The Artist’s Life: Early Feline Art Influences and Memories
When you are a “cat person”, it seems to begin with day one and work its way all through your life to the end, with cats intertwined with everything in between. I didn’t even have a cat yet when I began to receive feline-themed gifts.
I had planned to write an article for my featured artwork feature this week about one of the projects mentioned in this article, which I originally wrote in 2010, but with trapping cats this week I’ve just run out of time to prepare it. But as I checked in with the article I realized I haven’t shared it for a decade! I thought my readers might find the content interesting, and perhaps they’ve had similar experiences themselves. And you get to see some of my first cat artwork and the origins of some of my styles.
So here it is, from 2010:
Cleaning out, renovating and organizing my spare bedroom into my studio last year unearthed more works from my development as an artist. I first published a shorter version of this post in May 2010 as over the Memorial Day weekend I was reorganizing my house after moving my mother into a skilled nursing unit, sorting through boxes from her storage unit. In addition to my own boxes of papers and mementos I’d stuffed into the unit when I ran out of space for my mother’s voluminous paperwork, I also sorted through things I found in boxes from her house, sold years ago but which I hadn’t the time to review until then. Some of what I found in all this has given me surprising smiles. I had no idea people knew I was a “cat person” even before I had a cat!
Some of these items gave me encouragement to love kitties, or they inspired me in some way as an artist. I also have an extensive collection of cat figurines given to me as gifts in those early years even before I had a cat, but I’ll cover that another day. For now, remembering those early years is a treasure in itself.
So looking at a few of the things I’ve found, here’s an interesting perspective on how I got to where I am as a keeper of cats and as an artist.
The Birthday Card
Exhibit A is a birthday card to me from my aunt and uncle which I found among my mother’s papers. I’m not sure why it was there and not among my things as most of them are, and I’m also not sure why it was among the papers where I found it. But the most remarkable thing is that it was given to me before I had a cat. My parents got me a kitten for Christmas when I was nine, but by the date on the card I could only have been seven. Had I already begun talking about how much I wanted a cat? Or was a kitty a more appropriate subject on a card for a little girl? And it’s a big card, 6-1/2″ x 9-1/2″ with pretty deckled edges.
No matter, the little kitty, the ball of turquoise yarn and flowers in her hair and around her shoulders were decidedly a portent for things to come. The whole combination of kitties, colors, yarns, flowers, even flowers in the hair—and red hair too—is just so “me”, but it’s me today, not the little first-grader in Catholic school who didn’t yet have a kitty or a crochet hook, and would not develop into the flower-and-bright-color-wearing woman with the long red hair for decades. I put this in a little frame and have it up in my studio now, and smile and shake my head when I look at it.
I remember this style or art from the 60s, and I don’t know if I’d create artwork like this if given the chance, but I do distinctly remember a few other kitty cards for the art and design, some of which I still have in my baby book or in my “inspiration files” that caught my eye all those years ago and influenced what I do today.
The Sixth-grade Feline Batik
Next in chronological order, among things I found while cleaning and reorganizing my studio was the orange kitty batik I completely forgot I had! I think I did this in sixth grade, and I clearly remember watching the teacher show us the batik process of painting melted wax onto the cloth and dipping in successively darker dyes, and visualizing the orange kitty with its paws rolled under and an orange kitty smile, like they do.
But it also has echoes of The Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, long one of my favorite stories, and being an early cat person The Cheshire Cat was a favorite right away, along with The White Kitten.
But my kitty was gray and white, and to my knowledge I didn’t know an orange kitty of anyone else’s very well at all. But I actually remember painting the wax on the fabric in the correct areas and dipping the fabric into the dye, then later ironing it out onto newspaper. I have no idea where the idea began, or even if I had a reference photo.
Now that I look at it from the perspective of 25 years of drawing cats, I’m amazed at my 12-year-old’s observation skills and ability to visualize. How did I know where and how the stripes fell? And the subtle tone-on-tone orange, and the white chest? What took me so long to get around to painting cats, like, 20 years?
This had hung high up on the wall in my studio for several years, but as I added height to the shelves I took it down and packed it away because it had become covered where it was hanging. The memory of it barely entered my consciousness until I discovered it. What luck! I’ve stretched and framed this behind glass so that it doesn’t get any dirtier. I can’t wait to batik again, but it’s proved a little tricky in this house with these particular cats.
