Reimagining the Blue Jay

Through artistic abstraction, Gizem Vural casts the oft-maligned Blue Jay in a sunny light.

In describing the Blue Jay, John James Audubon minced no words. “Who could imagine,” he mused, “that a form so graceful, arrayed by nature in a garb so resplendent, should harbour [sic] so much mischief;—that selfishness, duplicity, and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection!”

Nearly 200 years later, his sentiment resonates with some birders. “Our most splendidly attired songbird is still widely loathed, even by some ardent bird lovers,” wrote former editor-in-chief Les Line in this magazine in 2008. “I blame the patron saint of birdwatchers, John James Audubon.” As the naturalist’s dramatic painting suggests, the large songbirds do snatch and eat other species’ eggs and nestlings. But their primary diet is vegetarian, consisting of various nuts, grains, and fruits.

The idea of avian knavery amused New York-based artist Gizem Vural, but it was the bird’s cobalt plumage that wooed her. “This specific hue that the Blue Jay has mesmerized me,” writes Vural, who is from Istanbul, in an email. “I wanted to focus on how beautiful they are.” 

That magnificent coloring springs from an optical trick. Bird feathers appear colored because of pigmentation or light refraction, and sometimes a combination, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In the Blue Jay’s case, tiny air pockets in the feather barbs scatter incoming light. Most is absorbed except for blue light, which refracts in such a way that we see a cool-quilled bird. The phenomenon, known as structural coloration, is almost always responsible for blue feathers.

To capture the Blue Jay’s likeness, Vural researched photos and sketched on paper. After many sketches, she created a final digital rendering with a brush tool that lends a colored pencil effect, only more vibrant. “I like how bright and colorful and textured it looks this way,” she says. Instead of perching, her crested corvid, which took three days to complete, flies through a “magical atmosphere” of shapes and lines evocative of Audubon’s foliage. Look closely, and the jay’s eye twinkles, as if reflecting sunlight. 

Vural adores birds, having grown up with pets including a yellow parakeet and an African Grey Parrot. “He could mimic everything,” she fondly recalls of the latter. Her assignments rarely entail animals, so she enjoyed the liberty of experimenting with new shapes for Audubon

For inspiration, Vural looks to abstract artists such as Paul Klee, Agnes Pelton, and Julie Mehretu. Audubon is a new influence, creative and otherwise. “When I found out about his work I fell in love,” she writes. “I have so much interest now in birdwatching.”

This story originally ran in the Spring 2021 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.