When Jim Hautman was a little boy, his father, Tom "Tuck" Hautman, regaled the family with tales of days gone by, when vast flights of canvasbacks could be counted on to arrive each fall on Minnesota waters. The seeds of fascination had been planted.
"He was a big duck hunter and we grew up hunting every weekend of duck season," Hautman says. "My father collected all the duck stamps, beginning with 1934. He also painted some, and had done a dozen paintings before I was born—all from a duck hunter's perspective.
"But by the time my brothers and I got into hunting, there weren't as many canvasbacks around anymore. The canvasback was like a mythical creature. We probably hunted four or five years before we even saw one. They've always had a mystique to me."
That mystique paid off big time when Jim Hautman flipped through a file of 10-year-old sketches and decided to finish a painting that he had put on hold. The result was First Light—Canvasbacks, voted the winner of the 2011 Ducks Unlimited Artist of the Year competition.
"I had an idea of what I wanted to do for a long time, but just never dialed it in," Hautman says. "I was originally working on a long, thin piece with six or seven canvasbacks in it. I decided to focus on three of them.
"I thought by doing that, I could get the birds big enough for people to appreciate the detail. They're unique birds—the shape of their heads, their bills, their coloring. It was fun to get them life-size."
This painting focuses on three canvasbacks—two drakes and a hen—resting comfortably in a marsh in the early morning. The lighting is impeccable and serves to create a moody marsh scene.
"I wanted to do something that would really stand out," Hautman says. "Thinking about all the years of going to shows and people telling me what they liked about my work, a lot of the comments were about the lighting, the sun hitting the birds.
"I wanted to go all out and create that dramatic effect that you get in the morning, especially on canvasbacks. They light up like a light bulb. The main idea was to paint the light. That, and make them life-size, which is something I don't do that often."
Members of the Hautman family are hardly strangers to the wildlife art world. This is Jim's second DU Artist of the Year title. In October he won a fourth federal duck stamp competition. His brothers, Joe and Bob, have also taken top honors in this prestigious contest. It seems that their Minnesota roots played a major role.
"I think a lot of our artistic success has to do with our upbringing," Hautman says. "If we weren't brought up in the family we had, we probably never would have tried it. We were always hunting and fishing.
"And there were so many pioneers of wildlife art from Minnesota, people like David Maass and Les Kouba ... seeing their work on the cover of Ducks Unlimited magazine. In the early days we did not have a lot of reference material, so we looked at others' paintings."
Hautman was headed to Manitoba in late October to hunt waterfowl. Such trips often provide the spark for future paintings.