(I will add in 2022, I’m currently framing it for a customer who purchased it! I learned long ago that you don’t need to keep everything. If you’ve learned all you needed it’s fine to let it go to the right place. This one definitely has a great place to go. And I also found a way to offer this popular design on many gift items. )
This also reminds me it’s been years since I had an orange kitty in my “permanent collection” of cats, a few fosters, but not one who stayed since Allegro passed in 1996. Finally, his portrait is on my list of new paintings… (And in 2017 I did paint one of the ones I’d had in mind, “Late Winter Afternoon Sunbath,” a classic Allegro.)
A Little Ceramic Bootsie Tile
Next is a little porcelain tile bearing the image of my first cat, Bootsie, sitting on a windowsill that didn’t exist in the house where I grew up, but I guess I took artistic license in tenth grade. I remember the assignment was to make a relief tile from the porcelain, meaning it had a raised surface that had been carved into to form the image, and we would glaze afterward.
Bootsie was, as you see a gray and white tuxedo cat with pickle-green eyes. She was never as chunky as you see here, and I guess I had to have that cat smile until I learned how to work with cat faces.
So there she is, a little worse for the wear with a chipped corner and a big chip along the bottom edge, but still, perhaps I should consider this my first “portrait”! Perhaps I’m not correct in saying that my sketch of Sally in “Sleeping Beauty” (below) was my first “real” work because I took something in real life and managed to make it appear pretty much as I had visualized. In any case, my urge to share my love of my feline was there even at this time.
And like the batik design, I’ve lately had in mind some 3-D projects, especially little tiles or relief-type wall pieces, even flat pieces which are painted. A few years ago The Clay Place Gallery moved into town and I’ve had a great time attending shows and browsing the regular collection for ideas and gifts. I find many lovers of animals and nature among these ceramic artists!
And From the Basic Design Class in College
Though I have a degree in English, I began as an art major and took basic drawing classes including graphic design. Way back in the days before computers, the most basic graphic design class utilized calligraphy as a way of teaching respect for letter forms and layout, integrating illustration with lettering because you actually drew your ideas on paper, including any type over 12 point. Typestyles weren’t so accessible as they are now, and drawing them clearly taught the nuances of different typefaces. I still love hand-lettering, and create custom calligraphy on a regular basis, usually for wedding invitations.
As we worked our way through the Speedball Textbook, at this point using the “B” nib (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry), this particular assignment was to choose a set of words that described things we enjoyed and felt described us, and letter them in a way that created the form of something we liked. Another project I completely forgot having done, I remember I jumped to the idea of a cat shape, this time a cat on a windowsill. The kitty still has a big smile, guess it would take me a while to outgrow that one.
Beginnings of Feline Illustrations and Cards
Then there’s a handmade get well card which I found in my mother’s papers; inside it says “hope you’re back at the top of your ladder soon”. My mother didn’t like cats well enough to give her a card with a cat on it but I think I just used the opportunity to work on a drawing style I was exploring.
It’s an ink sketch of a kitty on a ladder in a style I’d be proud to accomplish today, but in the mid 1980s, when I began working on cats in earnest, this was all new and very much inspired by a lot of study of what was current in illustration styles at the time. Before desktop publishing all phases of graphic design were separate skills; I was a typesetter, another person pasted up what I’d typed and added the artwork, another person proofread, etc. But we also shared skills to get the work done, and the layouts came from sales people who just gave an indication of what they’d like as art for the ad or used the laughable blanket phrase, “Be creative!” when it was often the last thing they wanted, and besides we didn’t have the time to be creative. We constantly explored the books of black and white clip-art for the ads we were putting together. I studied the swirls of dots and strokes that both created patterns and shadows, and just provided interest to the non-objective space. I began experimenting with the set of very expensive Rapidograph technical pens I’d kept from college, enjoying the feel of experimenting with lines and strokes and just seeing what I could produce.
I must have used a reference image, but I’m not sure what parts were reference and what were simply imagination. I drew the ladder with a ruler before sketching in the cat and the other elements of shadow and pattern, but remember at some point deciding just to freehand these types of lines and elements in my ink sketches because they just looked too stiff and, in part, defeated what I was trying to accomplish with the freehand areas. But I loved all those dots.
