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.
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.
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.