Message from Webmaster Glendon: In this series of interviews I’ll be doing with our SONSI members, I hope we’ll learn more about what drives each of us in our new, diverse, organization.  A great place to read about an illustrator you’d like to commission, or who inspires you.  Anyone can post a question or comment, and please do!  We love the feedback.

SONSI Interview with Barry MacKay.

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Please introduce yourself, Barry!

Barry Kent MacKay.  My original plan, as a kid, was to be an ornithologist-artist working at museum or university, but at age 16 I contracted encephalitis (sleeping sickness) and dropped out of school.  I did my first drawing that was recognizable as a bird at age 3 and have always been fascinated by birds, other natural history, and art.

Do you consider yourself a fine artist, or a science illustrator?

Both, but not very commercial (ie., I’ve done nearly no “prints” or reproductions, and I often choose subjects unfamiliar to most potential buyers.)

As illustrators’ many of us are blown where the wind takes us, so to speak, in taking on jobs.  Do you have a favourite subject?

Birds.  If life were a lot longer I’d do more mammals, some fish and herps and probably even landscapes, but there is so little time and so many birds to paint.  I do a few other things, especially mammals.

Do you have a favourite medium to work with?

I work mostly in acrylics with an overlay of gouache watercolour.  I sometimes work exclusively in acrylics (lately “open” acrylics), usually (not always) on compressed hardboard, but often on stretched paper; in gouache watercolour (usually on good quality paper); and rarely in oils…a medium I’d love to fool around with more.  I have done a fair amount of pen and ink, mostly for illustrations, and some rather weird mixed media (I have one painting that has oil, watercolour and acrylic in it, all carefully separated to avoid, I hope, chemical conflicts.)

Tell us about the image that’s made the most impact.

The next one is always the most important to me.  I don’t think there’s any one image that stands out for me, and fame has always eluded me.   Lately I’ve been doing all the covers for Ontario Birds, the journal of the Ontario Field Ornithologists, and in the past I’ve done frontispieces and covers for two major ornithological journals, and that work pleases me most.  I’ve illustrated a few books and various magazines but not nearly as many as I’d like to do.  It is work that really appeals to me.   I guess my proudest moment came several decades ago when National Audubon Magazine chose a painting of mine of a pair of Horned Grebes for their now defunct “Birds in Art” series on the inside back cover.

Why or how did you get into this field?  What do you hope to do with your work?

Well, my life, thus my career, is far closer to the end than the beginning, so whatever that might be it’s probably too late now.  I am most inspired by commissions, especially those that are for species I’ve not previously done.   I have a collector who likes owls and I am hoping he will eventually own a painting of mine of each North American (and a few other) species, and I think that what he has to date includes some of my best work.

I can think of a lot of bird-watching friends who’d love to see those owls!  Where can interested art fans and institutions find you online?

I’m the worst promoter there is.  I don’t currently have my own website although maybe I will some day.  You can see lots of images of my bird paintings at by clicking on the thumbnails, or you can search “Barry Kent MacKay” for a few other sources of my art online, but usually the best thing to do is just e-mail me at or search me out on the internet.


What’s your favourite colour?

I love earth colours and warm greys, and yet when I’m working I have to say that I become quite passionate about whatever colour I’m working with.   On one hand I love to paint mottled birds in earth tones like grouse or female ducks or whatever, but then when I get to paint some beautiful and exotic creature such as a bird of paradise, well, I love the challenge of putting those bright primary and secondary colours into feathers and plumage or bare skin, or foliage or whatever.

What or who were your influences?

I am a throwback.  I grew up worshipping bird art by the early 20th century bird illustrators.  Alan Brooks was a massive influence, especially after I saw a series of his originals when I was about 12, and the famous (to me) Ethiopian studies by Fuertes can still reduce me to tears of appreciation.  Walter Weber, D.M. Reid-Henry, Jaques, George M. Sutton and many others were very inspiring, and none more so than Toronto’s own T.M. Shortt, who I came to know, and consider a mentor.  So, too, was Roger Tory Peterson, who gave me great encouragement and used one of my paintings in one of his books.


I sometimes wish I had never discovered my other passion…concern for animals, both individually and at the species level, and the environment overall, so that I could have devoted myself exclusively to art, but as it is, I do both kinds of work.  I also think that, being mostly self-taught, I was often (but not always) much too rigid in the early part of my career, and the work was too stiff and formal.

Fantasy assignment?

Well, I’ve had one when I got to paint all the endemic birds of Hispaniola, for a book, but there wasn’t time to do all the other birds.  My fantasy is to have a place, or a taxon (a family of birds, for example, or a genus, or maybe “birds of Borneo” or some such), chosen, and then be paid enough (!) to paint all the appropriate species, and also be given enough time to really do a good job, including field work.


Never being given enough time (or money) to do a really super job on a multiple commission; not having the sense, inclination, IQ or training…whatever the problem…to promote myself properly.   But I’m really happy doing what I’m doing.


I am a founding director of Animal Alliance of Canada and Zoocheck Canada, I work (not quite full time) for Born Free USA, am a founding director of Species Survival Network, a member of Ontario Field Ornithologists, a member of the Toronto Ornithological Club a life member of the Wilson Ornithological Society and am or have been a member or director of various other conservation, environmental or animal protection organizations.   I also have a background in hands-on wildlife rehabilitation.

Field work?

Much of North America, the Galapagos (I illustrated the first bird guide to the Galapagos); parts of South and Central America and the West Indies; parts of Europe; parts of southern Africa; Japan, Hong Kong and Borneo.

First bird guide to Galapagos!  Excellent. And it’s available on Amazon.

It’s been a pleasure, Barry!

-Glendon Mellow
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Barry K. MacKay gallery

Contact Barry at