A BURST OF FEMALE FURY
One second the lioness seems to be sound asleep as the male delicately approaches her. The next second she is an exploding whirlwind of teeth and claws, and the thunder of her roar drowns any other sound from the surroundings, or from us.
We witnessed this burst of female fury in Northern Botswana during the last edition of our “Drawing the Big Cats” safari, and certainly none of us would like to have been in the place of the scolded young male lion. No real harm was done, but the lioness made a very clear statement.
How to capture the raw feline power of that scene with a simple pencil sketch? I try with a view of the angry face as the lioness snarls at the rearing-up male.
In this early stage I try to capture the general proportions of the cat’s head and the shape of the mouth opening with a few simple lines. It is crucial to get these lines right because I will be spending quite a few minutes with the details of the teeth and palate, and it is sooo frustrating to find out that the mouth was too narrow or the mandible was twisted after you had already wrought the details!
After some more minutes I have given shape to the main structures of the head and mouth, although It seems I will need to go against my own sketching rules and use the eraser after all: the tip of the nose looks to be projecting a bit too far forward!
Some more minutes into the work, and now I am ellaborating on the grayscale. Evolution has provided cats with a fantastic “natural makeup” to boost their emotional expressivity, and their faces are a study in tone contrast. Black lipstick, gothic style, stands in striking contrast against the pale fur of the muzzle, and one needs to be careful in order to show the difference between the dark tones of the lips and the darkness of the oral cavity.
In this provisionally finished stage I have insisted with the dark grey tones of the shadowy background. I remember the charging lioness as a fast moving tawny shape against the dark shade of a thick bush, with the fearsome canines flashing out. To capture this impression I need to spend some more minutes adding pencil strokes until I get a sort of dark mass from which the facial features stand out.
I never tire of quoting pioneer paleoartist Charles Knight when he said that you cannot pretend to be able to reconstruct an extinct animal unless you can properly depict its living relatives. As I further my work on the collection of extinct cat illustrations for my upcoming book project, I find it so useful to sketch time and again the big cats we have encountered in the wild. It is an exercise that never fails to enrich my perception of the animals and to deepen my admiration for them. Drawing is most fun when it implies learning, and sketching the wild cats of Africa teaches me something new everyday!