For someone who can barely make stick men recognizable, viewing the entries in the Alabama State Waterfowl Stamp Contest left me amazed at the artistic talent that calls Alabama home.

From the accuracy of the multiple colors on a drake wood duck to the difficult-to-recreate head and bill of the drake canvasback, the artists were able to bring the waterfowl to life.

In the closest scoring of recent memory, Steven Burney’s rendering of a pair of Ross’ geese captured the top prize, followed closely by John Denney’s wood ducks in a flowing stream. A lone drake canvasback painted by Bill Stem of Madison took second runner-up. Burney’s Ross’ geese will appear on the 2013-2014 Alabama State Duck Stamp.

Burney had been so close to the pinnacle in years past, and he wishes he had made the trip to Montgomery on last Friday’s stormy morning.

“I’ve been trying to win for 16 years,” said Burney of Town Creek. “I’ve been first runner-up three times and second runner-up twice. I always felt like I could win. It was just a matter of having the right painting at the right time.”

Former winner David Nix of Cottondale was the first to get in touch with Burney after the final judging was announced.

“When David called, he asked where I was,” Burney said. “That was a pretty good indication I had won. He said, ‘Let me be the first to congratulate you.’ I was in the studio cleaning up, getting ready to start on the next painting. I sure wish I had been there.”

Burney, who was first runner-up last year with a painting of white-fronted geese, said the win should be a significant boost to his artistic career.

“Alabama is a hard place to get established,” he said. “Just the recognition of winning this competition will do a lot. There are very few people who have won it. Larry Chandler [award-winning Alabama wildlife artist who died in 2007] was a friend of mine, and he encouraged me and several other artists. He was an inspiration to us.”

The contest is limited to Alabama artists, whose artwork must not exceed 9 by 12 inches (15 by 18 inches matted). Entries must be original horizontal artworks depicting a species of North American migratory duck or goose. The species that won the previous three years are not eligible to be painted. Not eligible for the 2013-2014 competition were pintail, American wigeon and ring-necked duck.

Contest coordinator David C. Hayden, Assistant Chief of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Wildlife Section, had each judge select the top 10 from the 16 entries to advance to the final round. That resulted in the top 11 moving to the final round.

Those 11 entries were judged in five categories: suitability for reproduction, originality, artistic composition, anatomical accuracy and general rendering.

Under suitability for printing, the judges were asked two questions – is the work produced with tones that endure on the stamp during off-set printing, and how much of the detail will be picked up during the printing process? The originality category asks if the work is a copy or near copy of entries from the past, and to what extent did the artist attempt a new and pleasing composition? In artistic composition, the questions posed were: Is the waterfowl the dominant element in the design, is the design pleasing to the eye and is the spatial arrangement pleasing? For anatomical accuracy, the judges were asked to look at the definition in the wing and feather construction, as well as the tone and detail of the waterfowl. Finally, the entries were judged on general rendering, defined as the use of the artist’s medium (oil, acrylic, watercolor, etc.), and the correct use of the medium in terms of splatters, shading, unpainted canvas, etc.

The quality of the work made me glad that I wasn’t one of the three judges who had to make the final decisions. That difficult task was left to judges Jerry Johnson, Chairman of the Department of Art and Design at Troy University; Kenneth Hood, an avid outdoorsman and longtime advocate for waterfowl conservation organizations from Lee County; and Catherine Rideout, coordinator of the East Gulf Coastal Plain Joint Venture (aimed at restoring bird populations in the Southeast) at Auburn University and former ornithologist with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

“I’m certainly looking for a rendering that’s artistic, but I’m also looking for something that represents what the bird looks like in nature,” said Rideout. “We had a lot of beautiful entries this year that were inspiring. The folks who produced the works are obviously passionate about wildlife and also very talented.

“The winning entry had really wonderful, interesting composition. It really looked like the birds in the field, and it looked like it would translate well into the stamp. The wood ducks are absolutely beautiful. The male wood duck gets most of the attention because it’s so colorful, but the female is really beautiful, too. It’s just a little more subtle. It was a beautiful piece of art, and I really enjoyed the setting the birds were in with the maple leaves and reflection on the water. The canvasback is a really beautiful bird, too. They look a lot like redheads, so what’s interesting is to see if the artists are able to pick up the differences in the species.”

Johnson is a veteran of several state waterfowl stamp contests. He also has family members who love to hunt, as well as artist friends who compete in waterfowl art contests all the way to the federal level.

“I think the top three were excellent,” Johnson said of the Alabama competition. “One reason was the craftsmanship with the impeccable detail. It’s a trick to get that kind of detail and yet still have something that’s reducible to a stamp and that can be reproduced and still hold its contrast and other characteristics. I think the top winners were really beautiful selections. I’ve been involved in this type of competition in at least three other states, and this competition was right up there.

“My background is art and design, so the things that catch my eye are composition, color and design elements. Secondarily, I want to know if it’s believable. Is that purple water really believable? I know we have beautiful sunsets that reflect, but sometimes the colors get a little bit strange. So I have to measure my love for color with what’s believable. I understand the nature of this competition is to have authenticity, as well as great art.”

John Denney of Alexander City, whose twin brother Jim won the 2011 competition with ring-necked ducks, had hoped a different rendering of wood ducks would provide a title like the one that prevailed in 2008. This time he came up only three points short.

“I won with a wood duck before, so I decided to give it another try,” Denney said. “I have a lot of wood duck photography for reference, plus, to me, it’s the most handsome of all the ducks. I’m pleased. Of course, I would have loved to have won, but second isn’t bad.”

All licensed waterfowl hunters are required to purchase state and federal migratory waterfowl stamps. Funds from stamp sales are used to procure and manage wetland habitats for waterfowl. Like the federal stamps, state-issued stamps are popular with collectors. Those who purchase waterfowl stamps online can request an actual stamp, which will be mailed at the end of each waterfowl season.

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