Modeling for your Health
Cats Are Hard
News for August
A Controversial Creature, part 1
Cats Are HardWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
So this month’s theme is cats.
Hmm, hmm, hmm.
Now, as it happens, I have a cat. Actually, I’ve had a number of cats over the years, but the current feline in residence is a muscular tabby with a head the size of a grapefruit, a rescue kitty named "Gentle Ben" for his tendency to put his paws on your shoulders and hug you, and who escorts me to and from the bathroom at all times, lest I be attacked by ninjas while using the toilet.
He’s a good cat. I don’t know if there’s a full column about art in him though, although his fur, like all cat fur, gets in EVERYTHING, particularly paint. (In case you’re wondering, no, I have no quick trick for getting cat fur out of paint. If it’s a wash, try to pull it delicately out of the critical area with the paintbrush—if it’s some crucial or chunky bit of acrylic, I suggest tweezers and prayer. Lint rollers are handy devices, but they don’t really work on canvas.)
I’ve always found it difficult to paint cats. Something about their faces is tricky. I think it’s the cheekbones. I get lost in the space between the eye and the jaw—something needs to go there, but what? If I’m going to paint cats, I need to work from photos. (Ben is not a great model, preferring to lie upside down in Roadkill Kitty position whenever possible.)
I suspect the problem with painting cats is the problem with painting all familiar things—we know too well what they look like. If I paint an alligator or a tapir, I have a lot of leeway because my audience are humans, and with few exceptions, do not have the faces of alligators and tapirs imprinted upon their brain. If the tapir’s eye is slightly displaced, if the nostrils are move down a smidge too far—well, one zookeeper in Minnesota may grumble at my idiocy, but most people will never know.
Try that with a human face, and we balk right away. We know what humans are supposed to look like! A slight wrongness sets off all kinds of internal klaxons. Somewhere, on some gut-deep level of familiarity, we know That Ain’t Right.
We may not actually know what’s wrong, mind you. I recall staring at a movie villain for at least twenty minutes, trying to figure out, with a friend, just what was so very odd about his face. Eventually I pegged it—his ears were extremely high on his head, earlobe almost level with the bridge of the nose, enough to set off the oddity detector without being overt enough to notice right away.
Which reminds me, in a roundabout way, of an IQ test I took many years ago in grade school. Having failed abysmally at the tests involving math, they set me instead on a completely non-math one, involving a lot of "What is wrong with this picture?" stuff. The only card I remember was a picture of a Holstein cow. I stared at it for over a minute and finally gave up, then as soon as the proctor flipped the page, realized it hadn’t had any ears. (That may not have anything to do with anything, but I suspect that the ability to decipher the nagging of the internal detector may count as a kind of intelligence. I must admit, however, I have yet to arrive a point in my life where anything important hinged on my ability to locate earless Holsteins. Still, you never know . . .)
Getting back to the cat, it’s the same thing. We see cats quite a lot, I think, and they don’t have all the variation in head shape common to dogs—some are more angular, some flat and poofy, but the gulf between an Abyssinian and a Persian is still nothing like the difference between a collie and a bulldog. There is less variation on how cats can look, and we’re pretty well familiar with what looks "right." So the end result is that they’re tricky to draw. You have to get it right—or you have to a least hit a stylization that takes in the essential catness of it all. But at the same time, while you know what looks "wrong," I, at least, have a hard time figuring out what looks "right." Those cheekbones throw me every time, and the ears take up a lot more skull than they ought to, and . . . man.
Cats are hard.
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