Barn Owl (Tyto alba): Barry Kent MacKay

The world’s most widely distributed owl species, the Barn Owl is found on every continent except Antarctica, with nearly 30 different geographic variations, or subspecies, identified. I’ve shown one from eastern North America. Ontario, where I live, is the northern limit of its range here in Eastern North America. They are quite variable in appearance (colour, shape, size). They are classified in a family, Tytonidae, with some twenty species, that is distinct from all other owls, in the family, Strigidae. Barn Owls do, as the name implies, nest in human-made structures, certainly including barns, where they endear themselves to farmers by consuming large numbers of rodents, although as I indicate in the painting, they prey is highly varied – essentially anything they can overcome. Incubation of eggs begins with the first laid, so that the ages of the chicks is staggered, and as much as several weeks can separate the age of the oldest from the youngest. The species pairs for life or until the loss of a mate.

I thought I’d give a partial mini-tutorial with this painting, on one of several painting methods I use, that I hope will interest the artists on my list without being terribly boring to everyone else (feel free to skip it, of course). If you like it, let me know, and perhaps I’ll do another, more detailed one some time. I’m also happy to answer any questions about how I do my work.

The first image shows the finished painting, in oils on a birch panel that is approximately 18 X 25 inches. The figures are approximately life-size. On the bare wood I lay down two thin layers, one with brushstrokes vertical, and one with them horizontal, at right angles to the first, of gesso. This is a binder or primer upon which acrylics can be used. Then I lay down several layers of mixed acrylic, in a light, neutral tone until I get an even surface. Then I mix in a bit of one colour with the mixture, to change it slightly, and with a large, round, stiff brush, very wet, I daub the entire surface, keeping the layer thin. There are several variations, but the idea is to get a nice surface to paint on. The second colour imparts an esthetically attractive (to me) marbled look, although on most paintings that will get covered up. Separately from the wooden panel, on paper, I draw the figures that will appear in the painting. I usually include any accessory, that touches the main figure(s), such as a branch or rock. Normally that is all the drawing I do separately, the rest being done directly on the painting surface.  I keep at my drawing, continually refining it, using both reference photos and preserved museum specimens of the actual bird, plus any other reference material I have, such as my own sketches and notes, until I’m satisfied.  I don’t “copy” pictures as such by tracing them or drawing from grids, because I love to draw. I use preserved specimens when I’m working at or close to life size in order to take measurements and assure myself that I have feathering and pattern correct.

Then I transfer the drawing to my prepared background and, still working in acrylics, I take titanium white and raw umber (brown) acrylics (or sometimes another colour…if the image is going to be in warm sunlight I might use burnt sienna (rufous-chestnut) in place of the brown…and then I fill in the main figure(s).  This painting is unlike most because I continued to fill in the entire surface.  I rarely do that. Apart from the owls and their prey, a Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) I drew the background straight onto the acrylic surface. In this case I did use a photograph (third attachment) of a ruin I photographed in Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, Nova Scotia, not that any self-respecting Barn Owl would normally occur that far north. I was fascinated by the forms and textures of the sloppy masonry, probably done in haste by soldiers preparing a gun placement redoubt prior to one of the wars, Halifax being a deep water harbour of major strategic significance for several centuries.  But as you can see, I took lots of liberties, including knocking out the back wall so there’d be room for the owls to have their nest. Then I switched to oil paints. One can safely paint oil on top of acrylic, but not vice versa.  I painted the background first, then the chicks, snake and finally adult bird, the most fun part – like having dessert after dinner.  I’m also showing a detail from a watercolour of the same species I did for a book illustration many years ago, a pen and ink study I drew of a Barn Owl decades ago, and finally an acrylic painting of the closely related Ashy-faced Owl (T. glaucops) found only on Hispaniola.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731

31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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