Capturing iconic Philadelphia, one sketch at a time

     Marilyn MacGregor sells her prints from a wagon in Reading Terminal Market. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Marilyn MacGregor sells her prints from a wagon in Reading Terminal Market. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Most people see with their eyes. Marilyn MacGregor sees with her sketchbook. “I find line and color are inspirations in themselves, as are the feel of the pen in my hand and the possibilities of a clean sheet of paper.”

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    Most people see with their eyes. Marilyn MacGregor sees with her sketchbook.

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    “I find line and color are inspirations in themselves, as are the feel of the pen in my hand and the possibilities of a clean sheet of paper,” says MacGregor, who captures the essence of Philadelphia’s historic sites and neighborhoods with a few deft strokes.

    MacGregor had a long career as a freelance illustrator, children’s book author, and art teacher before relocating to Philadelphia in 2009. That’s when she decided to turn her passion for sketching into a small business, making greeting cards and art prints.

    “Rather than using watercolor, I use a process of digital painting on my computer to add over 50 layers of color, while still keeping the original ink drawing fresh and crisp,” says MacGregor who sells her cards and prints online and at the Reading Terminal Market. “I use archival rag paper for the art prints, which prevents the colors from fading,” she explains.


    Marilyn MacGregor uses her computer to add layers of color to her hand-drawn sketches. SLIDE THE BAR to watch the transformation. (Images © Marilyn MacGregor)

    Her most popular are illustrations of Love Park, City Hall, Independence Hall, the Rocky Statue at the Art Museum, and Reading Terminal Market. “I’ve been part of the Market family since last July,” says MacGregor. “I enjoy getting to know the regulars, chatting with other vendors and people who come to shop every Friday, as well as the thousands who come for lunch.”

    MacGregor’s cards and prints reflect her globetrotting life. “I started out in New York City, and my husband and I lived in London and Paris before settling in San Francisco,” says MacGregor.

    In addition to city scenes, MacGregor offers images of historic figures, frolicking felines modeled on Toby, her 12-pound, Maine Coon cat, as well as dogs, flowers and cards for special occasions. (If you have a favorite locale in mind — say, the park bench in Rittenhouse Square where you proposed — MacGregor welcomes custom orders.)

    When people ask how long each sketch takes, MacGregor quips, “Ten minutes and all my life.” She started when she was three. “My sketchbook has been a constant companion. I’ve learned a great deal about life and who I am through drawing.”

    Even though her style is decidedly whimsical, MacGregor counts Rembrandt among her major influences. “Drawing is always at the heart of his work, and Rembrandt had an awareness of how the small details of life tell complex stories of great significance,” says MacGregor. “In my work, you can find the two sides of my nature. A witty, lighthearted sense of play balanced by a serious examination of meaning in art and life.”

    Having lived in the great metropolises of the world, MacGregor has no doubts about how Philly stacks up. “Philadelphia is a rare jewel of a city,” she says. “I love its many world-class features — the visual and performing arts, the restaurants and markets, the history and architecture, the museums and gardens. I have found people here to be extraordinarily generous, good-hearted and down-to-earth.”

    Eager to become involved in her community, MacGregor sings in the choir of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and is active in her neighborhood, East Passyunk, where she lives in a former settlement school house.

    However, her enthusiasm for Philly didn’t stop MacGregor from launching another new venture — leading small group, art-focused tours of Paris. “I not only lived there for 10 years and speak the language, but I have a crazy amount of knowledge about Paris’ art, history, neighborhoods and funny little nooks and crannies.”

    MacGregor’s greeting card and art print series “Famous Sites and Favorite Places” can be found online as well as in shops around town. But to experience the fullest range of her talents, stop by and meet the artist at the Reading Terminal Market on Fridays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. MacGregor displays her wares near the Arch Street entrance on an historic cart — the kind your great-grandfather might’ve pushed along 4th street.

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