How to Draw a Cat:
A Stroll With Famous Cartoon Felines

Where do you start, when you want to draw a cartoon character? 

Let's take a stroll with some well known cats and see how different animators dealt with drawing a cat – and- How to draw the right cat for the story.

Click here for a Step by Step Tutorial for Drawing a Cat in Flash

First of all, we need to know what the ingredients are that make up a cat.
I like to make a list:

  • Triangular ears
  • Slit pupils (cat eyes)
  • Whiskers
  • Claws
  • Paws
  • Long tail
  • Fur
  • Pink tongue
  • 4 legs, walks on all four
  • Triangular nose and split upper lip
  • Color – white, black, ginger, tabby, Siamese, tricolor, gray, gray-blue.

Make your own cat-ingredient list and see if I've missed something.
Now the question is – are all these necessary?

The first mark on our flight plan is the hottest cat on the web today –

Simon's Cat

I bet you've seen this already. 
For the purpose of our study and just for fun- take a minute and watch it again.
Simon's cat is a real cat. He sure has character, but all in all he is just that: a cat. 
Let's look at our list and see which of the cat-ingredients he has:

  • Triangular ears - yes
  • Slit pupils (cat eyes) – no!
  • Whiskers - nope
  • Claws – you don't see them- but you feel them- thru the animation.
  • Paws - yes
  • Long tail - yes
  • Fur – good question, we'll get to that in a bit
  • Pink tongue – tongue yes, pink no.
  • 4 legs, walks on all four - yes
  • Triangular nose and split upper lip – no!
  • Color – well, you can push it and say he's white, but you really can't tell.

We can see then, that you don't absolutely need every item on the list in order to draw a cat. The thing to do is to identify which item on the list is a MUST.
Personally I think it's the ears.

just an ellipse with 2 triangles - already a cat

If you draw a blob, and give it triangular ears it will immediately look like a cat!
Not needing a face was a revelation to me.
Obviously not all the items on the list are equally important.

Back to Simon's cat, let's look at the fur. He didn't really draw a fur, but you FEEL IT there. The soft round contour suggests it, in the smooth way the legs and head connect to the body, and the general plumpness of the whole cat. So- No need to draw every hair – just find a way to give the impression of softness.
As for the claws, we never see them. It's the action of pulling the blanket that implies they are there. 

This is a great thing about animation – the ACTION, how a character MOVES is a part of the DESIGN.

To sum up: Simon's cat is a real cat, behaving (almost) just like a real cat, with cat problems and a cat's life, even if the design does not exactly follow the real animal. (Personally, I think it's a brilliant cat design, I love it!)

Now compare Simon's Cat with this "Oldie but Goldie" -

The Aristocats

Let’s see what these famous cartoon characters have out of the cat-ingredient-list.
If you said "Oh, they've got everything!" – You're right! These guys have the whole kit. 

It's just that they are no cats at all!

They're human beings.

Really. Look again.

They might LOOK like real cats, but they are people with human problems and they do human things, like painting and playing the piano.
It's what they have EXTRA that that helps to show this.
If you only saw a single frame you'd still know – they wear human clothes. The tie and the bows tell the story. 
Instead of taking items off the ingredient list, Disney's animators added to it.
They also speak English.

The question here is: How to draw a cat that is actually a human? 

The Aristocats are a classic example of animals brought to tell a human story. Human nature seems much clearer through the Animal Kingdom Glasses, thus allowing us a closer, harder look at ourselves.

Would this have worked if they didn't look so much like real cats?

Check out Hello Kitty

Look for a couple of minutes and then freeze the video on a frame where you can take a good look at them.

This is a whole other way of thinking on how to draw cartoon characters. 
Hello Kitty characters are extremely stylized.
They walk and talk like little human girls, on two legs with two hands – they don't even try to pretend to be cats. You might wonder why even bother making them look like cats in the first place. The answer is -

because it's CUTE.

How to draw a Flat Cat?

  • Head – like a cat's
  • Ears - yes
  • Whiskers – yes
  • But no Mouth!! (even though they talk!)
  • They walk on two and wear full human clothes, in strong primary colors.
  • In short – They are ICONS of cats.

This is pop art. The cat shape was simplified and stylized until it became a symbol of a cat.

This works great for merchandise. 
The head with the bow of Hello Kitty stands out on bags and T-shirts all over the world. 
The ability to create a powerful and instantly recognizable icon is the designer's ultimate dream. 
Think Apple's bitten apple.
Think about Nike's Swoosh.
Hello Kitty is from their side of the family.

Now let’s see what happens if we add a third dimension.

In Shrek 2 we met The Puss In Boots – in 3D

3D is a terrific toy. 

You can do so many amazing things with it, but in many ways it's still rather new.
What this does to character design is a bit of "reverse logic", or "reverse engineering", if you will.
First you check what you CAN DO, what is possible with the current technology, and THEN you write your story. Toy Story was the best example for this approach. They couldn't make convincing humans, so they told a story about plastic toys.

Plastic is easy.

Then every time you discover how to do something new – that's what you make the story about. Figured out how to do fur? Make a monster movie!
If you are very-very good, you can pick the story first and then set out to invent the tools you need, just like experimental animation once was.
When Pixar made "The Incredibles", half way through the production the Technical Directors (TD) said that "Long hair is theoretical at this point".
They did figure it out in the end. Pixar's got guts.

But I'm going astray.

The Puss in Boots is very realistically done, has all the cat ingredients, and has human clothes (Duh!).

He is a cat doing both human things and cat things, and he seems to have gotten the worst of it – The Hairball scene is one of the most hilarious bits I know. Never the less, he is a natural part of his world. “Shrek” is a kind of a legendary tale and this cat is the sort of character you'd expect to meet there. Our last feline is not so.This guy is a stranger in our world, one of the coolest cats ever -

The Pink Panther

Hum to yourself the delightful tune written by Henry Mancini ("tadam-tadam"), as we study this unusual character.

How to draw a cat? Certainly not pink?!

The Pink Panther is all about being different. 
He is pink, he is a panther, yet he lives in a normal human world, and no one seems to notice.
Or do they?

He's a good bloke, always tries to do the right thing, but keeps stumbling on his own tail.
He doesn't really fit in.
The animation medium seems to help us swallow this strangeness. The story and the gags smooth over the shock and you sometimes forget he is pink. 
I doubt it could have worked in live action, with a guy in a pink suit.
Animation allows this sort of "hiding in plain sight".

The bright-pink-cat-man in the dull-brown-world tells us everything we need to know - with out saying a word!

This is the power of a truly great design - it's a part of the story, and it's worth a thousand words ^-^

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