Friday, December 19, 2014

The Duck Stamp to increase in price!

A short post with some big news! H.R. 5069, The Federal Duck Stamp Act of 2014, has been signed into law! This means that the duck stamp face value will increase from $15 to $25 starting in 2015, with "my" stamp. This is the first price increase since 1991!

More reading:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Easton Waterfowl Festival and Redlands trips: Recap!

Hello everyone! It is December-- wow! How did this happen? Time sure does fly when you are having fun... and traveling with the Federal Duck Stamp!

I am just now having the chance to write about my adventures! First up was the Easton Waterfowl Festival, in Easton, MD.

Easton Waterfowl Festival

On Thursday the 13th of November, my husband and I had a lovely drive down through the rolling hills and mountains of Pennsylvania; the scenery was lovely and very much like home for most of the trip. A neat drive over the Chesapeake Bay, and we were there! I loved the small artsy town of Easton, and all of its very welcoming inhabitants.

On Stage during Opening Ceremonies. Courtesy of the Star Democrat.
I quickly checked in to my hotel, freshened up, and headed over to the Premiere night opening of the festival. I knew I would be giving some remarks about my win, but I was a bit unprepared to be seated up on stage during the entire event! Gulp!! My nerves were very high, but I was told I did all right (more photos here). I survived, and then had a very exciting evening of meeting other artists and viewing their work in person. It was very humbling and wonderful to see so many beautiful artworks in life. It was very enriching!

Shortly after, the kind folks at Attraction Magazine took us, along with the good folk from the Duck Stamp Office, out for a meal. It was really a fantastic evening and in the end they had me cluster around for a photo. I held a copy of the magazine with my painting on the cover.

Jennifer with the wonderful Attraction Magazine crew!
The next day, the festival began in earnest! I was set up over at the Federal Duck Stamp display in the high school gym. My very first action was to scurry over to the Federal Duck Stamps-- the originals-- on tour and press my face into them  (not literally-- don't worry, fellow artists!) to see them for the first time. I was tremendously excited to study them, as prior to this I had never had the opportunity to see a duck stamp painting in person. They all looked so vibrant and wonderful, much nicer than any online scan or photo can show. Even during the rest of the weekend, I kept venturing back to look at them closely. I'm really honored to be amongst such fine artists!

The beautiful top 2014 entries! Finalists in no particular order; here is a PDF file of the scores.
Over the course of the weekend, I met so many wonderful people, and faces old and new alike to the duck stamp program! The Duck Stamp Office ladies treated us like family and we enjoyed meeting all of the waterfowl enthusiasts. It was particularly fun to meet some younger enthusiasts, and had several children talk to me about not only ducks, but artwork and their experiences in nature as well. I made connections with several really great birders; many of which turned into new fans of the Duck Stamp program once they learned what it was all about. It was exciting to see individuals go from thinking it was a fancy postage stamp to realizing that the impact of the program is so huge that we may well thank it for even being able to have a festival to celebrate waterfowl at all!

A highlight for me, in addition to all of the above (and more!) was getting to meet a long-time online friend in person for the first time. Gunner Hilliard, who recently won Ohio's Wetlands Habitat Stamp, came to visit and in an incredibly generous and surprising gesture, gifted to me his 2014 Federal entry. I could hardly believe it, and there may have been a few overwhelming, heartwarmed tears shed by more than one person!

Gunner with his 2014 Federal Entry
One quirky and wonderful tradition that the festival has for the Federal winner every year is... drawing on the floor! No, really! In the high school, the floor is covered with huge heavy tarpaulins to protect it from all of the foot traffic. In the year of his win, artist Joshua Spies was caught doodling a silly cartoony duck on the floor with a sharpie. It quickly became a tradition (I suspect, much to poor Joshua's dismay!). So on Saturday morning, I rustled up a few sharpies, and got to work on the floor.
If you look closely, you will see some rather famous waterfowl artist names on that floor!

I suspect that someday this poor dirty tarp will be highly collectible!
Serious? Me? Well, perhaps not when drawing on the floor...

In all, the show left me full of hope and happiness, and we didn't want to leave! I will try my very best to attend next year. To you, Easton!!

San Bernardino County Museum show, Redlands CA

Next up, only days later, I was to fly to Redlands, CA, to attend the Wildlife Art Show in the San Bernardino County Museum. The weather, however, had very different plans for us! The moment we got back from Easton, it started snowing. In Buffalo, about an hour north of us, it started really, really snowing. It was a little out of control, actually.

Not friendly driving conditions....
My flight was scheduled to depart the Buffalo Airport on Friday morning. As the days pressed on, and Buffalo got more and more snow (some places received over 7 feet in snowfall, plus winds drove it into drifts of over 12 feet at times) and the entire county shut down in a state of emergency. Funny enough, the airport itself was mostly clear of snow, but there was no way to get there as all areas south of the airport (and north of me) were completely buried. The poor people of Buffalo were in trouble, and sadly a few deaths resulted from the snowstorm.

Thursday night before my flight, my husband and I decided to stay up to see if there was any way to get through to the airport. We had lost hope of going and I was very upset over the idea of disappointing the people of the San Bernardino County Museum. Our Department of Transportation has a very nice online map system that the plow drivers update as they do their runs, and we were watching the conditions carefully. At about 2am, just before going to bed and giving up, in a half awake decision, we threw our bags in our little car and tried to brave the conditions. We found a route up around the worst of it, hours out of our way, that we thought would be good. If we started at 2am, we thought, surely we would get to the airport the next morning in time for our flight.

