Secrets of the Most Elite Duck Painting Contest in America

David Bowman
David Bowman / David Bowman

by Martin J. Smith

This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

The Federal Duck Stamp Contest is the most prestigious wildlife art contest you’ve never heard of. Held annually since 1949, it’s the only juried art contest sponsored by the U.S. government. Each August, more than 200 painters submit renderings of ducks, geese, and other waterfowl to an elite top secret panel of judges. In September, over a tense two days that’s been described as the World Series for wildlife painters, one artist will be awarded top prize: His or her painting will grace the following year’s Migratory Bird Conservation and Hunting Stamp—the sticker sportsmen must affix to their licenses to hunt waterfowl. Though there’s no prize money, winners can earn a fortune through licensing agreements and collectible limited-edition prints, garnering the stamp a reputation as the Million-Dollar Duck. The most elite players in this game are Minnesota brothers Bob, Jim, and Joe Hautman, a dynasty one fellow competitor has dubbed “the New York Yankees of competitive duck painting.” In two decades, they’ve collectively won 10 times, making followers wonder whether they’ve figured out how to crack the code. As they geared up for this year’s contest, they let us peek inside their studios.

Bob, Joe, and Jim in Joe’s studio. Joe wears a ghillie suit—made from burlap and twine to look like foliage—which he uses to photograph wildlife at his pond. “You crouch down and look like a clump of stuff,” Bob explains. Raised by a duck-hunter dad and a painter mom, the brothers never formally studied art. Joe has a doctorate in physics; Bob and Jim used to paint and roof houses. As kids, they were enthralled by their dad’s collection of duck stamps, but they didn’t hear about the contest until the mid-1980s, when they first entered. By 1996, they were well-known enough in the duck-stamp circuit to be name-checked in Fargo—made by their childhood friends, the Coen brothers. In the movie, Norm Gunderson finishes behind a Hautman brother’s painting in the contest.

Work generally begins with a sketch, using mounted birds or feathers as a reference. (The main bird in this image, a commission for Pheasants Forever, was inspired by a specimen mounted at a ranch in Idaho.) The brothers have no qualms throwing out opinions on what looks good and what doesn’t.

“This mess is Joe’s,” says Bob. “I don’t know how he can work with that palette. We all have completely different easel setups. Jim’s is really organized and perfect. Joe mixes on top of mixes. It’s a quarter inch built on his palette. Mine is kind of in between the two.”

Bob keeps a collection of dead birds in his freezer: some he shot, others he’s been given, and a handful have crashed into the sliding glass door of his Minnesota studio.

Hummingbirds don’t qualify for the contest, but all the brothers have painted them anyway. “They’re just really cool birds,” says Bob. “I have to wear magnifying glasses to paint the eye—it’s the size of a pea!”

Anatomy of a duck stamp

Bob won the 1996 duck-stamp contest with this painting of a Canada goose. He had entered a similar painting, sans background, two years earlier and came in second place to his brother Jim. Knowing that the judges liked the goose, he painted the same bird a second time on a placid, reedy background and took home first place. Bob says it’s still exciting to win, but nothing beats the first time. “They flew us out to the Department of Engraving, where they make all the money,” he remembers. “You’d see the guy engraving the stamp and the guys engraving money. It was our dream when we first started painting just to win a state contest; the federal was this faraway dream.”

A. The government puts proceeds from the stamp toward wildlife preservation. With more than $800 million raised to date, the program is one of the most successful wildlife conservation programs ever initiated.

B. Official rules state that the birds must be anatomically correct and their plumage must match the season in the background.

C. Five species of waterfowl qualify as subjects each year. 2014’s are the brant, the Canada goose, the northern shoveler, the red-breasted merganser, and the ruddy duck.

D. Another Hautman, Pete, who does not paint, says his brothers “approach the duck stamp more like they’re doing art for an ad campaign. They do multiple versions—different postures, different poses, different weather in the background. It’s very analytical and scientific.”

E. Some people say bird feet are hard to draw. Bob disagrees. “Thing is, they look really funny, like one foot’s on top of the other. If you don’t know what they look like, you can’t believe they look like that. It’s better to just put them down in the weeds.”

All images courtesy of David Bowman