SZABOLCS KÓKAY

BIRDERS AROUND THE WORLD

“Working in nature”

I was born in 1976 in Hungary. I’ve always been interested in nature and drawing, but combined these 2 interests only at the age of 20. I became a full-time illustrator and artist in 2001. I’m a member of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) since 2012. In 2008 I was the ‘Birdwatch Artist of the Year’ by Birdwatch magazine and Swarovski. In 2010 I won the ‘Don Eckelberry Scholarship Award’ of the Society of Animal Artists (this price brought me to Trinidad on a 2 weeks study trip). More on my webpage: http://www.kokay.hu

Fieldsketches
© Szabolcs Kókay

Have you always been linked to the world of drawing and illustration? When you start to draw birds?
I’ve been drawing in all my life, from my childhood, but started drawing and painting birds seriously only at the age of 20.

How a self-taught artist gets to become a full-time illustrator?
I have been working in nature conservation in Hungary (in BirdLife Hungary and the CITES office). These years were very important for me, I made very important contacts in this field. My first commissions, which helped me to start my full-time career as an artist and illustrator came from national parks, nature-protection organizations, and the Ministry for the Environment.

As an illustrator you are using different techniques, acrylic, watercolor, gouache … Which of them is best suited to drawing birds or your favorite?
For many years I used acrylics. But around 2005 I became less and less satisfied with it, and turned to watercolours (for fieldwork and looser paintings); watercolours with little gouache added (for illustration work); and oils (for bigger paintings on canvas/canvasboard). When I have to work on walls, murals, or on festivals/fairs I go back to acrylics.

Is there any artist that has definitely influenced your training?
I had an old friend in Hungary, Róbert Muray, who was a hunting artist (he died in 2009). He was the very first mentor who helped with honest criticism and advices as a young, beginner artist. His help was very important. I have also learned a lot from other artists, who emphasized the importance of fieldwork. Following their work, asking for advices from them was, and still is very important for my improvement. I must mention Keith Brockie, James Coe, Paschalis Dougalis, Barry van Dusen, Vadim Gorbatov, Lars Jonsson, Chris Rose, John Threlfall, Juan Varela, Darren Woodhead.

And which illustrators inspire you today?
The best bird illustrator nowdays is Ian Lewington. His ability to paint the feather quality of birds is increadible. His birds are even more beautiful than birds in real life. My friend, Paschalis Dougalis has an amazing style of illustrating birds much more in their natural, not so perfectly arranged plumage. I’m trying to find my own way somewhat between these 2 approach.

Illustrations
© Szabolcs Kókay

Mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, plants … What group do you prefer to paint, a favorite species in particular?
Definitely birds are my favourite group, but probably because I’m a birdwatcher since my early teenage years. I want to concentrate on mammals also, I think I need a lot of practice depicting this group. Reptiles and amphibians are also close to me. I’m not much a plant illustrator. I have several favourite species. Slender-billed Curlew is probably extinct now, but I had the chance to see one bird in 1996. I have a great advantage depicting this bird compared to photographers, so from time to time I come back to this species. My favourite mammal is Snow Leopard, I’m extremely lucky to have 3 observations on 2 trips to Ladakh in India. I want to paint more this animal in the future.

Do you have a favorite theme when you paint birds?
Difficult to choose. Probably in fieldwork my favourite time is April-June, when I have the chance to sketch singing birds, which return to the same singing post regularly, and pose really nicely. I love getting up early, and being out for the first light when they become active. My absolute favourites are the more plain coloured birds like Nightingale, Reed Warblers, Whitethroat, etc. I love mixing these colours.

Your list of works is very extensive; books, posters, magazines, nature trais, logos… Do you feel particularly proud or satisfied of any of them?
I’m most proud and happy of the poster series of the protected birds of Hungary. That was my first more important commission, when I left the CITES office at the Ministry for the Environment. It was a kind of farewell to my colleagues whom I spent several years there. Also this is the work of mine that I’m encountering most often (in schools, clubs, visitor centers, and even once in a Hungarian crime movie).

You have participated in the realization of several field guides. What are the parameters to illustrate a good bird guide?
The best result can be achieved definitely if I know the birds, I have seen them myself. I’m most satisfied with those bird illustrations, that I have good experience with. Sometimes this experience is lacking, publishers usually don’t pay for study trips to the other side of the World. In such cases it is very important to see video footage of the species I have to illustrate. I can see the character of the birds much better on such moving footage than on still photos.

Paintings
© Szabolcs Kókay

Of all the countries you’ve visited, which impressed you most from the point of view of an artist of wildlife and a birdwatcher?
Difficult to reply. Ladakh had definitely the biggest impact on me as an artist. The scenery, those immense mountains, the presence of the Snow Leopard were something incredible. Those are my photos taken there that I’m watching the most often, and I feel the urge to go back again in the coming years. As a birdwatcher probably Trinidad was a bigger impact. That is my only trip to the real tropics, the variety and number of birds, and seeing and sketching hummingbirds are amazing memories.

As colaborardor of conservation institutions What is your opinion about the conservation status of birds in Hungary?
BirdLife Hungary and several others smaller organizations are doing a fantastic work in making birds and bird protection (and general nature protection) more and more popular. They make a lot of effort to send this message to the public, and they use bird art in this work more and more. Beside this they have several very important conservation projects concentrating on important species (Great Bustard, Imperial Eagle, Saker, Red-footed Falcon to mention a few). Sadly we experience some extraordinary cases in the last years, the most worrying being poisoning of birds of prey, which hits even one of our most important species, the Imperial Eagle. I hope the strong forces that are working to stop this will be effective.

What qualities requires a good bird illustrator? Any tips for beginners?
Fieldwork! Don’t make the same mistake I have made. I recognized the importance of working in the field very late. I wasted many years. I was working exclusively from photos (both for my illustration and artworks). To paint birds (and anything else) really well, one must have a first-hand experience. It’s very difficult at the beginning, I clearly remember, but it’s worth being dedicated.

Interview by J.M. Escarabajal (Birding Murcia)
The images that appear in this article are the property of Szabolcs Kokay; is necessary to request permission to the author for publication or any other use of the same.
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“Birders Around The World” is an idea promoted by the Association Southeast Alive (Sureste Vivo) through the Project Birdingmurcia.
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