Today I tried something I have never tried before. I attempted to paint a portrait of my cat, from memory and from a picture of somebody else’s cat. What provoked such a folly? There was a painting day, run by my art teacher, where you got to paint an animal. I thought it would be nice to try. My cat clearly wasn’t able to attend and I didn’t have a picture of him printed out to hand. The picture of George, a lovely little ginger and white cat, was the model I had. He posed beautifully, so all I had to do (I thought) was to substitute the ginger and white coat for the grey coat of my elderly Russian Blue. Fifty shades of grey. How hard could it be?
I learned some interesting things. The painting was not entirely successful, but a good first attempt, I think. I had to tackle painting fur for the very first time and it turns out to demand a particular technique that takes some patience to learn and to execute. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The first thing I discovered was that a preliminary sketch is not time wasted. You can get the proportions and pose, as well as the facial expression, adjusted and measured better, on your canvas, if you make a ten minute sketch, in pencil, on cartridge paper first. It just gets you noticing the tones and proportions before you commit to canvas and oil paint.
The second thing I discovered was that blocking in a figure as quickly as you can gives your painting a feeling of spontaneity. If I have a regret, it was that I was not able to keep the first version of the painting, finished in under an hour, before I started working on all the details and fur textures. The impressionistic first sketch in oil paint actually had a nice character about it. Even though I had painted a different cat to the one in the picture I was using as a reference, I got a convincing result and reassured myself that my memory is not altogether shot. It was a tonal representation with crude brush strokes, but it definitely caught the main details well. I wish I had at least taken a photo of it, at this stage in the painting.
Then I started working on the fur. What a frustrating process! To paint convincing fur, you have to let the paint modulate on the canvas. The technique is to brush dark tones in one direction first, then brush back with a second brush, using lighter tones, to establish the furry texture. It’s a little like laying shingles. You put the dark fur down, and then render the lighter hairs which catch the light, by brushing back into the dark colour with the lighter one.
Here’s what I did wrong. First, you need to make all your tones on the palette, so that you have a reservoir of each tone you intend to use. Running out of a tone, especially if it is a grey, is a disaster, because it’s hard to mix the same tone again. I used zinc white, a Payne’s grey and a mixture of burnt umber and ultramarine blue to make the darkest tone. I could adjust the ratio of blue to brown in the darkest tone, so that was useful. The browner tone was warmer and came to the foreground, whereas making it bluer made the tone colder and helped it recede. The Payne’s grey mixed with zinc white makes a nice range of blue greys. I did use some titanium white for some of the highlights, but it seems to make a harsher grey with the Payne’s grey and my dark mix, than did the zinc white, which seemed gentler and warmer to the eye, in my opinion.
Secondly, you need to keep your light and dark brushes clean and dry, after each stroke, because they have a tendency to both pick up the other tone and hence become a medium tone. The dark brush gets lighter and the light brush gets darker. Eventually, the brushes have the same tone on them, at which point your attempts to paint fur are futile. So you have to have a lot of kitchen towel. Because I use water mixable oils, whenever I cleaned my brushes with water, I had to dry the brushes carefully, or the next paint stroke would be too thin and handle like a wash, instead of forming distinct hairs.
A fan brush is a great thing, especially around the edges of the figure, because you can draw fine hairs out of the fur and over the background painting, with careful little flicking strokes, to make the animal look fuzzy. It’s also good for establishing all those little hairs in the body of the animal, so long as you don’t overwork it. If you work the oil paint too much, it becomes cloudy and diffuse, losing the definition of the little hairs.
When painting the hairs, I used a combination of fan brush, largish filberts and long flats. You have to use very light brush strokes; much lighter strokes than I would normally use. You have to gently waft the paint back into the other colour.