All was well until we got atop the high plateaus where the wind farms are. The wind was blowing snow in a lot further than we anticipated, and things got a little dicey. It is only at 4am, on nights like those, that you form a special sort of close friendship with the two truck tail lights in front of you on lonely, dark, snowy country roads. Thank you, unknown pickup truck, for letting us follow you in those dark hours. The red glow of your truck posterior kept us going, for there was no turning around at that point-- the snow had been plowed into 5 foot berms on either side of the road! Our little Civic crunched on through the wee hours, and we hoped we would make it.

Made it, we did... somehow. With just a little time to spare, we caught our 7:30 a.m. flight and made it out to the show!

I'm so very happy that we braved it all, because I really loved the people I met, and the museum itself!

The opening night was for invited partons only, and in my sleep deprived haste and madness in trying to get out of Buffalo, I had managed to forget many items. One of which was my carefully written speech. I felt that I really ought to have my speeches written because frankly, I get so nervous to talk in front of others that I figured I'd forget all of the important things I had to say! Well, nope, I forgot it. At that point in the evening I was what my husband and I call "sleep drunk"-- where you feel just plain silly because you haven't been to sleep in too long. Because of the events leading up to my flight and my inability to sleep on said flight, I had been awake for over 36 hours at that point. Hardly a record, but on top of travel I was starting to get into "sleepy sillies" territory. So when I was handed the microphone, I winged it (no pun intended) and I think I did even better than I did at Easton! So, lesson learned: To do speeches well, I must shoot from the hip and be exhausted!

One delightful person I met was Eric Scott, the museum's curator of paleontology. We met over a mutual love of chickens (honestly). He took me on a little adventure down into the museum's collections, and showed me some very neat stuff!

What is going on here? Am I really excited to be holding a bone?!
Well-- yes!! That bone is actually a fossil from the largest known (to date) flying bird from North America! It is to my understanding THE type specimen for Aiolornis incredibilis. An incredible and rare fossil, this is the only known specimen of this bird's humerus. It is only a part of the humerus, as this bird in life had a wingspan of approximately 24 feet! 

Holding an Aiolornis incredibilis fossil! With Eric Scott.
I also had the pleasure of meeting and spending most of the weekend with master carver Dennis Schroeder, and it was very enjoyable to chat with him and watch him work! We enjoyed his company very much, and he may have talked my husband into trying wood carving. This is saying something, because my husband is not (yet) a visual artist!

When things were quiet, I walked the museum halls and took in all of the natural history! They have a spectacular collection of North American birds and eggs, as well as a ton of beautiful mineral specimens, and succulents and cacti outside! I was even excited to see the huge hunks of petrified wood out in their walkways, sitting mostly unnoticed beside the walkway cobbles. I was tickled by the exotic (to me) orange orchards and lemon trees. It was all so very exciting, and I really enjoyed it!

Thank you so much everyone at Easton and Redlands, I enjoyed you all so much and it was a huge honor and privilege  to meet you all!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A great time at Easton, and Snow?!

First off, I had a fantastic time in Easton, MD, at the Waterfowl Festival this past weekend! I have more to say about that and will write about it soon, but for now I am a bit preoccupied...

With SNOW!

I live in a town south of Buffalo, NY, and while where our home sits all is well, just some miles north of us is snowmageddon! Some areas south of Buffalo are experiencing 6 feet or more of snow since Tuesday, and more is falling. This is perplexing for many reasons, but only one relates to the Duck Stamp Adventure right now... my flight to Redlands, CA is tomorrow morning. I have no idea if I can even get to the airport. The snow is a little intense...

A daunting task with 6+ feet of snow! Taken in Depew, NY. Photo courtesy of the AP/Derek Gee

Time will tell! I will try to keep my facebook updated with if we make it to California or not...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ruddy Sketches, and heading out to Easton!

Here are some practice "refined sketches" of ruddy ducks. I am going to paint these. I want to get better at painting tiny ducks, so that I can do nice remarques on prints when the time comes!

Ruddy Pencil sketches

And with that, off I go to pack for Easton, MD, for the Waterfowl Festival! If you are going, I hope to see you there!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Easton Waterfowl Festival

Good Monday to you all!

Not so good? Mondays are not always my favorite, either. I am taking my little buddy, Das the cockatiel, to the vet today. We sure hope he's okay.

I digress- I wanted to briefly write and talk about Easton, Maryland, today! Easton is where the Waterfowl Festival lives, and it is so soon! Next week, holy crow!

The Easton Waterfowl Festival

Every year, the lovely town of Easton transforms into an art, conservation, and wildlife (with a kind focus on birds) party. This is a party that you shouldn't miss, if you are within a reasonable distance to visit!

Why should you go? Well first of all...

The money raised by the festival goes on to fund habitat and wildlife projects in the area. It's a super important area especially for migrating and nesting birds. (Learn More)
The festival itself is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to wildlife conservation, the promotion of wildlife art, and the celebration of life on Maryland's Eastern Shore. If you are here at my blog, I am completely certain that you care about at least one of these things: Art, wildlife, birds, ducks, or the duck stamp program. Because honestly, my blog is pretty much just about art, birds, duck stamp stuff, (and sometimes chickens...). Genuinely, though, this festival supports all of the things I love, and there is a good chance it supports the things you love too.

Are you into some excellent wildlife artists? I know I am. Many very exceptional artists will be attending and displaying! Find out more.

Where is Easton? 

Here's a map:

A link to directions from nearby locations
And a map of the festival itself

When is it?

