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Ed McKay: An Artist's Journey

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

To say this painting is dramatic would be an understatement. However, what drama is about to unfold is up to the viewer to guess. The basics are plain to see. The background colors are muted browns, just to indicate a surface for the box to sit upon. A brightly colored toy box sits in this isolated setting, its brilliant, happy colors suggesting fun and games. Beyond that, the scene fades to black. The cartoon figures are jumping about, as a cheerleader with pom-poms roots on the basketball player, who seems to have just made a jump shot. Oddly the eyes of the two cartoon characters look up toward what sits above them: a large deep bluish raven.

From this point any viewer can have a field day musing on what might happen here. The raven looks like he might have been sent by Edgar Allen Poe, as he sits with his feet hooked under the edge of the box lid. His eyes are focused intently on that lid, his curiosity as strong as Pandora's. Is he just puzzled by the box? Or does he flap his wings and pull upward to open it? And should he open the box, what would spill out? For all the words that can be used to describe what we see in the painting, there are no words for the ambiguous possibilities it holds. As Edward Hopper once said, "If you could say it with words, there would be no need to paint."


McKay recalls a special moment in sixth grade where he presented a report with a nicely drawn sketch of a bird, done by his mother. The teacher was so impressed with the art, she asked if young Ed had done it himself. Thinking no one would ever really know, he said, "Yes." To which the teacher replied, "Well, from now on, you will be our class artist." Shazaam! Instant karma. Not wanting to be caught in a lie, the Class Artist began copying every comic figure he could find in order to learn how to draw them well. He went on to magazines with cars whose design he would copy. He turned to drawing at every opportunity, becoming an obsessive doodler, looking to push his skills by integrating what he had seen in those comics and magazines into his own original drawings. As it turns out, he lived up to his title of Class Artist, as his classmates began buying his doodles - 25 cents a pop.

Though that early experience showed that art could be profitable, his father had another career plan for his son: Pharmacy. McKay launched himself into that field of study once in university; however, he also took a community college course in printmaking. One of his instructors noticed the finesse and attention to detail in his drawing. The instructor offered McKay a job in a new computer graphics company, in 1980, long before personal computers. Long story, short, that relationship lasted through the company and into working together in the Veterans' Administration, where McKay made a career for himself in which he consistently won outstanding awards for his graphic designs, publications and exhibits, multi-media projects, as well as training videos which won Regional Emmys.


With that statement, McKay declares himself to be a life-long learner. (Shouldn't we all be?) Anyone who creates knows that the process itself never stops offering possibilities, which for him leads more and more not just to portraiture, landscape, and still life, but those genre as ways to tell something which you must do with paint not words.

This portrait is of an icon in the local arts community of Manitou Springs, Colorado, Charles H. Rockey, most commonly called "Rockey." Here the muted colors in grays, whites, and a toned down green suggest a quiet appropriate for nap taking. While McKay captures this man's great age shown in his grizzled hair and beard and the roughened texture of his skin, it is his hands that stand out. The muscles in the fingers are the well developed ones that come with hands that have worked many types of materials to turn them into works of art. The color contrast between the skin tones and muted grayish/green that surround the figure draws the eye to this man's face and hands, both indicating his great age, hard work, and the knowledge he gained and passed on to others.

Portraits are not limited to people, however. McKay talks of arriving very early one morning for a plein air painting session at The Horticultural Art Society Demostration Gardens, Colorado Springs, that was to take place a bit later in the day. He took early morning photos of the beds of irises with dew on them, noting the changes in the flowers as the light of the sun touched them. The painting, Iris Series No. 1, seen below, seems to be a movie star, a flower asking Mr. DeMille for a close-up.

Here the freshness of the morning is captured, as the flower's petals open up to the morning light. That light is made apparent by the translucence of the red violet petal, the whitish-pink light on the most distant petal, and the shadow of the hair-like plant fibers on the blue petal in the foreground. The background is a light gray rather than a sunny yellow. The gray brings out the tones of the blue and red violet petals. The artist lets his handling of the light, shadow, and translucence inform the viewer that daylight is present. The bottom of the red violet iris has just a touch of a whitish-yellow to maybe indicate that the sun is beginning to shine. The dewdrops become microscopic magnifiers, showing us the surface of the petals, as seen through their convex lenses, for an intense view of nature's perfection. Welcome to morning in the flower garden.

Stories can be told about budding relationships among the budding flowers. In the painting just below, his wanted to use a muted, darker background color to contrast with all the purples, and greens, settling finally upon a solid cool gray.

In devising the composition, McKay has the two iris buds literally holding one another. Their sizes relative to one another allow the viewer to imaging a loving couple. The title takes us further. Dancing in the Park of course, alludes to that lovely Dietz and Schultz song, "Dancing in the Dark," which aptly describes the mystery of romantic attraction. McKay captures the romance by brightening the center of the painting as if sunlight were falling on the flowers highlighting how the leaves embrace.

In my visit to the artist's studio, I asked about this particularly interesting, but unvarnished painting, the "working title" of which is The Lunch Encounter.

I say "working title" as this painting has developed over the many years that McKay has been painting. It started with a photo he took as a teenager of a tree trunk with this wonderful root structure showing and the ground foliage around it. From there many things developed. First was a photo in 1971, then an etching in 1979. Next came this acrylic painting started in 1985. This painting has grown with the artist over the decades in terms of its details and its story. As his painting skills grew, he would add details or rework portions of the painting. Sometimes years would pass before he made new modifications. From the moss, so accurately and carefully presented, to the handling of the other items in the ground cover, and the details in the distant daylight of the background, to the story unfolding between the keen-eyed fox and the unaware squirrel, whose focus is on the nut he's found, this painting has been a vehicle for McKay to refine his painting and define the story. It comes to me that perhaps this perpetual "work in progress" is the portal through which the Universe feeds his creative genius, but that is probably one of those concepts that Ed Hopper would say is better expressed in a painting.

Ed McKay is represented by Hunter Wolff Gallery 2510 West. Colorado Avenue in Old Colorado City (719) 520-9494.

To contact him and see more of his work, go to

All art work shown here is used with the permission of the artist. For another of McKay's magical story-telling paintings, go to for "Still Life, Chardin, and Merlot." His work is featured as an example of the modern continuation of still life painting.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2020

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Wonderful story about a great artist!

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