As painting fur really is quite like laying shingles, it turned out that my first blocked out sketch in oil paint, though tonally accurate, was the wrong thing to have done. I should have made all of my tones very much darker, except for the tones that had to be very light, or the highlights. Why? Well, when I painted the light colour over the dark tones, I was heading for a lighter tone over all, washing out the shadows. Also, when I went to push some darker hairs into the highlights, the white very quickly became too grey. There was an overall tendency to flatten all of the shadows and highlights to the same sort of range of grey mid tones. Bad result. All of the carefully modelled shapes suddenly lost definition and the cat became “cartoony”, less three dimensional and so less pleasing and convincing.
When you paint the fur, you really have to observe carefully the direction of the hairs and how the fur grows. If you ignore this, you are going to get some weird results. Also, start at the bottom of the animal portrait and work upwards from the feet. Don’t do what I did, which was to work from top to bottom. I’ll say it again. Painting fur is like laying shingles, so you ought to start with the lower rows and paint your way upwards, furry wave by furry wave.
When it came to correcting the mid tones, I could no longer make the darks dark enough or the highlights white enough. The mid tones fought me all the way, because the paint was very wet. I would need to let them dry, instead of trying to work wet into wet. Time didn’t permit that. So I finished up with washed out shadows and dull highlights, overall. Not as dramatic.
The last thing to do was to paint the eyes, mouth and whiskers. Those little details required a smaller set of brushes than I had brought with me, for the day. Next time, I’ll take some very fine sables. I will also take my reading glasses for the very fine work! Presbyopia is a curse. You also need a very steady hand, so a mahl stick would also be a good thing to bring, just to rest your hand on something stable, instead of aiming for the iris of the eyes freehand, in the middle of a wet canvas, consisting of delicately rendered, tiny hairs.
This is where not having a photograph of my actual cat also told. It might be unsurprising, but each cat’s face, shape and markings are pretty unique. You can paint any generic cat quite convincingly, but if you want to paint a particular cat, that you know well, then you really are painting a portrait perhaps as demanding and intricate as any human portrait. There are small details you have to observe and reproduce for it to be a painting of a particular cat.
Working from life is usually unsuccessful with cats, as they won’t sit still for long enough, unless you are painting them sleeping. If you want to catch the look in their eye, you’ll have to work from a snap shot. So while I was painting the portrait of my cat, in my mind’s eye I could see all of his familiar features, but these were entirely different from the features of George the cat, whose picture I did have and was working from, as reference. As a consequence, I couldn’t quite capture a likeness of George and my memory of my own cat wasn’t detailed enough to get that likeness exactly either. My memory fought my observations and the result was a hybrid cat portrait that didn’t fully resemble either cat. Fortunately, though, it did look like a generic cat.
So, it wasn’t a total disaster, but there are many things I would do differently, if I were painting a furry critter in oils again. I would definitely spend time simply practicing the reproduction of fur on some scrap paper or an inexpensive canvas board, because it is harder than it looks to get a good result and no matter what you do, it’s a painstaking, exactly technique that takes patience and time to get right. Practice would definitely be beneficial. You really do have to paint every hair, almost.
The biggest discipline that had to be learned by an alla-prima acrylic painter like me is to slow down and take the time out to clean and dry the brushes, at intervals. The temptation is to plough ahead toward a finished painting at the fastest pace you can manage. Big mistake. That’s how you get too much mid tone in the work.
There are myriad ways to accidentally blur the hairs into a uniform, mid tone mush and way too many ways to squash out the dynamic range by flattening the darks and lights toward mid tones. I’d also never try to do it in a single sitting, painting wet into wet. It helps enormously to be able to rework the wet paint to actually render the hairs in the first instance, but then you have to leave them alone to dry. They’re delicate and easily damaged and lost. I would also like to attempt to glaze over the fur to tie the tones together, but again you can’t do that in a single session.
Finally, always bring an A4 print of the actual animal you are painting a portrait of. Painting from memory is notoriously difficult. I’m glad I tried, but it really taught me the limitations of doing so. Painting the animal as close to life size as you can, on the canvas, also makes the task easier.
All that said, it was a fun painting to do and definitely extended my technique. It was also quite a challenge. I recommend trying to paint animal portraits. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you succeed, the reward is a very lovable picture. Who could resist?