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Glamour Duck Achieves Stardom On Wildlife Stamp

Sales of duck stamp aid conservation

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 1997


They call it the "Olympics of wildlife art," but this year's Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest seemed more like a beauty pageant, right down to the last "... and the envelope please."

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The winning entry makes it onto the 1998 duck stamp, which was legislated in 1934 to purchase threatened habitat for migrating birds. In addition to a hunting license, hunters are required to purchase annually a $15 duck stamp. The stamps have raised more than $500 million to acquire 4.5 million acres of wetlands.

This year's contestants could choose from three species of duck: the 47-shades-of-brown mottled duck, the all's-black-but-the-bill black scoter, or the dazzling Barrow's goldeneye. Named after Sir John Barrow - geographer, explorer, and secretary to the British Admiralty - Barrow's goldeneye has white flanks, a dark back, a glossy purple head, and Liz Taylor eyes, only yellow. Nearly 70 percent of this year's 382 contestants chose to paint the glamour duck.

Entries featured diving ducks, dabbling ducks, cuddling ducks, and flying ducks, as well as the classic noble duck at dawn. But it's not enough for these ducks to be beautiful: They also need to look good on a 1-1/2-by-2-inch stamp.

"One of the hardest things in judging this contest is to realize that some paintings look wonderful on a wall, but don't make a good stamp. You can't have the background compete with the ducks," says Donald Stokes, one of five judges in the competition, which was held Nov. 4-6.

Entries are judged on clarity of line as well as the artist's understanding of birds and their habitats. Too many feathers or The right color in the wrong place or too many feathers are enough to drop a painting out of competition. Judges also study projections of each entry through a magnifying glass to evaluate how designs work in miniature.

There were few doubts about this year's winner - a stunning acrylic of a Barrow's goldeneye by San Francisco artist Robert Steiner, who won this contest on his 17th try. The artist has also won 41 state duck-stamp competitions, a record in wildlife art and enough to earn him the sobriquet "Mr. Duck" and "the King of Ducks" by duck-art insiders.

"What I've learned is that you need a bird that stands out," Mr. Steiner said in a phone interview, "and the Barrow's goldeneye has the ultimate contrast of value. When you put the pure white and pure black of the bird against a middle-gray background, the colors pop. The bird also has a beautiful purple iridescence on the head and that golden eye."

Steiner placed No. 3 with a similar painting of a Barrow's goldeneye in this competition two years ago. He says he refined his brushstrokes in this later version, tightened up his treatment of the head and chest of the bird, and produced the best reflections and water droplets (on plumage) of his career.

"This duck will jump off a stamp," Mr. Stokes says. "We hope it will make more people want to buy the stamps and make more money for conservation."