The Artist’s Life: Painting Cats

pastel of calico cat on railing
“Morning”, framed pastel, 1989, art size 19″ x19″ © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I regularly post my pastel artwork on the group page for the Pastel Society of America. I love this group and derive so much inspiration from seeing new member art all day long, every day. When I first joined I posted only my landscapes and florals, but was thrilled to see portraits of pets very soon after I joined. Since about half my portfolio is cats and pets, it’s hard to avoid sharing them.

And why would I avoid sharing them? The answer to that runs a parallel with a recurring theme of how we view cats in our society today, and in the hundreds of years before today, and how that view is slowly changing.

“Portrait of a Toy Spaniel”, c. 1763, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Wikimedia Commons

Our art reflects our society. Not just painting but all creative efforts by individuals within a society tell us about the culture within the society, everything from what they ate to what they valued. We pull from what is around us and express what we are and how we feel by the things that inspire us and how we present them. And in no small way, what our society sees reflected back on itself also makes change in its own right with what it shows a society of itself, so creative efforts can change society as well as reflect it.

We see pets in many famous paintings through the ages, but it’s when pets are the actual subject that I’m discussing here. Animals were often used as symbols rather than subjects, and it’s hard to explain to people who love animals how animal artwork, especially with domestic pets as the subject, has not always been well received in the professional art world. Even dogs had a better chance than cats, for paintings of dogs have actually had a following as an art genre for hundreds of years not only as pets with their famous or royal owners, but as the subjects themselves as purebreds and mutts at their work helping humans hunt and herd and farm.

“Cat”, c. 1893, Henriette Ronner-Knip, Wikimedia Commons

And what of the cat? We now find the many paintings of Henriette Ronner-Knip, and though her paintings of cats and kittens and many commissioned portraits of pets are well-known today they don’t appear in art history books. Not since Egypt worshipped the cat has the cat apparently been considered a worthy subject for painting. Not that artists didn’t paint cats—far from it. Cats and kittens have been part of our lives nearly as long as dogs, and I can imagine many a studio through the ages that had its resident felines quietly supervising the artist and becoming a subject themselves. Plenty of artists have sketched and painted them as a main subject, but the paintings were not shown or collected as were dog paintings or other genre paintings, nor did artists become famous for their interpretation of the subject during their lives. So looking through museums and art history books, we don’t see them very often.

pastel portrait of cat under bed
“Waiting for Mom”, pastel, 16″ x 23″, 1988 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

In my first years as an artist I kept my feline artwork and pet portraits out of the “other” part of my art life, not out of shame, but because it simply wasn’t accepted, literally. I entered “Waiting for Mom” into a People’s Art Show in 1991 and they asked me if I really wanted to enter it because “it’s a cat”, thinking their reasoning must be obvious to me, I guess. It’s not considered serious art by many because of the subject and often I would see a smile of approval and acceptance at discussing or showing a few works…until the feline art came out for view and then the smile dimmed and my seriousness was questioned. “Cats?” I was even told that the viewer had considered me very talented and that I had a future as an artist until they saw my cat art. Was I serious? Pet portraits, cat paintings, they could damage my reputation. I should hide them. Because my portfolio, especially at that time, included way more animal art than other subjects, and especially cats, more than one person asked me when I would start doing real paintings, meaning “not cats”, because cat paintings were not real art. Even in recent years when I’ve mingled my subjects some people who follow me for my landscapes either dismiss or question my pet portraits and feline art, and I’ve also been dismissively called “the cat lady”, which I detest on any given day, but especially when it encompasses not only my love and rescue of cats but my entire career as well. Even as recently as last year when I won the President’s Award in the Cat Writers’ Association contest for “Cats After van Gogh”, people were happy to hear I’d won an award for art, but then disappointed and a little disbelieving, “A cat painting?” and a little shake of the head. Of course, just the opposite has also happened and a customer who likes my landscapes has discovered my pets, and vice versa.

pastel painting of cat on bed
“Sunday Morning”, pastel on canson paper, 19″ x 26″ © B.E. Kazmarski

And as an aside, I will add that pastel has been the “red-headed stepchild” of art materials too, riding the fence between drawing and painting and in its own way not always considered a “professional” or “finished” medium. Plenty of people also asked me when I’d learn painting—meaning oils and acrylics. So there was another question about my art as well. I love my pastels.

