A Guide to Approaching Duck Stamp Artwork

This guide was written by Jennifer Miller, 2015-16 Federal Duck Stamp artist. This is not an official guide, and there is no One True Way to create good duck stamp artwork, but nonetheless, I hope that this is a helpful starting point for students and newcomers to Duck Stamp art! This guide is kept simple and printer-friendly. Images can be enlarged by clicking.

While this guide is aimed at Junior Duck Stamp artists and newcomers to duck stamp design, artists of any skill level and painting any subject matter are welcome to use this article if it is found to be helpful. As it is aimed at Junior artists, there will be some exploratory learning via questions and exercises. There is an entire curriculum available to educators for the Junior Duck Stamp Program (please contact Suzanne Fellows at the Duck Stamp office for these materials). Educators, there are funds out there to help you with this curriculum! This article is intended to be an unofficial supplementary aid in planning both a successful design as well as creating an entry that is ethical and does not infringe upon the rights of photographers or other artists. Many artists, both young and old, turn to free online resources for help, and this is intended to help those artists.

Painting, illustration, design; this is where three worlds mesh to create duck stamp imagery that stands on its own in conservation history! There are many factors that come to play when creating a strong contender in this competitive field. Even if you are entering for fun, learning these factors not only makes you a better artist, but helps you to learn about these amazing waterfowl, their equally important habitats, and more!


First, let us explore the basic ideas that make a “Great” duck stamp design:

1)      Appropriate waterfowl species shown.

All contests have some guidelines on which species may be shown on your entry. For the Federal Junior Duck Stamp, you must show a species that is native to North America. Painting the wrong species is a quick way to get disqualified! Fortunately, it is easy to look up where a species is native to, via online search or with a field guide.

2)      Anatomically correct waterfowl.

Once you are sure you are illustrating the correct species, it is important to make sure that the bird’s anatomy is correct. Check photos and field guides to learn more about the species you are working with. Some types of ducks have what is called an “eclipse” pattern, where they molt (re-grow) into new feathers and patterns. This can be confusing! Field guides are especially helpful in understanding waterfowl colors at different times of the year. Most people like to see drake (male) ducks in their breeding plumage.

3)      Correct habitat.

If any habitat is shown, it should be correct for the species you chose. Waterfowl live all over the world; from artic icy cold, to tropical climates! It would look very silly to place a duck that normally loves the hot southern climate in a snowy scene. Some ducks spend most of their life at sea or large lakes, while others prefer small puddles and shallow flooded fields. Researching where your species lives is not only fun, but will make your duck stamp design much more successful! Don’t forget that many waterfowl are migratory. If you are painting a drake duck in his spring time breeding colors, make sure to learn where he lives in the spring.

4)      Correct behavior.

Learning about how your species behaves can be very entertaining. I like to see them in the wild, but sometimes that is not possible, so I look on Youtube. Many ducks have elaborate (and sometimes silly) breeding displays for their potential mates. Some ducks carefully raise their young, while others “dump” eggs into the nests of other species and leave them! This type of information can help you make an exciting design, and can keep you from making the mistake of showing the birds doing something they normally would not do.

5)      “Large” birds in the scene.

Your waterfowl should be the star of the show!! No matter if you draw them swimming, standing, flying, displaying, single birds, a pair, or a group of birds… the main subject(s) should be fairly “large” in your design and also fairly central. Remember that if you win, your design will be made into a little stamp! Shrink it down. Can you still easily tell what is going on? If you have trouble seeing your waterfowl, or have trouble identifying them, they might be too small in your design!

6)      Eye Catching: Not too Dark, and not too “Flat”.

Too dark is probably self-explanatory; If your design is very dark all over, it might not reproduce well as a stamp. Most people are drawn to brighter scenes. But what does “Flat” mean? If a design is too monochromatic (this is a fancy way of saying all of the colors or shading is close to the same), it lacks contrast and does not stand out. Here’s an easy test if you are using color for your duck stamp design: Snap a photo with a cellphone, tablet, or digital camera. Most of these devices either have a “black and white” mode or a way to edit your photo to black and white. Use this to check your design… does it look very flat? Or are there areas of dark and light that appeal to you?