Opening ceremonies begin on Thursday, November 13th at 4pm (I will be there), though there will be some cool events starting at 9am, such as several different art classes!
The fun runs all weekend, that is: Thrusday the 13th, Friday the 14th, Saturday the 15th, and Sunday the 16th. Things wrap up around 4pm on Sunday afternoon.

What about me? 

I will indeed be there! I think I will mostly be haunting the Duck Stamp Exhibit at the high school, but I will also be saying a few words at the Opening Ceremonies, and I will be around to talk at the Premiere Night Party as well if you enjoy such things! I do hope that if you visit the festival that you will swing by and say hello, I'd love to meet you!

Here's the Easton Waterfowl Festival on Facebook
And on Twitter

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Ruddy Study

Hello everyone! A lot has been going on, but not much of it is very exciting. I've worked with a local framer to get a very nice sample frame made up for my print, so that I can photograph it and use it as an example for anyone interested in that. I'll be working it into a really nice brochure in the coming months. Everything takes so long to plan and get together!
I am in the beginning stages of getting the gold-plated medallions started, along with prints and all of the lovely packaging that goes with them. The prints themselves will be made next year. It is going to take a few months, and I must wait to release my brochures until the stamp design itself is made by the Duck Stamp Office / Fish and Wildlife Service. It's all very exciting. We should see things starting to come together late this winter, in early 2015.

Speaking of, I am excited to begin work on a new painting soon, and am spending quite a bit of time researching and planning it out. The idea will be to use it on the PSA issue of the stamp (PSA is the Pressure Sensitive Adhesive version, which has the stamp on a sleeve of  paper, the size of a dollar bill), similar to last year where Adam Grimm painted a beautiful scene of flying canvasbacks.

Here are a few other PSA issues of past Federal Duck Stamps, where photos were used instead:

2013, Robert Steiner's Common Goldeneye

2012, Joe Hautman's Wood Duck

2011, Jim Hautman's White-Fronted Geese

I am thinking of some Ruddy ducks riding some choppy waves, similar to scenes I've seen on the Great Lakes. To this end, I have been doing some studies, at least as much as I can manage to squeeze into my schedule!

Here's a "Ruddy Study" in sort of a vignette style.
Drake Ruddy Duck study, Digital Painting, 2014
(Cross-Posted to Tumblr)

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Local Show

Just a quick update, just for fun. I was asked for some more photos of myself for some
Jennifer and Mildred.  A pair of featherheads.
publicity/publications, and I found that I really didn't have very many! So, my husband and I had an impromtou photo shoot in the yard the other day on his lunch break. The chickens wanted to join in, so here I am with Mildred, one of our cochin hens. She's one of the only ones that doesn't look like a confused porcupine right now, as most of the girls are having their autumn molt!

I also wanted to let anyone local to the WNY area know that I will be showing my work this Saturday, October 11th, in Ellicottville, NY. This does not have anything to do with the duck stamp, and the Federal Duck Stamp tour will not be here! I just thought I'd mention it in case anyone wanted to see any of my other paintings! I'll have most of my original work with me, along with some prints and other things (no duck stamp prints yet, those will be long in the making).

Google Map of show Location

 The show will take place at :

11 Rockwell St
Ellicottville, NY 14731
10am - 5pm

Admission is free!
More details:

(cross-posted to Tumblr)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Some Stats and a Schedule

This year's stats on the entries
Yesterday, Dave Goyer (vice president of the National Duck Stamp Collectors Society) was kind enough to send me a few things in the mail-- including a copy of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest program from this year! This is a really cool thing for me to have, since I was unable to attend in person. On page three, it lists some statistics about this year's contest; namely, it gives a breakdown of where the entries are from, what medium they are painted in, age of artist, etc. I thought I'd share it here with you, for anyone else that did not attend and might be curious to see these statistics.

At the risk of sounding like an idealist, I'd love to see more entries overall, especially from lesser represented groups! Now, this is a bit counter-intuitive as a competing artist... less entries means less people to compete against, right? Well, yes. That is true. And it is also true that it can be overwhelming (as a judge) to try to select the 'best' when you are looking at a field of hundreds of paintings. But... I have a great deal of concern that the interest in the contest is waning. For whatever reason, less artists are "into it" than anytime in recent history that I am aware of. Did you know that in the past ( I am looking at the late 1980's and early 90's) that thousands of artists entered every year? In 1987, the year that Daniel Smith won with his beautiful painting of a snow goose, he was one of over a thousand entries.

If you are an artist, maybe you will consider entering? It is a tough competition, but the excitement, enjoyment of painting, the finding of new friends... the comradery and feeling of being part of something big, is pretty amazing. I have made some really fantastic friends and met a lot of cool people through this, way before I managed to win this thing!

Paint a duck, help a duck, make some friends, have fun, and keep the program going. If you need help, my time is very thin this year, but I can try to assist!

A Ducky Schedule

I have received my tentative schedule of events for the coming year. Some of the dates and locations are To Be Determined, and I may attend additional events. To be sure, I will be doing some smaller events, talks, and programs so stay tuned for that.  I hope you might come see me if I end up at an event near you!

November 13-16, 2014: Easton, MD
Easton Wildfowl Festival
Look for me mostly at the Federal Duck Stamp Office booth!

November 21-23, 2014: Redlands, CA

Duck Stamp Art at the San Bernardino County Museum

April 17, 2015: Shepherdstown, WV
Judging of the Jr. Duck Stamp Competition

June 26, 2015: Location TBD
First Day of Sale Event

July, 2015: Olean, NY
Hometown Celebration

September 25 & 26, 2015, Location TBD
Judging of the Federal Duck Stamp

(Cross-posted to Tumblr)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Day with a Printer

After realizing my stamp win, I was left with more questions than answers. A big one was, essentially, "What am I responsible for, now?"

