Tuesday, June 2, 2015

How to Draw a Cat (When You Figure It Out, Let Me Know)

I don't usually give drawing lessons, since most of the time I'm still too busy trying to figure the whole process out for myself. You can't teach what you don't know, and in spite of thirty years of evidence to the contrary, I don’t know much.

Take animals, f'rinstance. I do my best to keep them out of my drawings entirely. All those wavy lines that change whenever a critter gets the notion to move a sliver of an inch, the bones and muscles underneath that insist on wiggling and shifting and changing shape, they confuse me. And faces – just forget it. (I don't do faces. God made portrait artists  specifically to relieve me of that burden.)

Give me something with measurable shapes and hard edges to draw, and I'm much happier.

White Buffalo Wing
That’s why a couple of projects have lately given me the fits. I once managed to struggle through an animal-shaped Buffalo Wing - a design heavy on wing and only slightly suggestive of buffalo. 

I’ll admit this was cheating, since drawing a wing is actually more artist-friendly than one might expect. 

Connected to a live bird, somewhere up in the air, a wing might have the tendency to move around a good bit. Frozen on the page, though, it’s really more like a round-edged machine, built in layers, and limited in its ability to fluster the person who is trying like the dickens to render its repetitive lines and curves and shadows. With a little practice, the artist is able to see that one feather is pretty much like another (learn to draw one and you can draw a hundred); lay them down according to a predictable pattern, and a wing is what you get.

Not so the animals of the mammalian variety, with their fur of varying thicknesses and lengths, along with legs and bodies and necks and noses and heads and ears and tails suffering the same capricious qualities. We can tell a dog from a cat from a squirrel by sight, but just try and communicate that to the pencil point you’re sending across the page to capture one of these creatures in simple lines. Not so easy, is it? A few brisk strokes, and your cat soon looks like a squirrel, with a dog’s head.

If you're lucky, you can find something mechanical, like a pigeon’s wing – that’s already shaped like the buffalo you’re trying to draw. Then half of the work is done before you even start, and the hard half at that. I do that sort of thing as often as I can.

If you’re not so lucky, and are tasked with drawing a bunch of cats, for example, you wind up studying a lot of animal pictures, and wasting a lot of time generating reams of redundant sketches, trying to figure out what makes a cat a cat, and not a ferret or a hamster. (Forget about studying the cat you have at home. The minute she sees you drawing, your pencil point becomes the most interesting thing in the room, and your cause is lost.)

Such was the case a decade ago when I designed the Tiger Swallowtail – an imaginary butterfly made out of tigers. 
Tiger Swallowtail

Photographs were studied. Sketches were drawn. By force of will and dogged (sic) persistence, that design was eventually rendered successfully. Unfortunately, nothing of a permanent artistic nature appears to have been acquired by the artist in the process.

Cat Scan
Thus my latest project demands that history, since it was not learned from, must be repeated. This time I have tasked myself with creating a drawing of a human brain made out of cats, the proverbial Cat Scan. I had no choice. The pun is too rich to pass up – especially when one x-ray slice of cranium looks very much like a roaring… or yawning… lion.

As its name implies, this drawing demands nothing less than the rendering of some three dozen feline figures, obnoxiously cavorting about in every conceivable kitty configuration, in order to approximate the various bumps and curves and fissures that make up a cross-section of the brain. (Can't see them in there? Neither could I, at first.)
Cat Scan, (WIP) © 2015

No, I do not feel up to the task, nor have I for the several years that I have repeatedly attempted, and subsequently abandoned, this particular drawing, only to return again to test my patience and ability. Now, by leaning heavily on the assurance that practice does make perfect, and applying the same canine determination employed to complete the tiger drawing, I’m finally beginning to see some progress on my kitty-cat brain picture. In the process, I’ve uncovered a few basic concepts that have consistently helped me to keep my finicky cats from going to the dogs.

Some of these lessons, it turns out, are pretty darned simple. They may even be dependable enough to be called rules by people who find comfort in useful, predictable, reliable, and reproducible concepts. I’ll share just a couple of them here:

1.  In profile, dogs and cats differ mainly by the length and position of the snout. If the head and ears are the same (think tabby and Chihuahua), a cat’s short nose emerges from a low brow, well above the center of the face, and curves back abruptly to form the jowl.
Cat                                                                             Dog

By comparison the dog has a more pronounced brow ridge, and a longer snout that drapes lower in its sweep back to the head and neck.

2. From the front view, dog & cat faces are very similar, with one notable difference. The curve of the cat’s eyebrow and upper eyelid follows an unbroken line along the side of the short snout, until it blends seamlessly with the outer edge of the nose.
Cat                                                           Dog

The dog’s eye lines deviate from this pattern, turning off the direct the path to the nose, instead forming an hourglass shape as they fall to either side of the snout.

These observations may appear to be as silly as they are superficial, but they have been extremely helpful in keeping my felines from becoming canines. Preventing these cats from becoming ferrets or foxes or squirrels will surely require the guidance of other, similar rules, useful guidelines which I sincerely hope to discover before this project is complete.

When and if they make themselves known, I'll be sure to pass them along.


  1. Hail to your powers of observation, for those are the skills to pass on to your followers!

    1. I just hope I can remember this stuff the next time I need it!

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