7)      Follows all rules for the contest.

This one might be a no-brainer, but every year people’s art is disqualified because it does not follow the rules. The Federal and Junior duck stamp contests have different rules. So do the state run stamp contests. Be sure to read the rules very carefully and adhere to them!

8)      Does not infringe upon the rights of photographers or other artists.

This is the tricky part for many. I will go into this in great depth below

Exercise: Get to know your waterfowl!
               So, by now you have a pretty good idea of some of the most important parts of your design. If you are new to duck stamps or waterfowl, try this exercise by writing the following questions down, and researching your answers. I will have resources linked at the end of this article.

1)     What species am I going to paint?

2)     What does it look like?

a.      What does its wings look like both open and closed?

b.      Do males and females look different?

c.      Does it have “Eclipse” colors: Does it look different at different times of the year?

d.      Do juveniles look different from adults?

e.      What does it look like when swimming, standing, and flying?

3)     Where does it live?

a.      Is it migratory?

b.      Where does it migrate to?

c.      When does it migrate?

d.      Where does it live when it has its showy breeding plumage?

e.      What sorts of plants and animals also live in its habitat?

4)     How does it behave?

a.      Does it have a mating display?

b.      When and where does it breed?

c.      Who raises the babies?

d.      How and where do the adults make their nest?

e.       What does it eat?

f.      How does it eat? Does it dive entirely under the water or just browse close to the surface?

If you were able to complete most or all of the above exercise, you are well on your way to making a very thoughtful and accurate duck stamp design indeed! Your next step in your admirable research might be to go to Google image search, or open up a magazine or find some other photos to use to make your artwork. And this is where most people unknowingly get themselves in trouble! Copying the photos or artworks by others is known as “infringement” and it’s bad news. So what to do?

Understanding what copyright means to your duck stamp design
               Where do you look to for your art reference? Photographs, artwork, and all images found online, in magazines, books, calendars, and all printed materials: Here’s the bad news. You can’t use any of these to copy from. None of it! Firstly: The use of published materials like these are prohibited from nearly, if not all, duck stamp contests. Secondly: The use of these materials is almost always against copyright law, anyhow. That’s double bad news! To complicate this matter, there is also a myth that you can “take” a photo or artwork by someone else, and change it a certain percent, and bam! You are just fine. Not so!

The legal reason is copyright law. Once an image is created (once someone pushes the shutter button on a camera, or puts their paintbrush to canvas…) it is automatically copyright to that person! Every photo and artwork you find was created by a real person, and almost always they have the copyright to their photo or art. Thinking “no one will ever notice I used this photo” won’t get you off the hook either. Trust me, someone somewhere will notice! That could be very embarrassing and also get your art disqualified or get you in trouble. No one wants that!

So, how on earth are you supposed to draw or paint waterfowl that is anatomically correct, if you can’t use photos you find in a book, or online?! I hear you. Let’s explore our options. It’s not all bad news, I promise!

1)     Use your own photographs.

This is an option for some. If you are able to take photographs of waterfowl and habitat, you can use them! If you are still in school, this would be a great and educational field trip to a local marsh, swamp, lake, pond, or other wetland. City parks with ponds can be a happy surprise: many contain at least mallards or Canada geese. It’s worth checking! Talk to your science and/or art teachers about why you want to go! Even if you cannot get close enough to wild waterfowl (they can be pretty shy!), you can still get very good photos of habitat, even just with a cellphone or inexpensive camera! The habitat won’t fly away. Take some photos of water, foliage, and more to help you when you work on your art. It can also be very fun to make some sketches in person of what you find! The sketches don’t have to be “good”. They are just for you to learn from.

2)     Do lots of sketches.