The answer was: A lot more than I had ever realized!

We will talk about the travel, public speaking, and other such things later. For today, we can start talking about prints.
Now, prints need not happen for some time yet. But a lot of things lead up to the Making Of Prints, and some of it can take quite a while indeed. Despite not planning on releasing prints until well into 2015, to better match up with the time of the stamp issue date, there is a lot of footwork to be done in the next few months. I decided to get the ball rolling, in an effort to have things play out smoothly later on.

My knowledge of the duck stamp print was still firmly rooted in those very same Wildlife Art Magazines I mentioned in my last entry. Each-- or nearly each-- carried ads for the current Federal Duck Stamp prints. I remember reading about all of these various publishing houses and it was all very simple in my head. A few things I should have remembered:
1) Those magazines were from the 1980's and early 1990's, and;
2) The economy and market have drastically changed since then.

So, it is very unlikely a publisher will descend from above and offer me vast sums of money in order to print my stamp prints. It's still possible that a publisher will approach me and offer a reasonable, moderate, current-state-of-things price, and I am not going to count this out yet. But, really, it seems that the way to go in this age is to print them myself.

One of three traditional offset printing presses at the shop I visited.
And why offer prints at all? There are a great number of collectors out there that would like them. To not run prints would be unfair to them, but also unfair to any future winning artists. To "Break" a collector's number of prints.. and by this I mean, to create a gap in their collection... well. Well, it can cause a chain reaction and greatly reduce the amount of collecting going on in this genre. Doing that is bad news in general for the stamp program itself. In addition to some wonderfully supportive people that would see me not end up in the negative over all of this, it is... strongly encouraged to run prints.

And so I shall! And I will do my very best by it. Part of this process is finding a good printer that runs a traditional offset printing process.

This is a pretty important print. Some thousand will be run, and they must be of very high quality indeed. To this end, I wanted to start learning about the process and establish a relationship with any printer I may end up using. And since part of this traditional process includes a physical proofing of the output (and any adjusting of printing plates thereafter), I really, really hoped to find someone within driving distance.

I may have, and went to visit them all day yesterday. They were very kind, very experienced. A Father-Son run shop, with a intensely knowledgeable fellow running their presses and many other employees running their other machines, moving huge pallets of paper around, and so on. They do commercial printing as well as fine art printing.

Rough, quick sketches of a displaying Ruddy Drake.
Several reference photos used.
I took my painting with me (as I temporarily have it back in hand) and met with them for some time, talking about my needs for the print and the importance of the program, and the expectations of the collectors in terms of quality and so much more. I had to get some quotes for brochures, the prints themselves, a collector's folio that the print goes into, certificates of authenticity, and a few other odds and ends.

 The quote was a complex one and involved a lot of really custom stuff, so it would take a while. In the interim, I was offered some coffee and I decided to do some sketches. I need to start making a clear and precise mental map of ruddy ducks; several editions of the print will have the option for a Remarque in either pencil or a full color mini-painting. Remarques on prints are simply small, original pieces of art in the white margin of the print, to further add value and the artist's touch to the piece. I want to make sure my remarques, when the time comes, are at the top of my art game. Here's a great example of a color remarque by Bruce Miller (no relation) of his 1993 Canvasback winning stamp print.

In the end, I came home with some great paper samples, some new insight into the process, and a lot more questions. I am keeping my options open and will continue to learn as much as I can before making any decisions.

(Cross-posted to Tumblr.)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A little backstory, and the day of the win

Oh gosh. Okay. Where to start?
I guess I better start at the beginning. I want to document this, lest I forget. It will be fun to look back upon these words, someday.

I am going to write candidly; when thinking about how I wanted to represent all this, I decided that I really ought to just be myself, even if that means coming across as a bit goofy and eccentric. This is long and rambling; it is a journal after all!

(No really, the beginning… scroll down to read about my win)
Growing up, I was given a few copies of Wildlife Art Magazine when I was perhaps 8 or so. I remember pouring over them every day, as if they were the best comic books ever. I was fascinated by every article, every painting, even ever ad (the ads were for art), … just, every last little tidbit of wildlife art inside. I had known about Robert Bateman from library books previously, and had wanted to “paint animals” since I was around 5 or 6, but the Wildlife Art Magazines! So cool! They were big, thick, giant books of magazines. I wanted to DO that.

One thing in these magazines that kept popping up were Duck Stamp entries. I didn't really understand much about the program then, maybe I thought they were postage stamps. There was no internet (at least nothing that we would consider “internet” today) and we didn't have a computer. Thinking about painting birds and ducks and winning some sort of vague fantasy contest was something I would daydream about. I was… probably not a normal child.

Unfortunately, I grew up with no knowledge that the Junior Duck Stamp program existed until I was nearly too old to enter. The Jr. Duck stamp is similar to the federal; it is for those under 18 years of age. They are judged at a state level then the winners of each state go on to be judged at a federal level. It is a great program to get children and teens into conservation. I honestly can not say why I didn't know about it; perhaps I did, and I just did not understand what it was about at the time. I can’t remember. Once I did find out about it and realized what it was, I was a Junior in high school. I had doubled up on many of my classes as part of a program that only a small number of students were allowed to participate in (I think I was one of 6 or 7) that fast tracked me though my classes in half the time so that I could take extra classes my Senior year. The workload was intense as I took many Regents and AP classes. In retrospect I probably could have managed my time well enough to find a way to paint a duck stamp entry, but the simple honest truth was that between hours of homework, the only thing I really wanted to do was be outdoors, especially hunting with my dad in the autumn and into winter.

