How to Draw and Sketch Cats

Their Grace and Elegance Make Them Great Subjects

Ginger cat playing with chalk
Your biggest problem may be if your cat wishes to assist with the drawing.

Elizabeth Livermore/Getty Images

Have you ever noticed how often cats are pictured sleeping? It's the only way they will be still for long enough to be drawn!

But cats are also wonderful subjects to sketch, with their quick graceful movements equally suited to brisk energetic handling or to a smooth, elegant line. To capture your cat in action, you'll need a quick eye and quicker hand.

Whether in a resting pose or full of life, cats are fun to draw. They do pose some unique challenges. With careful observation, appropriate use of line, and a bit of practice, you will be drawing great cat pictures.

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Observe the Cat's Grace and Movements

Sketching the basic forms of a cat
Sketching the essential forms.

H South

When you start sketching, don't worry about being too artistic. You want to learn to observe the cat's basic structure, so begin by sketching them in simplified forms. These can change dramatically with a cat, due to their great flexibility.

  • Rough in the oval of the ribcage/belly area, the shoulders, rump, and head.
  • Observe the cat in various poses -- curling in a ball, stretching, arching -- and mentally simplifying the shapes.
  • Note that the spine runs from the back of the neck to the tip of the tail. While it's very flexible, it won't form a sharp bend. This is a useful line to observe in sketching as it helps you align the forms of the body.
  • The tail is an important means of expression for the cat and it aids in balancing the drawing (not just the cat). It should always be included in the sketch where possible.
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Use Structural Line and Contour

Sketches of cats
Essential structure and contour.

H South

The quality of line is an expressive tool. Cats often lend themselves to long, sinuous lines reflecting their graceful musculature, but their movement can also be sharp, unpredictable and aggressive. You can use directional marks to bring out the roundness of form or to give texture and movement.

When sketching from life, you need to take in as much of the pose as possible in a few moments. This can be difficult for the inexperienced eye and that's okay.

Even if your sketch is just a few lines, as in the example, it can still express a great deal about the cat's movement. As you develop your visual memory, you'll be able to build more detail and contour into your sketch.

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Sketch in Ink

Ink cat sketch
A cat sketched in digital ink.

H South (Based on a photograph by Sem Libeert)

There's a great tradition of sketching cats in ink. Their graceful movements seem to lend themselves perfectly to a simple, elegant contour. Once you've practiced observing your cat, you'll be able to recall a surprising amount of detail.

When drawing, we often talk about 'what to leave out' to simplify or organize a composition. With this style of ink drawing, it's 'what to put in' and that's as little as possible. Try to see how minimal and clean a line you can create - think of Zen calligraphy. This works well with the addition of a mid-tone ink wash, too.

Another way to practice is to use layers in a drawing program, tracing a cat from a photograph. You can have as many attempts as you want without wasting paper, and tracing the shapes helps you to notice the subtleties of the cat's form. For this example, I used 'Artrage', with the ink pen tool set to maximum softness.

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Sketch Using Tone

Sketch of a cat stretching
A quick tonal sketch.

H South

Sketching cats with tone - using a carpenter's pencil, side shading, or thick chalk or charcoal - is a good way to create broad forms with simple, fast strokes. Look for the shadows, shading these in broad, casual strokes and use just the quickest and lightest of touches to suggest contour on the lighter part of the cat's body.

This example is a very fast sketch done in just seconds, so there is minimal variation in tone. This style of sketch needs to be kept fresh and simple and you should avoid erasing whenever possible.

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Draw a Cat in Two Simple Steps: Step 1

Foundation sketch of a cat
Foundation sketch of the cat.

H South (Based on a photo by Deirdre)

When you are able to hold the cat's attention for a while or you're drawing from a photograph, you can take a little longer to develop some surface detail.

For this sketch of a seated cat, we're going to use a light, linear approach and try to keep the drawing fresh and direct. Don't mess with erasing and correcting.

Begin by observing the main forms of the cat's body. Look particularly for the relative proportions of the body, head, and haunches. Indicate these with relaxed lines. The contour drawing is completed, focusing on the key shapes and glossing over detail.

Next, we'll add those details and suggest the cat's fur.

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Step 2: Add Texture

Sketching a cat's fur
Sketching fur.

H South (Based on a photo by Deirdre)

Now, draw the cat's fur with casual, short strokes. Look for the longer areas of fur and the darker, shadowed areas.

With a linear sketch like this, the increased mark-making is used to create textures that also suggest shadow. You will look for the darker areas such as the shadows under a ruff, or dark markings to use it more freely. On lighter toned areas, use texture more sparingly.