Once more, with feline

I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy drawing cats (Cats; Stray Bats). Lately, going through files, I keep coming across sketches and projects with cats in them.

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They appear in a variety of media and, in some cases, distinctly different approaches and styles. Taken en masse, they function as something of a sampler (On making samplers).

It’s not just a way of offering different treatments to a client, but of exploring the subject. How much you can communicate in a silhouette will translate into a line drawing; the movement and roundness of a line drawing feeds back into a silhouette (more about silhouette drawings here: Party Portrait).

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Sketches of Church for a design for Shadowhunters leggings

Similarly, producing a large cat can teach you a lot about which gestures you can select in order to produce a small cat, while making a tiny cat gives you the minimum detail you need to create a large cat — anything more is a bonus.

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Cover detail for Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Creature Court novels

Or even how little information is needed to read as “cat” at all (and how to know when you’ve gone too far).

The shifting of styles is important not just when working out the style, but working out where the weight of a story is — in the picture of the cat itself, or the trail of paint below it? That might not correlate with the amount of detail in the picture.

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And every new cat teaches you more about that style you’re working with, as well as about the possibilities of cats, and suggests details and poses to carry off into other styles (or tactfully leave behind).

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Art and writing activities and exercises:

  • Take a small scene (drawn or written, your own or someone else’s — if you can’t think of anything, then simply imagine a cat). Make a list of styles/genres (Pre-Raphaelite, Art Deco, Pop…; Da Vinci, Mary Sheppard, Banksy…; Tolkien, Montgomery, Funke…; Hardboiled, Edwardian comedy, 21st-century travel writing…). Roll dice (or point at random) to choose one, then quickly rough out how that original scene would change when reworked in that style. Try it again, and see what happens now. What works, what shifts, what new details do you discover about the scene or the style or your own preferences?
  • Picking one image (or animal) to pursue through different styles is a lovely thematically coherent way to create a sampler for your own reference.
  • If you’re stuck indoors with other people, you could easy make this a sort of round-robin/Exquisite Corpse/Telephone game, each writing a short scene or then passing it to the next person to change it into a different genre, and then on to the next until it becomes something entirely different.
  • A game like this can of course become its own project — see for example Matt Madden’s comics book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (“inspired by the French author Raymond Queneau’s 1947 book Exercises in Style (Fr Eng), itself inspired by Bach’s Art of the Fugue“). And slightly less formally, Catherynne M. Valente’s “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” Radiance contains a backstory that keeps shifting genres as its film-making characters work out how best to retell it.