The Junior Duck Stamp program is one I accidentally passed by. In the following years, I felt myself regret that. I launched off on my own right out of high school, and did not have a good enough portfolio to find any arts-related jobs (at the time I was very keen on the idea of doing creature and background art for a game company). So into retail I went. I did not have a car and relied on others for transportation. Often, I would only be at home long enough to sleep. Life was a bit rough. I knew I was not in a position to make paintings… at least not good paintings, good enough for duck stamp competitions. Many years passed.

When I was finally stable enough in my life that I could dedicate time to painting ducks, I began to study them. A very kind hunter from California (thank you Bob J.) legally gifted me a few ducks, including a lovely male Gadwall, that I studied in great detail. I lovingly, and perhaps eccentrically, call them my freezer ducks, and I treasure and respect them in life and death. I visited Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, and a friend (Thank you Jenn) very kindly took me to see the study skins and I took photos. I attempted to find wild ducks locally, including one very laughable incident that had us visiting a Waste Water treatment plant where ducks of many species were known to congregate according to our local birding group. It was true; it was actually lovely habitat and very dense with ducks. It was my first time seeing many species in the wild, including Ruddy Ducks. The problem is that there was little vegetation, the ducks are wild and wary, I had a rather poor camera at the time, and the wind is often howling off of the shores of Lake Ontario at a really good clip. It was exciting, but the ducks were mere pixels on the horizon even through my binoculars. I jokingly sent my friends some photos of the “pixel ducks”, which indeed looked like tiny blurry dots on some choppy water. I managed to carefully move close enough to a small group of Ruddy Ducks to get a photo that was more than a tiny smeary dot. I was so excited that I made a mental note that I had to paint Ruddy Ducks someday. This is that photo. Please behold the National Geographic quality…
The best photo to come out of that trip. Wild Ruddy Ducks! 

I was going to have to do something different, if I was to have any hope of getting decent reference. For the next two years, I started tucking away a little money when I could, toward investing in a camera and lens setup that was at least a little better.
I then traveled to visit my friend Hillary on the West Coast. This had the added benefit of being during January (when many migrants and ducks were around), and she is also a big bird nerd. We set out from day one to try and locate some Brant, as she had been given a tip on where to view them. To make things even more amazing, her boyfriend was letting me borrow his camera and 400mm lens so that I could attempt to get some decent photos. We had a wacky adventure driving on Highway 1, but never did find the brant. Still, the trip lasted for days and I managed to see a Surf Scoter along the way. We wandered through the redwood forests and I loved all of nature as much as a person can. I was cascading with emotion and awe over how beautiful everything was. We wept in delight over every single thing. When we arrived in Oregon, Hillary took me to a park that was known for attracting piles and piles of wild ducks, and since it was a park they were not quite as skittish. All of the drakes were in their full beautiful breeding plumage, full of splendor and resplendence. My eyes shone and sparkled as if I had gone to a holy place. Our entire trip consisted of bright and sunny days until the day I found the ducks. Then it got dark and overcast. It drizzled a little. My duck photos were... not great.
This nice Canada Goose came and sat with me as I crawled around in the mud to try and get good angles on the ducks. The camera equipment shown here was kindly loaned to me.
Looking for ducks in Oregon. Found a goose.

We later stopped at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. You are not permitted to exit your car, but I had an amazing time watching all of the wildlife. I almost bubbled over, because duck stamps helped to buy and protect this very place, and I was there trying to get photos so that I could paint duck stamps. My life was pretty awesome, that day.

I headed back home, inspired to paint better, inspired by nature, inspired by ducks, inspired by everything. I finished saving up to buy a new camera, as I was most impressed with the one loaned to me. I studied ducks some more and did a tremendous amount of really bad duck drawings which have never seen the light of day. I studied and studied forever. I bought a few sets of acrylic paints to try and settled on the ones that seemed to suit me best. I wanted to paint in oils, but my work table shares airspace with my loved pet parrots, and I could not use any materials that had vapors that could harm them. I did a bunch of paintings over the course of a year to at least get marginally used to the acrylics. Previously, most of my work had been watercolor, digital, and a few other mixed mediums. I did a little oil painting in High School and just after, but nothing noteworthy.

My first painting was an entry for North Carolina’s Duck Stamp Contest, of a pair of Gadwalls. I expected it to flop spectacularly, but it actually made it past round 1. No further, but really I was not expecting to do even that well. Surprised and encouraged, I painted entries for several more state competitions. Oklahoma, Delaware, Michigan, and Colorado. I flopped a lot. Some of my paintings were a bit better and some just frankly weren’t good. I knew I was not producing stellar work, but I knew myself. If I didn’t keep trying… even with sub-par work, then I would be likely to give up. I didn’t want to give up. Not yet.

I entered my first Federal Duck Stamp competition in 2010, with a painting of Northern Shovelers. Even after all my research on Shovelers, I got nervous. I rushed my painting and just didn’t do a great job. I was rather embarrassed with myself! I resolved to take another year off from entering the Federal, because frankly I needed to shape up my game, so to speak. In the interim, I kept studying, and painted for several more state competitions. I am honored to say that I placed 4th in North Carolina’s stamp in 2011 with Gadwalls again, and in 2012 I placed second in Oregon’s Conservation Stamp contest. Encouraged, I decided to enter the Federal again. I painted a pair of Brant, just as I observed them in a trip to Connecticut earlier that year. I was very moved by the experience of the Brant foraging close to shore on a compound low tide, which revealed a lot of rocky areas that were covered in beautiful “Irish Moss” (a type of algae). I painted the scene from memory and a few poor photos I took. My painting didn’t do very well, but it was no surprise, as I still hadn’t quite got the hang of things and there were dozens of truly exceptional paintings, so much nicer than mine!

