Paint a stylized cat

Introduction

In this short tutorial, we are going to create a natural, diffused light setting and its common features. We’re going to paint a stylized character with realistic rendering and I will try to show how you can use your observation to get the best results in your paintings.

cat, fence, snow, stylized, grumpy
Here is the final image we are going to end with after all the steps have been applied.

Finding the Idea

Preparation is the one of the most important steps in your project. Invest your time to get the best reference images you can. Good references will help you through the whole creation process. I start with an idea of creating a stylized cat picture in a rural environment. I decide to avoid any cartoony cat references in order to keep my idea free from outside influence. Instead, I found some funny photographs of real cats with strong features. I’ve also found some nice examples of old wooden structures that I can use for the environment.

cats, sheds, fence
Finding the best references is important for the success of your project. I use PureRef software to manage my images

Creating the rough sketch

I start with a rough sketch. Try to keep things as simple as possible while still catching the spirit of the character. I use the real cat face expression for inspiration. When it comes to stylization, you should try to get the best result with the simplest forms. Try to use basic geometry shapes as your general silhouette. I keep doodling until the sketch starts to make me giggle – that is a good sign since we are creating a cartoony character.

cat, fence, stylized, grumpy, sketch
Do not try to be too specific in your sketch. Focus on overall shape and emotion.

Adding the local colors

Here I add rough color to my sketch. I look through my references for inspiration to find the best solution. Since we are working with natural diffused light, our colors stay local. The color here is not affected by the sunlight; it does not reflect the color of the sky either. It makes the natural diffused light setting comfortable for the beginner painters. This setting works well for the colorful contrast elements. That is why I decided to paint the fence with turquoise and support this element by the color of cat’s eyes. At this step, I add the shadows in order to define my darkest hue.

cat, fence, snow, stylized, grumpy
Do not go into detail with your basic colors. Our goal here is to define the main color setting we are going to use.

Adding the snow

Snow would add a nice atmosphere to the image, so let’s try it out. Snow is white, so it is obvious it is going to be the brightest part of the composition. I look through my references paying attention to the real snow photographs and how it falls on the cat’s fur. Most of the snow is located on cat’s head and back. In addition, I add the blurred snowflakes to the background as a quick test.

cat, fence, snow, stylized, grumpy
Snow is going to be the brightest part of the image, so it is important to add it in the early stages.

Establishing the basic light and form

Here we proceed with adding light and shadows. Natural diffused light is soft and delicate but it still has direction. We have the light falling from the upper right, so let’s add a lighter color here. The darkest part will be near the cat’s paws, as we have an occlusion shadow here. I also add a soft shadow under the cat’s chin. I pay a little more attention to the cat’s eyes and nose, adding brighter highlight to them.

cat, fence, snow, stylized, grumpy
Let’s add the lighting pass, considering the light’s direction and the darkest shadowed area.

Painting the fur

The best advice I can give regarding fur and hair is: don’t start by painting the individual hairs. Instead, consider the fur as a volume, which has its own rhythm and direction. Start with the big shapes and add the details later. Again, look precisely trough your references to understand how it works. Along with adding the fur, I scale the cat’s chin a bit in order to enhance its expression. In addition, I add a reflected light from the environments to the left side of the character.

cat, fence, snow, stylized, grumpy, fur
Adding the fur. Start with the simple shapes and add the details later. Study your references for the best result.

Adding details to the fence

Fence is going to be the huge part of this illustration; it adds a color contrast and proper mood of a rural environment. Keep an eye on your reference to get the material right. Here I start from the dark shadows formed by gaps between the planks. After that, I add dark cracks and some highlights to mimic the wooden texture. Lastly, I add areas of plain wood to get the feeling of worn paint.

cat, tail, fence
Painting the fence – some simple steps to get the feeling of the old wooden fence.

Background details – wooden wall and snow

Now it’s time to work with the background. I make a simple pass trying to add more volume to the snow by adding a shadow at its bottom side. Then I divide the background wall to show the separate beams and add a simple lighting pass.  Finally, I desaturate the whole background a bit to get the atmospheric perspective. I move the cat slightly to the left, and make its ears pointier. This adds a little more impact to the composition.

cat, fence, snow, stylized, grumpy, fur
Working on the background and composition details. Adding the atmospheric perspective and enhancing the character’s silhouette.

Small funny details – metal can

The right side of the composition feels a bit empty – let’s add some funny details to fill up the environment and enhance the story. I decide on an empty tin can, which will reflect the cat’s silhouette. I start with a basic cylindrical form and apply the darkest shadows to it. As soon as I’m happy with its form and position I begin adding the highlights and finally the cat’s reflection. I consciously fake the reflection in the order to get the desired look. Most likely we won’t see any readable cat silhouette in a cylindrical object like this, but I don’t’ think it is a big issue since we get valuable impact by faking this.

can, fence, stylized
Painting the small metal object - this would add some nice highlights and reflections to the scene

Revising the face’s expression

Now it’s time to go back and look again on our initial sketch. I think with all rendering I lost some nice details of the cat’s face expression. It’s not a problem; we can fix it right now. Once again, I go through the cat’s figure and revise my shapes. It only took me about fifteen minutes to do that, but the result is much more satisfying now. In addition, I make the tail more curvy and fluffy.

cat, fence, snow, stylized, grumpy, fur, expression
Let’s compare what we have now with the initial sketch. Looks like we lost some nice details and now it’s time to bring them back

Painting the final snow details

Let’s go back to the snow. I take my first rough mock-up paint the snow once again, but this time I act more carefully. I made the snowflakes smaller and more subtle. After I’m done with the snow particles on the cat, I paint the snowflakes in the air. I keep them on a separate layer and copy this layer multiply times to get the right feeling of falling snow. At the next step, I’m going to add a motion blur filter to them. Again, I study my references and the real snow photographs to get the proper look.

cat, fence, snow, stylized, grumpy, fur, can
Here we go back and re-paint the snow on the cat and in the air in order to make it more believable.

Final image additions

Now it’s time to gather everything together. I take a thin brush, paint the whiskers, and add sharp, vibrant highlights on the nose and eyes. As I mentioned in a previous step, I apply a motion blur filter to the snow. After some thought I went a little further and blurred the background. That makes the cat to stand out more. Then I increase the overall saturation of the image just a little bit. It makes the picture to look juicier. As a final step, I use the color dodge to emphasize the highlights. Try to be careful with this step and not burn it too much. Now we are done!

cat, fence, snow, stylized, grumpy, fur, can
Adding blur, saturation and small sharp details – last final steps to make the image work better.

Search for inspiration everywhere

Do not limit yourself with other artist’s paintings when it comes to finding an inspiration. Be sensitive and attentive to everything going on around you. Look at photography, sculpture, contemporary art and people around you. Listen to music and poetry. This is a secret of gaining fresh ideas and a good way to avoid a burnout.