Robert Steiner is not a household name, but with the recent issue of the new federal duck stamp, he begins a yearlong run as one of the most visible artists in the United States.
Last October, his acrylic painting of a duck known as the common goldeneye beat 191 other artists' works in the Fish and Wildlife Service's annual Duck Stamp Contest — the only art competition mandated by the federal government.
As a result, his painting will appear on the 80th stamp in a series that began in the early days of the New Deal.
If you paint ducks, this is the big one.
“Overnight, you become a superstar in the wildlife art world,” said Mark S. Anderson, an artist in Sioux Falls, S.D., who won the 2004 contest with a painting of two hooded mergansers. “In music you have the Grammys. If you're an actor, it's the Oscars. If you're a wildlife artist, it's winning the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.”
If past sales are any guide, about a million and a half people will buy the $15 revenue stamp, which was formally introduced last weekend in a ceremony at the Bass Pro Shops in Ashland, Va.
Duck hunters, who are required to put the stamp on their hunting licenses, account for most of the sales. But stamp collectors, conservationists and fans of wildlife art also buy it.
The image will reach a wider audience through prints, which duck stamp winners sell by the thousands, as well as T-shirts, caps, coffee mugs, mouse pads, calendars and other memorabilia licensed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The prestige is gratifying. The money isn't bad, either.
“They used to call it the million-dollar duck,” said Steiner, who lives in San Francisco. Winners receive no prize money, only a pane of stamps signed by the secretary of the interior, but they retain the rights to sell prints of their work.
After winning his first federal contest in 1997 with a painting of a Barrow's goldeneye, Steiner sold 6,000 prints, at prices that started at $200 and reached $1,000 for a print with a remarque (a small original drawing by the artist).
When the market for limited-edition duck stamp prints was at its peak, in the mid-1980s, sales could approach $2 million.
The contest grew out of the 1934 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, aimed at reversing the drastic shrinkage of the nation's wetlands. Hunters 16 and over were required to buy a $1 stamp, with the money going to a special account, the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which is used to lease or buy wetlands for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
“It's the single greatest idea that the federal government has ever had,” said Martin Smith, whose book “The Wild Duck Chase” chronicles the 2010 Federal Duck Stamp Contest. “It's a simple idea: the people who use the resource pay for the resource. It's a $450,000 program that brings in annual revenues of $25 million, and 98 percent of that is used for what it's supposed to — acquiring wetlands. It's a beautiful thing.”
To date, the program has raised more than $850 million to help acquire 6 million acres of wildlife habitat.
The contest, which costs $125 to enter, usually proceeds without incident.
In 2008, however, 3.5 million copies of the 75th anniversary stamp, with an image of pintail ducks by Joseph Hautman, were printed on cards with a toll-free telephone number for those wishing to order more stamps. Because of an input error, 1-800-STAMP24 became 1-800-TRAMP24. Callers who used the number reached Intimate Connections, a phone-sex line.
“The stamp is perfectly usable,” a spokeswoman for the duck stamp program said. “It will just be a lot more interesting for people now.”
Success has not brought recognition among the wider public, even though nearly every state, at one time or another, has set up a duck stamp program on the federal model. (Steiner has won 82 state contests.)
It was a rare, highly gratifying moment at duck stamp headquarters in Arlington, Va., when the movie “Fargo” was released in 1996 and sneaked in a duck stamp subplot involving Norm Gunderson, the husband of Marge, the police chief played by Frances McDormand.
It was a family in-joke. Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmakers, grew up in Minneapolis, a few houses away from the Hautman brothers — Joseph, James and Robert — who among them have won eight contests since 1990. In the film, a blue-winged teal by one of the brothers, mentioned only as Hautman, beats Norm's mallard.
Steiner's winning painting, which conforms to the contest size of 7 inches by 10 inches, reflects the photorealist style that currently holds sway in the contest. The central image is big, bold and highly detailed. The colors are bright, with strong contrast. The design is simple.
The duck, with a large, velvety green head and piercing orange eye, floats placidly on dark, rippling water.
Six spare reeds stick up behind the black tailfeathers. A diffuse, purple-gray sky sets a twilight mood.
“I try to bathe things in a warm light,” Steiner said. “I am not a fan of cool daylight. I'm trying to do for ducks what Vermeer did for Dutch women in the 17th century.”