Many people might not be able to go out and get your own photographs. For some people, maybe the photos online and in books are the best that you can find! Don’t be discouraged. While you cannot use these photos to make your design directly, you can still use them to learn from. Collect a bunch of photos of the species you wish to draw, and sketch them! Sketches do not need to be perfect… they are for learning. Just like learning to ride a bike, or learning to play an instrument, you will probably make a lot of mistakes at first. This is normal and nothing to be embarrassed about. Draw your species as much as you can! At first it will be hard, but the more you do it, the easier it will be. I also find it useful to sketch from videos of waterfowl (such as on Youtube). This way I can see their behaviors and write notes, too! Now, because you are using photographs that are not yours to sketch from, you cannot enter these sketches into a competition… but you can (and should!) use them to learn. The idea is that after you sketch your species a whole bunch, you will get better at it. Now you can go on to #3:

3)     Make your initial design without looking at someone else’s photo or artwork!

This might seem hard but it’s not impossible! Brainstorm in your mind about what sort of scene you want to design. “I would like to have my species (swimming/flying/standing/diving/other)” is a good starting point. Sketch that idea out without looking directly at a photo. It doesn’t have to be perfect… and in fact it probably won’t be! That’s very normal. Now, where is your bird? In big open water? Near some plants? Maybe standing on a log, or flying through the sky? Sketch it out. Are you going to draw one bird or two? Maybe more? Once you have a good idea, you’ve created something that is unique to you… without looking at a photograph! Great job!! This part can be a bit frustrating. It sure does take practice, and don’t get mad at yourself. Be proud that you are coming up with a design that is very “you”! No one else can do it the way you do. But now what? You have a sketch, but you know that you need “help” from a photo to make it detailed and just the way you want it. Keep going to #4….

4)     Use many photos to help with anatomy, color, and detail… without copying directly.

You’re already halfway there. You have your sketch that you created from your own mind, because you practiced drawing your species a bunch of times! I bet you already know a lot more about that duck, goose, or swan than you did when you started. You know that the bill is shaped a certain way, and what the body looks like, and where the major markings are! But, you want to make sure your bird(s) have good anatomy. You want to make sure that they look right! That’s great. Now you can use many photos to help you. It’s very important not to copy exactly, and not to look at just one photo. Doing that runs the risk of making your art look like the photo, which is not what your goal is! Your end result should not look like any of the photos you looked up. It should look like your own unique creation!

5)     Visit a museum, zoo, etc…

This is a good way to gather reference. If you do not have any of your own photographs to rely on, seeing the birds “in person” is very helpful. Looking at taxidermy at a museum, wildlife office, etc, is a great way to look at the birds up close without them flying away! Taxidermy can sometimes be old or in strange poses, so it is mostly helpful to look at things like feather patterns and colors. Zoos sometimes have captive native waterfowl for you to see. You can take photos, or do sketches and write notes about what you see. If you are in school, ask your teachers if your class will be going on any field trips to zoos or museums.

This all sounds very well and good, but it can be hard to understand where to start! I’ve prepared a few demonstrations below on how to start and plan a stamp design.


Planning a Duck Stamp Design: Examples

Example Approach One: “I have my own photo to use!”

Some artists are fortunate to live near waterfowl, while others will travel great distances to photograph these beautiful birds. Either way, do you have a photo you took that you’d like to turn into a painting? Great! Here is my approach. It is not the only approach, but it is intended to give you a place to start if you aren’t sure where to go next.

Here is a lovely mallard I was able to get a photo of. Since I took this photo, I can use it for my design! Still, I think it can be improved upon. It’s a little bit boring, and the blurry duck behind him wouldn’t look good on a stamp design. Even good photos can be improved with our creativity!

Here is my sketch of the mallard, and my idea for an entire scene. You can do lots and lots of sketches of ideas until you land on one that is “just right!”  I am only showing you one of mine, to save space on this page. I did some observing of this bird and I decided to move his legs a bit to give him more of a steady, relaxed pose. You can see my drawing does not match the photo perfectly. I also did some research both in person and online to learn that Mallards enjoy more shallow waters, such as marshes. I made this a cattail marsh. I learned that there are both invasive, hybrid, and native cattails in my region! I made sure to draw the shorter, native cattail. Details like this only come from research, and can sometimes change the outcome of a contest.

