Szabolcs Kókay was born in Hungary in 1976 and has been interested in nature, especially birds, since childhood. Although he has been drawing for as long as he can remember, it was only later on in his life, around the age of 20, when these two interests merged. For Szabolcs now, watching and sketching nature go hand in hand, so much so, that he cannot imagine doing one without the other.
After finishing his education he began working in nature conservation, initially for BirdLife Hungary, and later at the Ministry for the Environment working on the Washington Convention for Endangered Species (CITES). This work enabled Szabolcs to get a much better insight into the nature conservation of his native country, in addition to widening his reputation as a young illustrator. With increasing amounts of time being taken up by commissioned work it became difficult to juggle both careers. So, in 2001 Szabolcs took the plunge and opted to work full time as an artist and illustrator. Whilst many of his initial commissions came from Hungarian NGOs, National Parks and the Ministry for the Environment, is work was also being recognised by a wider audience. This is thanks, in no small part, to the success he has had in several international art competitions including the British Birds ‘Bird Illustrator of the Year’ award, and Birdwatch Magazine’s ‘Artist of the Year’.
Szabolcs has experimented with various painting mediums, and worked solely in acrylic for several years. In 2005 he has stopped using this medium, except for larger mural work and plein-air paintings, now preferring to use mainly watercolour with a little body colour (gouache) for his illustration works. His larger gallery paintings are almost exclusively painted in oils on canvasboard. His favourite medium remains watercolour, which is something he plans to devote most of his attention to in the future.
Over the years, Szabolcs’ technique when approaching painting wildlife has radically changed, as he used to work solely from photographs. He feels that the revolution in digital photography and the invention of digiscoping attributed much to this approach, making him quite lazy. He now feels lucky to have realised over time the importance of working directly from life and in recent years he has tried to spend as much time in the field as possible sketching plein air. He uses watercolours in the field making loose sketches and studies. His current painting style in the studio remains quite detailed and realistic, as in addition to the sketches he makes, he still takes reference photos.
His enthusiasm for birding and travel has taken him to other parts of Europe, including Spain and Scandinavia, and also further afield to Morocco, China, India, Trinidad, New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea and most recently to Uganda.
- 2000 British Birds ‘Bird Illustrator of the Year’ PJC Award
- 2001 British Birds ‘Bird Illustrator of the Year’ 3rd place
- 2002 British Birds ‘Bird Illustrator of the Year’ 3rd place
- 2002 Birdwatch Artist of the Year, identification category winner
- 2008 Birdwatch Artist of the Year 1st prize
- 2010 Don Eckelberry Scholarship Award from the Society of Animal Artists
- 2014 Langford Press Field Sketches Award
- 2015 Sociedad Gaditana de Historia Natural illustration competition 2nd prize