One of the ways to build a reputation and career as a visual artist is to find gallery representation, a place that will hang your art on a regular basis and hopefully build a following and a business relationship. This was a terrifying prospect at that point because I was not a social person, spending most of my time alone with books and my cats and my garden and my art and craft, and I’d only just found the courage to show my paintings to a few other people I trusted. But it was my very artwork itself that brought me out because I so desperately wanted to share my art and my cats. At my very beginnings, with only feline artwork in hand, I was turned down for gallery representation, and told by one gallery that they did not hang “cat art”. The three paintings I had were “Waiting for Mom”, which is still considered by many to be one of my best works though it is pretty much my first real pastel, “Sunday Morning”, in a looser style and just as much an interior, and “Morning”, one you’ve never seen which I painted from a magazine photo and need to retrieve from the person who owns it for a better photo, but for the purpose of this article I’ve included a scan of a photo of it at the top, one of the ones I took after I had framed it. I thought they showed a good representation of detailed realism, impressionism and a more stylized illustrative style.

If you don’t like cat art, then what if the calico cat in “Morning” was a pair of work boots on that porch railing, would that be better? Yes, it would. It’s the cuteness factor. Pets are cute, and that’s usually the way they are depicted, and the art becomes decorative. I didn’t think my cats looked cute and argued my point. If you took the cat out from under the bed in “Waiting for Mom” you’d have a classic detailed interior, why not stop at that? But I drew it because of the cat! It seemed domestic pets were cute no matter what I tried to do.

Now, I would not have gotten my start as an animal portrait artist 25 years ago if everyone had felt that way, and they certainly did not. The other way to build a career and a following as a visual artist is to participate in exhibits and even host your own. I joined a number of local art leagues and found wonderful mentors in the membership and friends with whom I could discuss this new world I knew very little about, and a lot of other animal artists. I entered a few feline paintings in exhibits and in these groups the subject was not so much an issue as the quality of the work itself, and ultimately several of my cat paintings won awards, including “Morning”, which won Best Pastel in the Pittsburgh Progressive Artists’ 1994 annual juried exhibit.

I really had painted mostly my cats and commissioned portraits up to 1996 when I lost Kublai and Allegro, then began painting more landscapes as solace and enjoying painting en plein air rather than in my studio from photos, and my portfolio of subjects, and also media, expanded.

"White Cat Reflecting", pastel on hahhnemuhle sanded paper, 6" x 14"© Bernadette E. Kazmarski
“White Cat Reflecting”, pastel on hahhnemuhle sanded paper, 6″ x 14″ © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

So I tried again to find representation, this time including “After Dinner Nap” and “White Cat Reflecting” and a few landscapes. “After Dinner Nap” appears detailed and many people think it’s a photograph but when you look closely you can see the looseness of my lines and shading—I think it’s what makes the painting successful in that it feels like life, which never really holds completely still. “White Cat Reflecting” is an Impressionist study of an interior that happens to have a cat in the center of it; I used so much of what I’d learned and practiced out in the field, literally. No luck. If the white cat was a vase of flowers instead of a cat, would that be better? Yes, in fact I should work on a few still lifes. Well, I did, as well as painting a few more cats.

I never did find gallery representation for my feline art, though a local gallery which I liked best anyway did hang several of my feline paintings along with others and I sold them there as well. Some of those recipients became customers for commissioned portraits or other paintings. Sales are one thing, career is another—it’s wonderful to sell a painting, it’s also wonderful to sell a painting and be known for your paintings. I did find new customers there, but the drawback was that even though we are just a few miles outside of the city you just get known more quickly there.

Even recently I’ve determined a person’s interest through conversation and I won’t bring up my pet and cat art if I think they aren’t interested. I wouldn’t bring up my florals either if they weren’t interested, but the florals aren’t as meaningful to me, and I don’t want to see the big eye roll about cat paintings if it comes to that.

But perhaps I’ve become surrounded with people who love their cats, or society has changed just enough that more and more people consider art of cats to be just as serious as any other subject. Coming back to the view of cats in our society, I find the changes equivalent between everyday acceptance of cat art as a serious genre and cats in general as a serious pet. We have more respect for cats, we have more respect for cat art. Society sees more cat art taken seriously, and cats themselves are taken more seriously. Perhaps.

So I was a little surprised when, last weekend, a member of the PSA group questioned the number of pet portraits and paintings, saying it perpetuated the “terrible clichés” about pastel painting.

