Washington — Three redhead ducks are flying low over the water on their way to feed. The late afternoon sun gives life to the red feathers on the males and the dusky belly of the hen. It is picture perfect. So perfect that a panel of five judges chosen by the Department of the Interior has decided that people sitting in a duck blind waiting to shoot at waterfowl should carry this picture with them, in the form of a $7.50 federal duck hunting stamp. The proceeds go to buy wetlands, where ducks and other animals live.
Judges recently compared the work of 799 artists who have tried to capture the plumage and character of 37 different types of swans, ducks, and geese.
Although the artist wins recognition only from the United States government, the commercial prospects for the artist soar, easily resulting in $1 million to $2 million for the winner. As such, it is one of the richest purses in the art world.
``It's an Irish sweepstakes,'' an Interior Department official says. ``It makes a new artist overnight.''
The winner of this year's contest, Arthur G. Anderson of Onalaska, Wis., had a hard time believing he won - he thought his friends were playing a prank on him. And now he has a hard time answering his telephone as art dealers call up to make deals.
William B. Webster, president of Wild Wings, a Lake City, Minn., art marketing company, says, ``This will be an opportunity for the most exposure an artist can get in the shortest period of time.''
The reason: The artist copyrights his design and then sells the rights to art companies such as Wild Wings. Packaged as a limited edition, it will sell for $135 a print.
Three years ago, 31,000 prints were sold and one dealer estimates artist William Morris made close to $2 million on his picture of two wigeons.
In addition, says Bob Hines, a retired Interior official who ran the program for 31 years, ``An artist can triple the price of his artwork overnight.''
The dealers realize that scores of duck lovers buy the prints each year. The collectors don't want to break up their collection by missing a year.
Mr. Anderson's painting is the 54th in the stamp series, officially called the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp.
The stamps themselves have flapped their way skyward in value. A mint set of stamps from when the Interior Department began the program in 1934 retails for $4,765.
Even a complete set of used stamps goes for $1,229. An original set, bought as the government sold the prints yearly, would have cost $169. A complete set of prints would cost $50,000 today.
Recently a Chicago man bid $11,456, or about $95 per stamp, for a sheet of 120 two-year-old stamps auctioned by the government.
This year's stamp can be bought at most post offices for $7.50.
The government raises up to $16 million from the sale of 2 million stamps each year. ``It depends on whether it's a good hunting year or not,'' says an Interior official.
In addition, the government sells the rights to the stamp itself to 17 companies that pay royalties. Jim Beam liquor paid the government $35,000 in the first quarter as its share.
The proceeds, along with funding from Congress, is used to buy wetlands for the waterfowl. So far, the government has bought 3.5 million acres.
This program dates back to 1929 when Congress realized that large tracts of marshland had been drained for farming.
At the same time, hunters armed with market orders for fowl were taking their toll on the flocks that used to darken the skies during their migration.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, J.N. (Ding) Darling, helped convince Congress to pass the Hunting Stamp Act. On March 16, 1934, Congress passed the legislation and Mr. Darling drew the first stamp. It wasn't until 1949 that it became an annual contest.
The competition is open to anyone who pays $50 (personal checks are not allowed) and follows rules on such things as size and matting. Judges vote for the painting they think has artistic merit and would make a good stamp.
The competition is not just for ornithologists who spend their lives gazing through binoculars at lonely stretches of marsh.
Last year, the judges awarded Burton E. Moore Jr., a Charleston, S.C., artist, first prize for a rendering of a fulvous whistling duck.
Mr. Moore is a husky former marine who served in Vietnam. He had no formal art training, and he quit his job with the South Carolina Wildlife Department 12 years ago to paint full time.
For the most part he concentrated on portaits of dogs. But three years ago while duck hunting, Moore watched a flock of fulvous fly over his duck blind. Not recognizing the species, he did not shoot at them. Later, he photographed them and began painting them.
Winning brought him recognition. In fact, over the past year, Moore has spent a major amount of his time on business affairs. ``You need a lawyer just to protect yourself against some things,'' he says.
For some artists, winning permits them to quit other jobs to paint wildlife full-time.
This happened to artist John Wilson of Watertown, S.D., who used to design neon signs, and artist Richard Plasschaert of Waseca, Minn., who used to work at a catalog printing company.
Some of the judges are high fliers - in their own sort of way. There is Beatrice Pickens of Amarillo, Texas.
Mrs. Pickens, who is a noted conservationist, admits she sometimes shoots quail with her husband, T.Boone Pickens, who more frequently aims his sights at oil companies.
Then there is Peter Coors, whose politically conservative family owns the Adolph Coors Company, a Colorado brewery.
Mr. Coors watches waterfowl close up because a portion of his Windbreak Ranch is a goose refuge. Coors, the chairman of Ducks Unlimited, a conservationist organization, admits to occasionally shooting ducks, however.
Like the judges, some of the artists also spend time in the duck blinds. Mr. Anderson, this year's winner, sometimes goes out with his friends. But, he confesses, ``When it comes to shooting ducks, I'm the worst in the world. I'm too busy looking at them.''