Just Add Whiskers – How easy is it to paint a sight size of a cat face with no drawing or gridding ?

The Photo Reference

I was browsing on Facebook through some lovely images of cats and saw a close up face that I really wanted to paint. So I’d taken a screen shot of it on my Ipad, then promptly omitted to note down or include the owners contact details. I started painting it anyway and posted on the cat group (Bengal Cat Lovers), as in “Wanted – is this your cat ?”

As I hadn’t asked permission and wanted to write about it in public, I offered it to the owner free of charge if they wanted it.

Many people are very critical when it comes to making work of photos but can I point out that this is an exercise as far as I am concerned, and not a direct copy. I did not want to grid or trace it as I wanted to use my observation powers fully, resulting in something that is absolutely not photo realistic but hopefully has its own charm. There is a long and proven tradition of students making copies of masters’ work – which I think is similar to this in concept. I am in any case someone who paints and draws from life most of the time, so I am not worried about my skills in that not being exercised enough. Lastly, cats do not stay still long enough for you to get an accurate face like this!

Sight Size

This technique requires that the artist sees the subject and artwork visually the same size. In this example they will actually be the same size, as well.


So here is my setup. On my dining room (aka Studio) table, I have my 6×6” square canvas board secured with Blue tac on my drawing board, alongside my Ipad in its holder.  They are approx. the same size.

On my grey palette I have placed the following oil colours: Titanium White, Raw Sienna, Lemon yellow, Cobalt Blue, Burnt Sienna and Ivory Black.  I also used Red, Magenta and Yellow Ochre later on.  I try not to use Umbers too much as they “sink in”.

I am using Windsor and Newton’s Liquin this time, as an experiment, to mix with the initial layer only – as it dries quickly I can paint over it.

I started by mixing the background colour – of greyish shades and blocked these in.

Here I am testing my mixed colour on my palette knife colour of the under-eye brown against what is shown on the photo.

Starting blocking in the background in a mid-tone brown shade.

Trying to mix the salmony-pink nose colour. As you can see, the palette knife colour is both too light in value and too bright in chroma (saturation). However, I painted it on, knowing I can dull it down a bit later.

I can’t go on any further without place-holding the eyes.  Otherwise, I will get too lost !  So I estimated where they are, knowing I can adjust later.

I tried to take bearings against the nose, aware of “the Holy Y” as I call it – ie the eyes, nose and mouth – which makes the shape of a Y.  If you get this Y correct, in a human or animal, you are halfway there to a likeness with a portrait, I think.  What I mean by correct is that the distance and angles between these elements are all spot on.

The eyeliner – eat your heart out Cleopatra, Bengals have the best eyeliner!  Super gorgeous.

When you actually add in the eyes in any portrait the whole thing starts to pop and have a life of its own…  It’s sometimes difficult to detach yourself at this point, with these lovely cat eyes staring at you.

Completing the eyes.  The iris colour is complex, and has multiple reflections, too.  Always aware that the eyes are actually spheres, so need that type of modelling. 

The eyes are starting to follow me around the room !

It’s coming together now but the values look wrong on the left side of the face.  You can easily spot this by squinting or using a black mirror. 

I converted the photo to black and white to check, and it’s fairly subtle but it shows the left side values need darkening, if I am to be strictly accurate to the photo… but here’s where my artistic licence might kick in…!

I compared the colours of the eyes here with the aid of a colour isolator – a piece of card with a hole in it painted a warm neutral mid grey (Munsell neutral N5/), showing clearly how much darker the eye on the left is.

This first photo is the eye on the right :

And then the eye on the left :

After finalising the nose and adding the birthmark in the eye on the right (which makes this cat such an individual).  I’ve decided not to darken the left side after all, as I like the flatter, “mug shot” image.

Here’s the final version – except that I’ve got to sign it of course, and add whiskers !

Thanks for reading,


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