My First Intentional and Commercial Feline Works
This brings me to the point where I began finding myself as an artist, intentionally creating feline art and finding my style. When I was done experimenting, I discovered I actually had photos of my own that I could use, ones I’d taken of my cats and others’ cats, and after this slow march from those early feline-oriented birthday cards through other media I finally came out with a finished work in pencil from one of my own photos. This led to an assignment to create a brochure for my veterinarian, which in turn led to creating a set of note cards, but this began with the sketch of “Sleeping Beauty”.
I always say this drawing was a turning point in my career as an artist; it was the first time I looked at a scene, took in all the necessary details, visualized the finished work, and actually created what I had visualized. In all the other things I’d done before, this was what I’d been trying to accomplish. And it’s pencil. I had been practicing with pencil tracing photos and then just using outlines, finally just sketching from photos to gain skill and confidence. This was when I realized, in a phrase I still use now, I could “think in pencil”.
An update in 2022, for years this sketch hung above my desk, watching over me in my office and studio. I still had this sketch in 2010 when I wrote first this article, when it was on loan to Deb at Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation so that Sally’s peaceful expression can bring comfort to Deb’s families when they visit her. A friend purchased “Sleeping Beauty” in 2020, where Sally reminds her of a beloved feline companion, and I am happy she can bring joy to someone after so many years with me.
Read more about this piece and to read a little bit about Sally, my joyful little deaf white cat who never noticed she couldn’t hear.
Illustrations for a Veterinary Brochure
Before the days of home computers and quick digital printing, as a newbie freelance graphic designer while also working full time as a designer, I had the opportunity to design and compose copy for a brochure for the veterinary hospital where I took my cats and my many rescues. It was my very first freelance assignments where I not only designed and composed the job, but I was also the print buyer and contacted printers I knew from where I worked.
Back in the dark ages, we didn’t have stock photos and I wasn’t yet offering myself as photographer but it needed a few images, line art illustrations preferred for offset printing as we did in those days. The big books of clip art available at the time didn’t offer what we wanted. I’d been studying illustrations in books for years, learning and practicing and I decided that, since I was sketching my cats all the time, I could also sketch the illustrations for this brochure, and I did—my first illustration assignment. I drew it in black colored pencil on “coquille board” which has a mezzotint texture and could be shot as line art, one of the workarounds I learned way back when halftones were hard to get but I grew to like it along with other textured boards. I know I used a reference photo from a magazine for this, but changed the cat and the veterinarian to resemble ones we knew.
Kitties Being Kitties
At the same time the veterinary hospital considered the idea of its own personalized pet sympathy cards. I’d been sketching around and decided to offer a few of the sketches I already had as samples and agreed to sketch a few dogs and generic images.
They decided not to print the cards at that time, but I had the experience and the sketches, and in 1993 had four of the cat sketches printed into one-color note cards which I still sell today, “Kitties Being Kitties”. Three of them are ink sketches, and I’m sure you can clearly see the influence of the ink sketch above. A fourth of two tabbies was drawn on “coquille board” mentioned above. I still offer those same four designs in a set of note cards. You can read more about all four designs and purchase those cards.
And ironically enough, I had decided to use some of the other designs from that era now, but I’ve once again misplaced the big envelope with them! I didn’t get around to actually organizing all that older artwork, but now I actually have a place for it so we’ll see that coming up soon.
Where I Am Today
So there’s my little journey down memory lane, but it’s always a good thing to take a review and remember things you’d experimented with just to learn, but not continued, where your influences were and how you began learning what you do. As the years have passed I’ve regularly reviewed where I am, but this little finding of feline inspirations was truly exciting.
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4 thoughts on “The Artist’s Life: Early Feline Art Influences and Memories”
This is a lovely visual cat-themed biography. The initial card takes me back to my own kittenhood.
I remember seeing kittens and cats on things everywhere when I was little, cards, wall art, clothes, curtains, tablecloths, you name it. Or maybe I was already attuned to cats then and just like now I see cats everywhere I look! How about you? And how about those big-eyed kittens in those days?
Bernadette, I adore every one of these images, but my favorite is the Cat On A Ladder, with I Like Your Spots in a close second.
Vicky, I remember when I couldn’t even draw that technique, and had none of the techniques I use today! It was very, very fun to work out, and I loved working in pen with the dots. I Like Your Spots is actually at least 8 x 10, so that’s a lot of dots! And it was really exciting to shrink the image down to a note card and see the dots become a tonal pattern. I’m going to pull out that technique for an upcoming project.