Here is my color “mockup”. While stamp designs do not need to be in color, I like to use color. It is your choice! I keep in mind the importance of value, design, and color. I did this digitally but you can do it with whatever you like. Colored pencils, watercolors—even crayons is okay! The idea is to make sure that your colors will work in the final piece. You can see that I made some changes that you don’t see in the original photo, such as making the colors more like a warm sunrise. Your photo can be your guide, but you should never be a slave to it!

From here I will draw my sketch onto the paper, board, or panel that I will make my finished piece on! I will refer to my photo, and my sketch, and my color “mockup” to keep me on track as I paint. I will take careful measurements to make sure everything is correct before I start working on the final piece.


Example Approach Two: “I have a photo but it’s not very good.”

Do you have a photo you took? Great! You can use that for your design… but, what if it’s not very good? The truth is that unless you are very lucky, or have a lot of patience and good photography equipment, most of the photos you take might not be too great. That’s okay!

Here is a photo I took of some Mallards at a wetland. It was a windy day and they were far away, and shy. I also learned that the marsh plants behind them are a bad invasive reed species, called phragmites. As it stands, this would make a bad duck stamp design! This is still salvageable, though. Don’t be discouraged.

Here, I’ve zoomed in on my photo so I can see the ducks better. A bit blurry and you can’t see any details, blah! But, the poses are not bad, and I can see their colors and shapes well. It’s a start!

I created several sketches based on this photo and my memory of how they behaved when I saw them in person. If you have forgotten their behavior, it can be useful to look up videos on youtube. This is the sketch I settled on. You can see I drew the two males and the female. I liked the pose on the male that was turned toward us in my photo, but I realized that it would not translate into a tiny stamp as well as the ones in profile. I re-arranged the order of the ducks, but still used the ones from my photo. I also lifted the head of the drake so that his face wasn’t hidden against the hen’s body. Notice that I didn’t draw any details, because I really couldn’t see them in my photo.

Here is where you can turn to other photos to help you out a bit. Because your entire design is based on your own photo and observations, it’s still very much “yours!” I need to see some detail about the feather patterns, though, in order to do a good painting. I found this photo online and even though I can’t copy it to create my design, I can look at it and realize what the tiny details that are lost in my photo look like. You can also use books, and bird field guides, to help you! Aha, the male has a lot of “squiggly” looking lines (vermiculation) on his feathers. They look grey at a distance, but up close they are detailed. Good to know.

Based on my photo, and my research, here is my sketch with details added that I couldn’t see in my photo. From here, I decided on what I would like to do with my design. Again, I realized that I did not want to paint an invasive plant species in my design, so I went with a more simple background this time, and drew in some distant hills that I saw in the location where these ducks were.

Here you can see my color “mockup”. While stamp designs do not need to be in color, I like to use color. It is your choice! You can do this small and in any medium (art supply) you have.

From here I will draw my sketch onto the paper, board, or panel that I will make my finished piece on! I will refer to my photo, and my sketch, and my color “mockup” to keep me on track as I paint. I will take careful measurements to make sure everything is correct before I start working on the final piece.


Example Approach Three: “I don’t have any photos of my own to use!”

Often, it might be very hard or even impossible to take a photograph of the species you want to paint! Some species of waterfowl might live very far from you, and require travel to places that you just can’t get to yourself to take a photo. No matter what the reason, sometimes you just don’t have your own photo to use. That’s okay. You can still come up with a strong design that is “all you!”

The first step is to find some references. Let’s pretend I wanted to paint a Mallard, and I don’t have any of my own photos. I will either pull out a book, go to the library and check out a book, get online and do an image search, get on youtube and look up my species, or all of the above! I will look at as many references as I can. If I have a museum nearby, I might see if they have any of my species in their collection that I can look at (you can click the photos to enlarge them).