We are visual people in that group and usually just “like”, and comments longer than “Nice!” are rare, but we wrote novellas with over 200 comments. It was the modifier “terrible” that made my ears hot and as the woman was a professional writer I called that to question and said the choice of that word was no mistake and could not be misinterpreted. The reason had to do with the mall artists in the 80s and 90s who painted quick pastel facial portraits of pets and children on drawing paper that possibly weren’t the best work, and these are part of the legacy of pastel.

charcoal sketch of cat sleeping
“A Vigilant Nap”, black and white charcoal pencils on gray toned paper, 4.5″ x 7″ © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I found the work of those pastel portrait artists to be very inspiring. We all had our say that we paint animals both as professional commissions and simply from a love of those animals, and the entire discussion was removed because we were repeating ourselves and bickering. But I was glad the subject had come up.

Just a few days later, the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, “the oldest, continuously-exhibiting, visual arts organization in the country,” which takes most artists two tries to jury into as it did me, featured my feline art in particular using two different feline works of mine as their header art, “A Vigilant Nap” (see the post here) and “Afternoon Nap” (see the post here), sharing a few other images and linking to my daily sketches. “This artist knows how to draw her cats!! And she has done hundreds of sketches to prove it!” An administrator comment said next month they’d feature dogs, so here cats came first.

pastel painting of cat on bed
“Afternoon Nap”, pastel on hand-finished paper, 7.5″ x 7.5″ © B.E. Kazmarski

Creative people are known for forging ahead regardless what the world says about what they do. We are following an inspiration, and that’s a very personal path, not one trampled by others before us. I have honestly wanted to paint other, more popular subjects and if I had more time for artwork probably I would do that. My daily practice sketches are of a subject I know best and love most, and with limited time for finished paintings I choose the subjects that call to me to make certain I spend my creative time with something I will enjoy, and that is, and always has been, my cats.

And because when, as an adult, I chose to pick up a pencil and paper and put them together, it was because images of sketches of my cats kept appearing in my thoughts and I reached up to capture those visualizations floating above me one by one, study them and put them down on paper, developing my skills as I did, leading me into new media, new styles and a new world for me—and a new way to express my love of cats.

I wonder if I’d ever have come to my art without them in my life, and I wonder what I’d be doing today otherwise. Animals come into our lives for many reasons, and along with all the healing and lessons my feline family has shared with me, they also gave me my career, and a path into the rest of my life that I have followed, regardless of any outside influences, since those first sketches.

And I hope that each day when I post my artwork and other creative works here that I am helping to change the view of cats in our society for the better, engender more respect for them as companions and acceptance of them as creative subjects to go on and reflect an important part of our society.

. . . . . . . .

I can look at art all day, especially cat art, and some days I probably spend too much time on it. Aside from browsing Pinterest, two of my favorite places to follow feline art include The Cat Museum of San Francisco where I enjoy learning about famous people and famous cats, and Feline Fine Art where I can browse the works of my contemporaries out there painting cats, curated by the administrator who posts my work frequently, and also The Pet Museum, which includes not only art but other inspirations from pets and animals.


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6 thoughts on “The Artist’s Life: Painting Cats

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  • July 21, 2014 at 12:33 am
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    My goodness..how rude and snobbish..I too am glad that you chose to follow your heart..You not only show us that cats are beautiful..you show us that they have feelings..real feelings of love and happiness..pain and sadness..There are so many people out there that need to learn this..Please continue to be the kind..caring soul that you are..

    Reply
    • July 21, 2014 at 7:40 pm
      Permalink

      Bluemoonalone, the art world is an interesting place, but those who would represent you actually make a huge investment and can’t afford to make a mistake. I don’t think I’m about to change!

      Reply
  • July 20, 2014 at 6:41 pm
    Permalink

    Now I understand why there are so many badly drawn cats!! You can discuss your cat pastel paintings with me all day any day. This is what grabbed me–your accurate cat-lover I-have-cats I-grok-cats cats-are-my-life there-is-no-life-without-cats attitude. I have given a dozen or so of your Feline Style Sampler to my first round of cat lovers that I know–and they have all been extremely pleased. I am going to start lobbying to my family for a certificate for a portrait of my cat/cats for Christmas.
    Good job following your muse and your heart over the years. It is very visible. Thanks for doing it!

    Reply
    • July 21, 2014 at 7:42 pm
      Permalink

      Sue, I’ve never heard myself described that way, but you’re pretty right on that–both in living with cats and painting cats! I’m also glad to know your Feline Style Sampler is out there spreading the word! I hope I get to do a portrait for you.

      Reply

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