Featured Artwork and April Desktop Calendar: Three Black and White Cats
This month’s artwork began as a commissioned portrait, and that portrait has a story—one of the few that I started, but stopped because I didn’t like the way it was turning out, then created another portrait in a different media. But I kept that first portrait, and I’ve always liked it. I “finished” it recently to use, and now I offer that original version of it for sale. Here is the story.
Early Lessons in Working With Photos
“These three were littermates, and were rarely seen far from each other. My customer had commissioned it as a gift for her parents—she had given them the cats as kittens, and they lived to their teens. The positioning is a little odd, but this was a gift, and this was the only photo available, and it ended up making a very interesting portrait.”
That’s what I had to say back in 1992 when I painted this portrait and began to set up my artwork portfolios, literal photo albums of my paintings, portraits and other commissioned works with their stories and information, and sometimes even reference photos. I wanted people who wanted commissioned artwork to see my materials and inspirations and I loved to share the stories of the subjects as well as the portraits themselves.
But I didn’t tell the whole story of the genesis of this portrait, and the lesson I learned about composition and working with photos when I worked on this portrait, lessons I’ve used with every portrait since.
It’s one of the rare portraits where I started painting and decided it wouldn’t work, abandoned that initial effort and started over, and so I have two portraits of these three black and white cats.
Finish what you started
One of the things I remembered one of my art teachers telling us somewhere along in school was that there are no mistakes, you should always try to make your work “work”. It’s a lesson in flexibility, learning to change your vision and reimagining a work. When I recommitted myself to working as an artist in the mid-80s I had two rules that I felt would help me be successful:
- Don’t abandon a work and start over.
- Don’t abandon a work and never return to it.
In the first case, you can decide you don’t like something in your work and start over a dozen times because there will always be something you don’t like. In the second it’s difficult to take a work seriously if you don’t commit to finishing it, and sometimes it means you don’t take yourself seriously. In both cases you learn far more about your skills and what skills you need to develop by “working it out”, and you develop your own self-esteem and pride in your work by finishing everything you start.
The lesson for me was to take the time to really understand what I wanted to say with a work, to explore it thoroughly in my mind, whether it was a commission or not, and found that also helped me build my skills because I didn’t start wandering mid-composition and be forced to experiment as I was painting. I could also plan ahead for materials and make sure I had what I needed. If the work started to take a turn I didn’t expect I was more prepared to consider and explore the changes. I still observe both points today, and they made me successful in both my commercial design career as well as my fine art career.
And in summary, “perfect” is a myth. Your work will never be perfect because each of us sees things differently, and even we see things differently moment to moment. The works in which I strived to some sort of perfection were ones that ended up stiff and lifeless, overworked, things that even others could see. Give it up, it is what it is, it will be what it’s meant to be. Finish it and go and work on another.
About “Three Black and White Cats”
Above, the original “Three Black and White Cats” watercolor at 12 x 16.
In working my way through my studio in 2019 I’ve found many other older works that I made but left packed away. Somehow, in the first Christmas rush of my portrait career, I had managed to store this first draft in a place where pastel had dusted onto it, and then stored it in a portfolio that was shoved behind a bunch of things for years until I pulled it out and went through it. I found this painting, and the moment I saw it, even with dark pastel dusted over it, I remembered the situation and wondered, “What was wrong with this?” I put it aside determined to someday clean it up and “finish” it.
I named this “black and white cats” because that’s what we called these markings at that time—I don’t remember using the term “tuxedo cat” until later in the 90s, and I hadn’t realized that until now! I remember loving the term “tuxedo cat” as soon as I heard it.
I “found” this again, tucked into a blank watercolor pad for protection, inside one of my zipper portfolios which I used for such storage. I used all my zipper portfolios to carry artwork for the AAFP conference last October and I “found” this portrait again and determined it was time to finish it and present it.
The peach color I had mixed had lost a little of its red cast and looked orange or warm tan and I wanted to warm up that color again. Also, when I’d stopped on this first version, I hadn’t added the shading to the background so the cats’ white areas seemed to fade into the background in most areas. I took care of that just this week to share it for April.
I’ve always loved this portrait from way back at my beginnings, the simple attentiveness of three tuxedo siblings to their human. Especially after living with Mimi and her kittens all these years I’ve come to love that position of animals looking up at me because it’s so familiar, it’s what I see all the time. This was one of the first, though, and most portraits have the subjects more or less at eye level, looking at them front-on, not from above, and in fact I remember this pose being discouraged somewhere I’d read in my study of portraiture.
Working with the image and modifying the photo
Also, most other animal portrait artists I’d seen used the photo exactly as it was given to them, and I didn’t always care for the result. So what did you do when you received a photo that didn’t fit those parameters? I didn’t know what to do, in part because I didn’t want to change an image they obviously treasured, and to that date I’d always worked with references that were exactly what I needed. Even if I’d had to take a ton of photos myself or stacks of photos from the animals’ people (in fact, I asked for all the photos my customers had) I could always piece together an acceptable view. But this was the only photo they had, and spotted cats’ spots are very specific. I couldn’t just make it up, and I wasn’t skilled enough yet to do what I do now and turn them facing front.
Part of my working through this conundrum is seen in my first attempt at this portrait, and that’s the part I’ve never shared, unintentionally—no immediacy of social media back in 1992. I loved the clear black and white on a simple colored background, which reminded me of some of my ink sketches of black and white cats. I was new to watercolor, but the commissioned size was too big for ink for my comfort and I decided I could paint it as a watercolor instead of a pastel.