I will do lots of sketches of the references I have. Now, if I copy any of them, I can’t use them in my final design, but they are very useful for me to learn from. I start to get ideas of what I might like to do. While I am brainstorming, I decide I might really like to paint a Mallard standing on a mossy stone or log. I really like moss, and based on my research, that’s not a bad place for a Mallard to be! I also liked the idea of a Mallard hen in the water beside him. I used the same method for her: I didn’t copy a photo, but used many photos for ideas without copying any of them. Here is my idea sketches. Since I didn’t copy them from a photo, they aren’t the best. That’s okay. Right now I am just figuring out what I want to do.

I liked the idea, so I made a more refined sketch. Again, I am using my own idea and sketches, and just filling in details with the help of photos. I was very careful not to “take” much from any one photo that isn’t mine.

Here is my color “mockup”. I keep in mind the importance of value, design, and color. While stamp designs do not need to be in color, I like to use color. It is your choice! I did this digitally but you can do it with whatever you like. Colored pencils, watercolors—even crayons is okay! The idea is to make sure that your colors will work in the final piece. I check photos to make sure I get the correct colors of the birds.

From here I will draw my sketch onto the paper, board, or panel that I will make my finished piece on! I will refer to my sketch, and my color “mockup” to keep me on track as I paint. I will check photos to make sure I am accurate, but I will be very careful not to copy them outright! I will take careful measurements to make sure everything is correct before I start working on the final piece.


Some general tips and tricks for making a good design:

·        What will your design look like at “Stamp Size?” This is very important. The judges must make sure your artwork will reduce to a stamp easily. Here’s a trick: look at your art the wrong way through a pair of binoculars. If you don’t have binoculars, try taking a snapshot with your phone and shrink the image that way.

·        Does your design have the right amount of contrast? Here’s a trick: take a photo of it with your cellphone or a digital camera. Edit the photo to be black and white (remove saturation). Does it look flat, or does it look bold?



·        Does the general silhouette of your design look good? Does the shape of your bird(s) make sense against the background, or is it lost easily? At a glance, can you tell what you are seeing?


·        When you are working, it’s helpful to see your art “flipped”. Hold a mirror up to your art, or take it into the bathroom and hold it up to the mirror. This can help you spot mistakes. Getting frustrated or over-thinking it? Flip your art and your reference(s) upside down and work on it a bit that way. It will help you see the art in a fresh way. This is very helpful when painting water and reflections!



·        When drawing, don’t be afraid to use draw guide lines to help keep the proportions right. Does the eye line up with the bill? Does the bill line up with the chest? How long is the bill compared to the head? Each species is different.



Resources and links:

·        Federal Duck Stamp website: https://www.fws.gov/birds/get-involved/duck-stamp.php

·        Junior Duck Stamp website: https://www.fws.gov/birds/education/junior-duck-stamp-conservation-program.php

·        Wing Image Collection (for reference): http://www.pugetsound.edu/academics/academic-resources/slater-museum/biodiversity-resources/birds/wing-image-collection/

·        Drawing Waterfowl with John Muir Laws (video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4_ZWb_Md5o

·        Cornell’s online field guide to Ducks, Geese, & Swans: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/browse_tax.aspx?family=6

·        “Ducks at a Distance” field guide (PDF file): https://www.fws.gov/uploadedfiles/ducks%20at%20a%20distance-ocr.pdf

·        Flickr Creative Commons (always ask permission / don’t copy when prohibited by contest rules!): https://www.flickr.com/creativecommons/by-2.0/


A few good books for artists:

“Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling” by John Muir Laws
“Laws Guide to Drawing Birds” by John Muir Laws
“Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter” by James Gurney


Written by Jennifer Miller, 2016. You may use this page as reference, but it may not be commercially reproduced in part or in whole.

Creative Commons License
A Guide to Approaching Duck Stamp Paintings by Jennifer Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://featherdust.com/duckstamp/guidetoduckstamps.html