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.
"I always bring a camera and used to bring a sketchbook along, too," he says, "but then I thought about the order that I grab things—shotgun first, camera second, and then the sketchbook sits there. I don't bother with it anymore.
"But I do try to get ideas when I'm out there. When I'm working I try to piece together ideas that I had and the memories that I brought home. Photos help, but memories are just as important."
More than 20,000 Ducks Unlimited supporters voted in the most recent Artist of the Year competition. Hautman not only had the winning entry, but also had a second painting chosen for the national art package.
"To be picked by DU members means a lot because they are the people who have been there and know what it looks like," Hautman says. "I can quickly tell just by talking with people if they have ever really seen a flock of ducks coming into the decoys."
Having already ascended to the top of the wildlife art mountain, what challenge remains for Hautman?
"It's kind of a chasing-history thing, I guess," he says. "Maynard Reece is the only artist to have painted five federal duck stamps. And I'm pretty competitive."
The wildlife art world is on notice.
The Hautman Duck Stamp Dynasty
Minnesota boasts by far the most winners (15 different artists) in the storied history of the federal duck stamp contest. The Hautman brothers—Jim, Joe, and Bob—have more than done their part to uphold the state's artistic dominance. Among them they have won nine of these prestigious titles. Jim broke the ice in 1990 when, at the age of 25, he became the youngest person (at the time) to have the winning design. He followed that up with triumphs in 1995 and 1999 (receiving perfect scores from the judges in each contest) and in 2011. Joe Hautman, the oldest of the three, claimed top honors in 1992, 2002, and 2008. He also happens to hold a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. Bob took his turn at the top of the waterfowl artist ladder with wins in 1997 and 2001. They are also the only brothers to have captured this honor. Between them, the Hautman brothers have had their artwork featured on more than 45 state and federal wildlife stamps.
To view an online gallery of federal duck stamps, go to the Ducks Unlimited website at www.ducks.org/duckstampgallery.
Ducks Unlimited's National Art Package
Art Prints a Cornerstone of DU Events
For more than 35 years, wildlife art has been a key ingredient to the success of Ducks Unlimited fund-raising events. DU's art program has raised more than $35 million in support of continental wetlands and waterfowl conservation. In addition to the exceptional art, DU events also feature decoys, sculptures, and other sporting collectibles. Firearms, particularly shotguns, also take center stage. This year's Gun of the Year is the Beretta AL3901 semiautomatic. The AL3901 12-gauge is chambered for 3-inch shells and features a custom polished receiver with the DU logo and "Ducks Unlimited" proudly displayed. Renew old friendships and share in the camaraderie that has made DU events the blueprint for all others in the conservation community. Better yet, introduce a newcomer to the DU flock.
DU's Gun of the Year, a Beretta AL3901 with a polished receiver and custom engraving, will be available at most DU fund-raising events in 2011.
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