I set it up as a 12 x 16 because a 16 x 20 frame as an exact fit with a mat was a standard size. Using the exact photo I lightly drew the cats onto my favorite heavy watercolor board, and painted them in, adding the peach background at the request of my customer. When I got to this point I taped it up to the wall to get a perspective. How did I not realize it would look as if the middle cat was hanging upside down?! How could I make a mistake like that? It was one of the first times I realized that some things work in photos, and some things don’t. Today, I would find this perfectly acceptable, but at the beginning of my career, and with a lot of compositional guidelines on what portraits, especially pet portraits, should look like, this just would not do.
I traced out the cats in the photo, cut them out and laid them out individually on paper, changing the angle of the center cat until it looked more natural for a painting hanging on a wall. I liked it, and decided to go with it. But I couldn’t change the watercolor I’d started and knew I’d have to start over. I didn’t have another sheet of the watercolor paper I preferred and I knew I couldn’t get a watercolor done in time and frame it for Christmas, so I decided to go back to my most familiar medium, pastel, and produced that portrait, above. With the way the cats were rearranged, that portrait turned out to be 16 x 22, just about twice as big! I don’t know if I let them know or just did it, but I remember they were pleased.
But it’s another case of putting my early learning of how things “should” be instead of how they actually are and I decided to let it be. I also think the people who loved these cats for nearly two decades would have liked this version of their portrait just as much as the one they got. But we have to work our way through all these decisions to get where we are, and I’ve enjoyed puzzling my way through all these decisions over the years, and the decisions I still meet with today.
I painted that portrait and another for the same person at that time called “Gizmo and Wilson”, below, both to be given as gifts. She was a rescuer and all these cats were trapped as kittens and young adults in a never-ending colony in the 70s and 80s, and the portraits were for her fosters.
This customer “had a thing” for black and black and white cats, and these were only two of the many she had owned. She gave me a picture of Gizmo, the black and white cat, just as she is, but the picture of Wilson was just the front half of him peeking around a doorframe. I pressed my black cat into service as a model for the rest of Gizmo. This was to hang in my customer’s bedroom, which was entirely in blue, the reason for all the blue.
Again, from my portfolio book. At that time I only photographed my portraits framed because they were examples of the finished package. It would be tedious to eliminate the oval mat after I scanned the photo so I left it. It’s nice to see the framing sometimes.
A New Member Thank You
Register for an account on Portraits of Animals and get a free matted print of “Three Black and White Cats” or choose from several other sketches, paintings or photos of cats and other subjects.
This New Member print is a signed digital print of my ink and watercolor “Three Black and White Cats”. Prints are made in archival inks on Epson Art Paper. This print is 8″ x 8″ and matted to fit a 12″ x 12″ frame.
This print is only available as a new member gift during this month while it’s the featured artwork and desktop calendar, so make sure you sign up before the end of the month!
This month’s desktop calendar, Three Black and White Cats
I’ve worked this image into a desktop calendar for you to enjoy and use for the entire month.
If these sizes don’t work for your device, or if you have problems, please let me know. Often I can troubleshoot the reason an image won’t download or won’t load on your device, but if I just can’t figure it out I can just email it to you and hope that works.
How to download and use your desktop calendar
- Click on one of the images below that matches the dimensions of your monitor to open the image in a new page.
- For desktop computers and laptops, right-click on that image and on a desktop computer choose “save as desktop wallpaper” or “save as background” or whichever option your operating system gives you to be able to do this. You may also simply save it to your hard drive and set it as your background from there.
- For mobile devices, download the image to your gallery then choose it as your wallpaper—this is slightly different on all devices.
Horizontal and HD monitors and screens
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Square monitors and screens
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Small Mobile Devices and Tablets
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Cell Phones and Smartphones
Take a look at other featured artwork and desktop calendar posts.
Each month I feature a piece of feline artwork from the archives to the present day, discuss its history and process, and set it up as a free downloadable desktop calendar for just about every electronic device available.
Click here to see daily sketches, click here to see daily photographs
click here to see other artwork featured on The Creative Cat
or visit Feline Artwork on my main website.
If you are interested in a print of this image, check Portraits of Animals to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.
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Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork
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6 thoughts on “Featured Artwork and April Desktop Calendar: Three Black and White Cats”
Brian, I never had the chance to meet them, but I love this image where they are looking up at their humans with so much love.
Those three really are adorable, their personalities shine through!
The third cat in this portrait looks just like the one I inherited from my younger (16-yr. old) sister who gave up on him after the “novelty” wore off. He was a tough outdoor cat, but only made it to age 4. It was difficult for me to take him for that final ride when he got sick after getting trapped in a cold building in the winter. She went on to own about 9 other cats over the next 40 years or so.
Having been a freelance graphic designer in the 1980s myself (architectural and advertising art, mostly), I finally learned that I had to put the pen/pencil/brush down at a certain point or I would never finish the job (or get paid). My work was mostly linear subject matter, thankfully. You have the eye and capability for life forms that I never really possessed. All of your illustrations are beautiful–often I think I am looking at one of your photographs!
Thomas, thank you! I try to create the image that was never captured as a photo, and often that’s what I manage. My first medium was pencil and I honestly thought I’d never use anything else. I managed to work my way to a photorealistic style which I still use now and then, but I had other visions too brought on by studying the Impressionists. Walking away from it when it was done was a really big lesson. Most of my early illustration and design was line art, though. I worked with a builder and he would give me the elevations of his new houses, I would draw a nicely landscaped artist’s rendering in ink using all those old tools (that I still have) like the curves and perspective templates. I used to use them to draw other illustrations and logos, now I go right into Adobe Illustrator and draw them on my computer, and when I draw in ink it’s freehand–another big lesson.
I hope your sister treated the other cats better as she matured past 16. It’s too bad that original tux had such a short life.
I love it! Thank you for providing these monthly. XO
Thank you, Ellen! Every month I look forward to sharing artwork that everyone can use and enjoy, and tell the story of it.