Art: Birds of Passage

A duck rescued Joseph Hautman from a fate of teaching physics to college students. “When I won, I had no artistic career,” Hautman, a 50-year-old Minnesotan, says in reference to his victory in the 1992 Federal Duck Stamp Contest, a wildlife art competition. That triumph, which he earned with his rendering of a spectacled eider in flight, ultimately enabled him to quit academia and paint full-time.

As the contest’s winning entry, Hautman’s depiction of the eider graced that year’s duck stamp—the federal waterfowl hunting license—which hundreds of thousands of people purchased, and many more saw. The annual contest’s rules allow artists to retain the rights to their submissions, and so Hautman was able to capitalize on the exposure. “I sold that painting for $12,000, and it was the first painting I ever sold,” he says. “That’s why the duck stamp contest is an incredible thing. You have a name instantly in wildlife art. If I hadn’t won, I’d still be doing physics at a university somewhere. I was a post-doc at the University of Pennsylvania, and the next step would have been a professorship and applying for grants. I wasn’t excited about that, so the win came at a good time.”

Since 1934, the Federal Duck Stamp Program, through sales of the licenses, has raised more than $700 million to acquire, preserve, and protect some 5.2 million acres of wetlands inhabited by wild birds, and it has fostered the careers of dozens of artists such as Hautman, who placed first again in 2002 with an image of a black scoter.

For Richard Clifton, a 45-year-old artist from Milford, Del., winning the contest will not change his life the way it did Hautman’s; he has placed first in 26 other wildlife art contests. Nonetheless, the victory promises to be a boon to his career, and so Clifton is delighted that his image of a swimming pair of ring-necked ducks will appear on the 2007-2008 stamp. (The hunting license went on sale June 22 for $15 at U.S. post offices, sporting goods stores, the www.duckstamp.com site, and other outlets.) “If you do duck art, [the duck stamp contest] is what you want to win,” Clifton says. “It’s like the Super Bowl or the Daytona 500. It comes with so much prestige.”

Clifton already is experiencing the benefits of his triumph; he estimates that the demand for his original works has risen 20 percent since the contest judges chose his painting in October 2006. He will sell the original for $30,000, accompanied by the painting that he made for the first federal contest that he entered, in 1982. That painting also depicts a ring-necked duck. Clifton anticipates selling as many as 6,000 prints of the winning painting, which he will package with duck stamps that he has purchased
 
Prior to his victory, Clifton had submitted 18 previous entries, and he came close to winning the 2002 contest, ultimately placing second behind Hautman’s black scoter. The five judges held three rounds of tie-breaking votes before settling on Hautman’s painting. “One of the judges noticed the ridges [on his duck’s bill] and asked the ornithologist [the bird expert available to the judges], ‘Does it have those ridges?’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah.’ The other guy’s duck didn’t have them, and that’s a reason I won,” Hautman says.

Hautman did have an advantage over Clifton and the other artists. As a visual reference for his painting, he was able to employ an actual black scoter, one that he had shot during an Alaskan hunting trip 10 years earlier and kept in a freezer at his house. “I pulled it out at the last minute to check the anatomical detail,” Hautman says. “On the bill, I noticed these pronounced ridges, so I made the ridges in the painting more pronounced.”

Richard Clifton, www.richardcliftonwildlifeart.com; The Federal Duck Stamp Program, www.fws.gov/duckstamps; Joseph Hautman, www.hautman.com

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