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Let's Paint Grumpy Cat

November 12, 2016


Step-by-step on how to paint digitally, with Grumpy Cat as the muse.




I’ve been asked how I go about making a painting on my iPad with just a finger (and a fat, stubby one too), so here I will describe the process I go through.


Layer it


I think of a painting like a lasagna. In fact, I think of most things like lasagnas, in that they are made up of layers that come together. “People are like onions” should really be “People are like lasagnas”. I really like lasagnas.


Anyway, what I mean by that is, it is useful to break down an image into layers:


  1. the basic shapes

  2. the background colours

  3. the foreground colours

  4. the details


So when you see a fully-formed image, like this…


Such a photogenic (or paintingenic) face!


… try to see through the different layers.


What are the main shapes in the image?

What are the main colours that stand out?

What are the colours that are muted?

What level of detail is incorporated?


Reverse engineer the image in your head, and then build it up again on your drawing app. Let's take a stab at it. 


Step 0: Open up the app on your tablet


Pull up a blank page that’s just waiting to be messed with.



Step 1: Roughly sketch the basic shapes with pencil


In this case, the basic shapes are rather obvious – a large squarish circle for the face, 2 small ovals for the eyes, one small over for the nose, a larger circle around the nose for the puffy muzzle, and two large triangles for the ears.


Start by drawing a cross on the page just to establish the middle point, and then place the shapes around that reference point. I use a light shade of grey, so that it’s visible enough to act as a guide for me but not too visible that it can be seen in case I forget to erase them when I complete the painting (and I always forget).



Step 2: Determine the colours on the lowest layers of the image (the background), and dab those in with the watercolour brush


For Grumpy Cat, the base colour of its face is light brown. Dab in a slightly darker shade, and then layer on a lighter shade. Some parts of Grumpy Cat’s face are white, so leave those areas empty for now.



It doesn’t look like much right now, but trust the process of layering. This ugly piece of crap will turn into something good, I promise.


Step 3: Determine the colours on the upper layers of the image (the foreground) and dab those in too


The most prominent thing about Grumpy Cat is the dark bags under its eyes, which are dark brown. The same colour is also found around its ears. 



Step 3: Details, details, details – the nose & mouth


Now that the basic layers are laid, it’s time to turn the indistinct blobs of colour into more defined features that resemble our muse, the Grumpy Cat.


I started with the nose and mouth – it’s the second most prominent thing about Grumpy Cat – that frown etched into its face is what makes it the celebrity it is. But you can start anywhere you want.


Zoom in and repeat the process of layering in the colours within that small area – white in the back, a blob of pink for the button-nose, and another narrow horizontal pink blob where the mouth will be. Refine with a pen or pencil, adding in lines to define the nostrils, and the frown.




Step 4: Details, details, details – the eyes


Eyes are the window to one’s soul, and it is true in real life as it is in a drawing or painting. I am pretty obsessed with eyes, and spend a lot of time trying to get them as close as possible. Do it right, and the painting comes alive. Do it wrong, and the painting is flat and dead.


Grumpy Cat has amazing blue eyes, so mix together a shade that’s as close to it as possible, and dab those in.



Then play around with the details. Study the eyes, the flecks around the pupil, the shadows around the edges, the position of the glint of light on the surface, and try to imitate those with a combination of pen, pencil, marker and small dabs of watercolour brush. This is where patience, experimentation and the ‘undo’ button comes in handy.



Ugghhh, mistake! Afsgk87^%^jkjhlswh...


Halfway through all this, I started to realise that there was something off about my Grumpy Cat – the shape of its head was too oval. In the reference photo, its head had more of a square shape.


Not the shape of head I was after... Source: Hey Arnold


The mistake was made early on when I first sketched out the basic shapes (see Step 1 and how distorted the head shape was). It was way too late to go back (I’d have to either press the ‘undo’ button half a million times, or simply start over), so I decided to make do however I can. 


Here you can see that I erased parts of the ear in order to re-shape the head. I repeated Step 2, painting in the base colours and trying to let them blend in with the finished parts of the head. The fix looks very obvious and ugly here, but again, with some more layering of colours, it’ll work out fine.


Step 5: Details, details, details – the fur


I ended up erasing the ears completely, and for a long time, considered just leaving it that way. Grumpy Cat can be the next Doraemon, simply because I was too lazy to draw ears, especially when there was a more painstaking task at hand: drawing fur.


I love animals, but drawing the furry ones can be a major pain in the butt. This is the part where you use a mixture of pen and pencil to draw thousands of fine lines to give the illusion of thick fur.



Try to follow the natural pattern of the fur, and put in as much fur-lines as you have the patience for. If you’re not too OCD, you can make do with less fur-lines that are a bit messy (which is the route I took). If you’re a perfectionist, then expect to spend hours lovingly penciling in hair by hair.


Step 6: Details, details, details – the ears


I relented and decided to give Grumpy Cat his tattered ears.