In 2013 I placed 5th in North Carolina’s duck stamp again, with a painting of Hooded Mergansers. I had a small and delightful moment where I felt like I understood the paint better, and along with the encouragement of friends, continued to paint throughout the year. A pair of Cinnamon Teal is what I entered in the Federal last year, and to my shock it made it past round 1! It scored a 15 in round two, which meant that the judges did not find it loathsome. I was delighted, and determined to learn how to paint better. I did not enter any more stamps the rest of that year, and instead dedicated myself to trying to make better paintings overall. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I did try.

I long mulled over the species list, starting last winter. The choices were: brant, Canada goose, northern shoveler, red-breasted merganser and ruddy duck. I liked all of these waterfowl. I love every bird. I struggled a bit over the choice, and found myself thinking of ruddy ducks fondly, over and over. I struggled with even this; as much as I love these silly little ducks, the contest has not favored them. In fact, they had only been on stamp images twice since 1934. Other species were favored; not without reason, as there are some beautiful species of ducks, and some species certainly hold more nostalgia and are closer to some hearts than others. Still, I kept thinking of busy little ruddy ducks, and decided that I would not stress over it. I would paint a ruddy duck, have fun, score poorly, and still be happy to have been a part of the contest! Not that I did not take it seriously— I did not paint a ruddy in jest. I just wanted to loosen up a bit, as I felt that the more I stressed over previous paintings, the worse they looked to me.

I collected my references, which I am so thankful to say I was able to photograph some ruddy ducks and the photos are reasonably clear, and set to studying them. I started planning my painting in March, and planned the composition and colors as best I could. Even though I was not stressed, I still wanted to make a good painting, and that requires carefully thinking about choices such as placement of all the elements, color, composition, making sure it would reduce well, bright colors, good contrast, and so on. Initially I had masses of clouds and trees on the lake shore, but felt it was too busy, especially once reduced. I had to fight for a few weeks to try and try to unify the color and light on my concept thumbnails, as my reference photos all had very different lighting. As much as I would love to say I took a photo of the two ruddy ducks posed the way they are, nature does not so often cooperate, and it ended up being a composite of many of my photos along with some aspects that I just had to pull out of my head.

I finally got it to the point where it looked reasonable, and started painting the first week in June. I worked on it nearly every day until July 22nd, at which point I took a quick scan and got it varnished so that it would dry in time. I shipped July 30th, as I left the next day to attend my friend Amber’s wedding, and would not be back home in time to do any more work before the deadline of August 15th.

Fast forward to when the USFWS posted the duck stamp entries to their Flickr page, on August 31st. I looked through as I always do, and as always, was floored by the exceptional artwork that was entered! I was not depressed about my entry, but my gut reaction was “I can’t hope to win, not that I expected to, but LOOK AT ALL THESE GLORIOUS PAINTINGS!” They were scanned and uploaded at high resolution. I went through for hours and smashed my face into the screen, to bask in how lovely they were. My friends and I sighed dreamily at the fleshiness of a bill, or the bounce light on feathers, or the rendering of water. So many beautiful things to behold. (THE GLORIOUS DETAILS! warning: large image)

Life got in the way for a few weeks. The stamp was temporarily pushed from my mind as some bad stuff went down. Hospitals, a beloved dog passing away, family stuff, you know. Sad happenings. Still, I had marked the date of judging on my calendar and on Friday the 19th, I hopped on my computer to watch the livestream… coffee fresh in my mug sporting some Canada Geese (I had a feeling that a Canada Goose or merganser painting would win, so it felt appropriate).

My entry was #19. I guess that sending it in early (July 30th) got me in the start of the pack. There were 186 entries total, though a few were disqualified. Most of the time disqualifications seem to happen when someone does not follow the rules, and does something such as painting the wrong species, or signs the art with their name. Artists are not allowed to mark the painting in any way that identifies the artist, in an effort to keep the judging fair.

When judging started, I was nervous, but not overly so. I was confident that there were so many incredible paintings that I would not have to worry about doing terribly well. It’s sort of strange how that can be relaxing! Please understand that I am not trying to dismiss my painting as bad art, I did try my very best! But, I am my own worst critic and honestly I just admired the work of the other artists so very much that the idea of my painting doing well just seemed impossible. It is less about putting myself down than it is about looking up to and admiring the other artwork. Aspiring to it!!

I told my husband before the contest, that if I could make it past round 1, that I would be elated. For those unfamiliar with the process, the Federal duck stamp contest is judged in rounds. The judges are each shown the physical painting, and they are separated by panels so that they do not know how the others voted. In round one, each of the 5 judges votes the painting “IN” or “OUT”, depending on if they feel it is good enough to pass to the next round. Majorty rules, and one must have a minimum of three “IN” votes to pass to the next round. At the end of the round, each judge may optionally “call back” up to five paintings each (but no more than five), if they felt the painting was of enough merit that they personally wanted it to go to the next round.

This is my score from round one. I was tickled!! It is an honor that even one judge thinks my painting is good enough to pass. Three did! I was in round 2. (screen capture from Livestream)

Now all that was left was to cheer on my duck stamp friends! There were a few surprises with the rest of the first round. Some of my friends made it and others did not. I empathized with their disappointment. They are all amazing artists and I know that they will do well in the future.

