, particularly in the cat’s body, which helped bring a sense of energy back to the composition. I’ll admit I still didn’t get the face quite right, but it’s close. As long as Virginia likes it, that’s all that matters.

Also Brandon says I need to start drawing our own cats more often.

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