How to Draw a Cat in Colored Pencil

Cats are stunning animals and each one is unique, this makes them a great subject for drawing exercises. Using colored pencils and a reference photo, this step-by-step lesson will show you how to draw a portrait of your favorite feline.

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Before You Start Drawing Your Cat

cat drawing in colored pencil
© Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

The Reference Photo

Cats don’t sit still for long and certainly not when you want them to. That is why it’s important to have a photo to use as a reference for this project. Before you begin, select or take a photo of the cat you wish to draw.

A lounging position like the portrait we’re using is nice for any cat. It tends to show off their personality and is often when you’ll get the most intense look in the eyes. While this is a gray striped cat, you can apply these methods to cats of any color and pattern.

Supplies and Techniques

The techniques used in this tutorial include the basics of drawing with colored pencils. Through careful shading, blending, and layering, the use of masking fluid, and a hint of gouache, the cat comes to life with realistic detail.

You will need to have a set of colored pencils as well as a graphite pencil and a good eraser. The paper of your choice, cotton swabs, masking fluid, and white gouache paint is also required supplies to complete the lesson.

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Begin Sketching the Outline

The outline ready to colour
Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

As usual, begin with a detailed sketch of the cat based on the photo. A good black pencil is all that’s needed.

Use rough guidelines to suggest where the stripes or other markings of your cat will be. Also, distinguish the size, shape, and position of the eyes and indicate the direction of the whiskers. 

This is also a good opportunity to decide how much of the cat’s chest and legs will show and if there you want to make any changes to the pose. Work all of these preliminary details out now so it’s easier to fill it in the details as we go.

Once the pencil sketch is as accurate as you’d like it to be, we will begin coloring it in. As you work, erase one small section of the black pencil at a time and replace it with colored pencil.

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Begin with the Eyes

the first strokes of color around the eyes
Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

The eyes of a cat are often the most captivating part of a portrait, so we’ll begin in that area. This includes some fine details in the cat’s fur.

Using your black pencil, and a few preliminary strokes of color for the fur on the cat’s head and around her ears. Notice how the strokes of color go upward. This follows the natural direction of hair growth, which is good to pay attention to with any animal.

Outline the eyelids—both the top and bottom—with a very sharp pencil. This may take five or six times to get the right intensity and you may need to sharpen your pencil often.

Tip: A hand pencil sharpener is the most efficient option to use while you're working. It produces less pencil waste and is easy to pick up as needed. That’s not to say that electric sharpeners are not useful. Those are great for quickly preparing a brand new box of pencils and exposing the lead.

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Color Shading the Eye Area

Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

It is now time to begin adding color. This cat’s eyes are a brilliant green, though yours might be a yellow-gold or even blue. Choose the three best colors for your cat’s eyes. The example uses bright green and cadmium yellow along with turquoise for the darkest areas.

Begin with delicate shading in the iris of the eye. Pay attention to the shadows, which are typically closest to the pupil and work out to light colors around the edges of the eyeball. With the correct shading, the eye can have a global look and pop off the paper. 

The slit that is a cat’s pupil is done in heavy black pencil. Go over and over this area using circular black strokes that follow the shape. Leave a white highlight in the center, but off to either the left or right a bit depending on the direction of the light. This small touch adds realism to the portrait.

Tip: Choose which side of the cat you wish to work on first. If you’re right-handed it may be easier to work from left to right so you don’t smudge your work. The opposite is true if you’re a leftie. If you do choose to start from the opposite side, use a slip sheet (scrap paper will do) to protect what you’ve already drawn.

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More Fur Shading in the Face

Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

Drawing the fur of any animal requires patience, attention to detail, and building the pencil up in layers. In this step, the stripes coming away from the eyes are developed with many layers of black. Some leave just a hint of color while other areas are very pronounced.

Small and light black strokes are drawn in the ears again. These go lengthwise to suggest the direction that those hairs grow and lay in. Small light strokes also start down the bridge of the cat’s nose and these hairs are usually very small and tiny.

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Shape the Nose and Whiskers

drawing the nose and whiskers
Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

At this point, you can revisit the whiskers. Use small black marks to suggest where the whiskers originate on either side of the nose. They are usually arranged in fairly parallel rows.

You will find that artist’s masking fluid is very helpful for an animal's whiskers. Though you could simply use dark, thin lines, it doesn’t quite catch the luminescence of these fine, long hairs. Run a thin line of masking fluid along your whisker marks so you won’t get too close while shading the face. We’ll remove it and refine the whisker area later.

The nose is made up of shades of pinks, whites, and Alizarin Crimson. Rub them flat in between layers using a cotton swab to create a soft texture and blend them together.

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Add Your Cat's Stripes

drawing the stripes
Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

Larger, flatter shapes of the fur color are needed in between each of the stripes. To suggest a tabby coat color, use a blend of yellow ochre and raw umber shades. Even black, white, and gray cats can use little hints of color, so try to incorporate some.

At the same time, continue adding black strokes in layers and build up the stripes. The more depth you can get into the cat’s coat, the more realistic the drawing will be.

Tip: If you make a line too dark—such as the left side of the cat’s mouth here— use an Exacto knife to scratch off the excess color. This is a more delicate process and will remove less color than an eraser. It will result in small, white strokes that you can leave to add depth or lightly fill in with a softer touch.

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Continue Filling in Texture and Details

Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

Using the same shading and strokes, continue working down the cat. Use your colored and black pencils to selectively suggest the hair.

Keep an eye on your highlights and shadows as you work. It is not uncommon to need five to seven layers for the darkest areas of the coat.

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Drawing the Whiskers

© Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

The whiskers are often the most difficult part of drawing a cat. They’re white but also need a soft line to give them form. It is nearly impossible to erase enough color to make them as white as you want. Likewise, a white colored pencil does not have enough covering power for the job.

The solution to vibrant whiskers is the masking fluid we used before and a little white paint.

Remove the masking fluid and draw the outlines back in for the whiskers. Once the coat colors behind the whiskers are nearly complete, paint in the white area with gouache to make the whiskers very clean and bright. Build this up in thin layers until your whiskers shine.

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Completing the Background

the completed cat drawing in colored pencil
© Janet Griffin-Scott, licensed to, Inc.

To complete the drawing, shade the background using large areas of light yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and raw umber colored pencils. Burnish the colors using a tissue in between each layer.

Notice how the background is darker on the right and lighter on the left. This suggests a light source that comes from the same direction the catch light in the pupil. It’s a simple way to finish the portrait and give it real visual interest.

Watch Now: How to Draw a Cat