Round two was the next day, the 20th of September. I was a bit excited, and nervous, but not overly so— I was being realistic with myself. Most of my favorite paintings had passed to round two, and I just knew one of them would win! In round two, each of the judges has a numbered card, from one to five. One being the worst, and five being the best. A perfect score would be five fives— so, 25. The lowest score possible would be five ones, so, 5. The five highest scores would all move on to round three. Meaning, if the highest numerical scores were 25, 24, 23, (etc), each painting that got that score would move on. I told myself that I’d be just beside myself with a score of anything over 10.

Because several of the paintings before mine got “OUT” in round one, my art was scored almost immediately. I got a startling score of 17.

Because mine was scored so soon in the round (as they go in numerical order), I thought that surely it would not be a high enough score to move on to round three. I watched the stream, rooting on my duck stamp peers! Several of them scored higher than I did. I was very excited for them. My husband started pacing. “Seventeen is really good!”
"Nah," I laughed. "There will be several above 20. You’ll see."

I was in a livestream chat with several other duck stamp artists. Some had entered this year, some had not. We were all cheering each other on enthusiastically. The camaraderie was wonderful.
All too soon they were done judging round two. My husband as well as one of the artists in the chat had done the math. Everyone with a score of 17 or above would move on to round three.
I was stunned.
"Are you sure?!"
Yes, my husband replied. He also did the math to indicate that I should be in the “top 20”, which is the top 20 scoring paintings that go on tour with the winner for a year. I felt like a fish out of water. Bubbles may have come out of my mouth, I’m not sure. The top 20!! I never dreamed I would do that well. It was an exceptional achievement. I knew I would flunk in the last round, given how beautiful the other paintings were, but the top 20!
We had a mini dance celebration while the judges took a 30 minute break.

We sat back down for round three. In round three, the judges may score paintings only from 3-5. I suppose the logic is that if a painting has done well enough to get to round three, then it can not be a “1” or a “2”. Mine was the first painting up.
A 20.

My stomach started to do flips. A 20 was pretty darn good! But, there are still five scores higher than that. In years past I have seen paintings get 24, and even 25— perfect score. I was confident others would do better.
My husband did not help matters any. He was getting visibly freaked out. I waved him off, and assured him that paintings score higher than this every year.
The paintings went by, getting judged. There were 17 in this round, including my own. I couldn’t fathom the idea that at least three of them would not score higher than mine.
None scored higher. Two other paintings scored 20. There were three paintings tied for first place with a score of 20.
I had a score of 20.

I remember feeling distinctly confused. My husband was repeating to me that no matter what, I was in the top three. Either first, second, or third. I remember feeling distinctly confused. Maybe it was a mistake. What?!

It was the first three-way tie like that in the history of the stamp program. They had to move on to round four to break the tie. They showed each judge all three paintings together, then one at a time for judging. Mine was first.
It scored 20, again.

I watched in disbelief as the lovely Canada Goose painting scored lower than 20 (I was too frazzled to remember the exact score), and the merganser scored a 20 as well (a tie).
I think my husband shook me. I was going to place either first or second. “Shhh,” I said in disbelief. I was still feeling terribly confused.

They passed the paintings around again. I wasn’t sure if I was going to explode or not. I remember vaguely thinking “Gosh, I am glad I’m not there. I would have fallen on the floor and made a big nonsensical spectacle and ruined everything.” I scored a number. The number was 21.

The merganser scored a number too. I couldn’t understand it. It was 20, I believe (I will have to check once the score sheets come out). I had just… won?
My husband was freaking out. I made him go upstairs. The chatroom was freaking out. I was trying my best to phase out of existence, I was shaking so hard. Was this real life?

Minutes later, or seconds, or years… at that point I am not sure time was passing properly for me, they announced on the livestream that they had a clear first, second, and third place winner. They announced third place; Frank Mittlestadt with a gloriously beautiful Canada Goose:

In second place, Ron Loque with a dreamy flying red-breasted merganser:

And in first place, and winner of the 2015-2016 Federal Duck stamp…
(“nope,” I said, quietly. “this is pretty much not happening.”) Was Jennifer Miller, with her ruddy duck painting.
That was my name, and that was my painting.

My husband was already on the phone, calling family. “Oh,” I remember thinking, as my body shook so hard that I made my parrots nervous and knocked a plastic dinosaur off my computer desk. “Oh, they are confused.” But, it was I that was confused. I’m still a bit confused. I am, in truth, just a strange girl that lives in the woods and carries chickens around. I’m not like those cool people in the Wildlife Art Magazine of yesteryear.

But. There I was. It sunk in once it popped up on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website.
I wish that there was a way to describe how I felt, how I feel now…! In words, in text, electronically. There is no way for me to convey as your eyes slide over these little pixels combined to make text, there is no way for me to convey… to convey any of it. The rush of realization and immense, thunderous humbling honor. The gratitude! The terrifying moment of speculation, hoping the other artists are not angry with me. The cascade of joy and how in awe I was of having my painting.. something my hands, eyes, mind and heart worked together to make (along with no few kind words of support, cooperative little ruddy ducks to photograph, and love from so many family and friends). The wonder I felt; my name was now on a list with so many of the people I have admired since childhood, and into my adult years. So many extraordinary people, and exemplary artists. How was this possible?

I spent the rest of the day in a haze. It took me ten minutes to put socks on. Was this really happening? I walked around holding my socks. I am supposed to put them on. Did that really happen? Where are my socks? My husband kindly directed me to where I put them down in a daze. I finally had warm feet.

The rest of the story, until now.. a mere two days later, is not so exciting. It has been a huge number of emails, phone calls, and a large education. That is another time, in another journal entry, though.
I really must pause for a moment, and thank some special people. I have dozens and dozens of people to thank, but I have to thank my husband for his undying support in this, what can be considered a pretty wacky hobby and dream. I want to thank my friend Amber, for always taking time to help me and critique my work. I want to thank Hillary, for taking me on a wild adventure looking for ducks on the west coast, among other things. I want to thank Shari Erickson, because she reached out to me to help me when I first started, and has supported me every single step of the way. My parents, for letting me varnish my paintings at their house and for their help and support in the coming months. My friend Chelsea, my patron saint of the arts, for helping me to afford art supplies during the times that my bank account isn’t able to. My family, my friends, my Duck Stamp buddies— all of you, holy crow, you are all awesome. I couldn’t have done this without you.

My artwork is for the 2015-2016 stamp; it will not be printed or for sale until next summer. Despite this, you can buy the current duck stamp right now. It is really beautiful, a painting by Adam Grimm of canvasbacks. You’ll hear more from me between now and then, for sure. I will forever be screaming about ducks. I will need to do some prints and those will come later too. I have a lot of doing to do.

Part of the responsibilities of the winner involves traveling with the stamp and representing it as well as the Federal Duck Stamp program. The top twenty will tour, and here is a schedule — note that the new paintings (from this year’s judging) will not premiere until November at the Easton Waterfowl Festival. There is a lot I will need to do behind the scenes, but to the best of my knowledge the first to shows I will personally be at are:

Easton Waterfowl Festival, Easton MD
November 14-16, 2014
Wildlife Art Festival, Redlands CA
November 21-23

(more to come as I get them)

If you have made it this far in this journal, I commend you. Maybe you want to know more about the duck stamp program? I’d be happy to yap at you about it some.
In short:

The Federal Duck Stamp program is a US-based conservation program. The stamp itself started in 1934 as a hunting stamp. Back then, this was how licenses were done. A hunter would purchase the stamp and sign his or her name across it, to prove that he or she paid for a license to hunt migratory birds. This act of conservation was a giant step from the days of old when there was no regulation and unfortunately sometimes things got pretty out of hand. The stamp was the first step of many that hunters themselves took as a way to make sure that no one overdid it, ever again.
The duck stamp has since evolved into something a lot more. Now, not only hunters buy them, but a great many birders and other people interested in conservation buy them. They can also be used as a pass to gain access to a National Wildlife Refuge. Indeed, 98 cents of every dollar that the stamp sells for goes directly to buying or preserving federal wildlife refuges and wetlands (the other two cents covers the costs of printing them and such). This does not just benefit ducks and hunters; a huge number of species, all the way from protozoa to large birds and mammals depend on wetlands. They are prime birding locations. Wetlands provide vital natural management of our watersheds and waterways, both for humans and other species. Amphibians and insects alike depend on these areas. Wetlands are of incredible benefit. To date, the duck stamp program alone has raised over $800 million for this purpose. As an artist, none of the money from the sale of stamps comes back to me. And that is great— that means it is all going to conservation. Further, the stamp program can license the image out to be sold on merchandise and products. The sale of these products (the part that the USFWS gets) goes directly into the Migratory bird Conservation Fund.
Anyhow, anyone can buy one, and it is is all good. If you are keen on one, check at your local post office, or you can do it on the internets too:
Even if you can’t or don’t want to buy one, it’s really a great thing to get excited about. A lot of people don’t even know this program exists, nor the enormous amount of good it does! Plus, let’s be honest here— many of my friends that will read this are artists too. You know that art is often overlooked. Glance at many grade school art programs across the country… the cuts are happening. Some schools don’t even have art any more. I don’t know about you, but man that is depressing. I would be so very sad indeed if the only government-run, nationally recognized art contest went away.
Even if you are not hot on ducks, that alone should put a little wrinkle in your heart. Let’s let people know about the Duck Stamp program, and why it’s so awesome!

(cross-posted to Tumblr)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Introduction

Jennifer, with her painting of Ruddy Ducks
Hello Everyone!
I should start with an introduction. My name is Jennifer Miller; I am a strange artist in Western NY that lives in the woods and carries around chickens, and I won the 2015-2016 Federal Duck Stamp.

Yeah, wow. I am still reeling, too.

I will follow shortly with a post about how I won, only a week ago, and how my life is already changing. This win is an immense honor, and to be now among some of the top wildlife artists that the US has ever known (both past and present) is a feeling I can not describe. I hope to share with you the whirlwind adventure I am about to begin; an adventure that I never could have realized on my own before this. I will be traveling and also writing from home, expressing the importance of the Federal Duck Stamp program to our vulnerable wetlands, and just how important they are to so many species... including many of North America's migratory birds.

I am, in truth, a bit unconventional for a stamp winner. I am only the third female artist to win, I am quite a nerd (both for birds as well as other things), and a bit eccentric. In a "Wow I really love moss" sort of way... not the creepy sort of way. I hope.

And I also won with Ruddy Ducks. Did you know Ruddy ducks have only been on three stamps in the last 82 years? I hope we can all collectively show the Ruddy ducks some love (watch this video of a displaying drake, and honestly tell me you don't love this duck), as well as all of the other thousands of species that benefit from and truthfully depend on our shrinking wetland system. In a time when we are all shaking our heads over the failings of many of our government systems, the duck stamp program actually does good... a lot of good! I'll get more into that soon, though. 

I hope you'll join me on this wonderful adventure, as this strange and silly bird-brained girl tries to share some Duck Stamp love.

(cross-posted to Tumblr)