John Brennan spends weeks shooting reference photos and using his paintbrush to transfer each detail onto a canvas.
But he's not looking for another Mona Lisa or a scene just right for Monet.
His search is for the perfect duck.
The 22-year-old University of South Florida senior is among a niche group nationwide who get excited each year about the Federal Duck Stamp contest.
Fame and money are not what motivates them. They can't be — winners get neither.
Their only tangible prize is the honor of seeing their painting of, say, a wood duck on a federal stamp — and for many, that's enough.
Already, Brennan has been painting ducks for potential stamps — miniature, hyperrealistic portraits of common waterfowl — for five years.
"A lot of people have no idea that (the contest) exists, even in the wildlife art world," he said. "But once you learn about it, it's really, really interesting."
He submitted his 2011 entry before the deadline in August. This year's Federal Duck Stamp winner will be announced Oct. 28. Then the leader of this covey will embark on a national tour of five cities with his stamp — with travel paid by convention hosts and the duck stamp fund.
If he's the chosen one, Brennan says, his career as a wildlife artist would "skyrocket."
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The Federal Duck Stamp program began in 1934 as an effort to raise funds to conserve wetlands after devastating droughts during the Great Depression. Originally artists were invited to participate, then in 1949 the competition was opened to the public.
Duck hunters are required to purchase the $15 duck stamp that the competition produces each year for their hunting license, and nearly all of the proceeds go toward a conservation fund. Those funds have acquired more than 5 million acres for national wildlife refuges over the years — including more than 88,000 in Florida, said Rachel Levin, a spokeswoman for the Federal Duck Stamp office.
This year, 192 people entered the Federal Duck Stamp contest. Just a few years ago, the contest regularly saw more than 300 entries, Levin said. The contest's $125 entrance fee in the middle of a dismal economy could have contributed to the dropoff, she said.
Still, the fee hasn't turned away some die-hard entrants.
"We had someone two years ago who had been entering the contest for 26 years and he finally won," Levin said. "That is really just a wonderful sight."
It's hard to quantify the importance of the Federal Duck Stamp contest for its entrants — especially when there are no prizes to be had. While some states hold similar regional contests, first place in the federal competition is considered the Holy Grail of wildlife art.
The competition has its superstars — artists who've won many times over, including a pair of brothers who tied for first place last year. It has strategies — the duck you choose to paint, for example, can make all the difference.
Above all, it's an undertaking that requires an extraordinary amount of work, and that takes a special kind of artist, says Ernest C. Simmons, Brennan's mentor.
"We're not avant-garde or abstract. We don't dress flamboyantly," he said. "We're really loners, kind of very focused on what we do."
Brennan, for his part, is gregarious, outgoing and deeply passionate about painting. His acrylic wildlife portraits — hanging on the wall of the converted shed that serves as his studio — are so detailed they could pass for photographs at first glance.
"My friends think I'm crazy," he said, laughing. "But it's just a part of my year."
Paintings of rabbits, egrets and, naturally, ducks cover the walls of his parents' home in Lutz, where he lives to save money while in college. One painting, which spans half the length of a wall, is up for sale for $11,000, he says.
Brennan, who grew up on St. Martin in the U.S. Virgin Islands, says he's been "painting since I could hold a brush" but started seriously considering a career in wildlife art in high school. A flute major at USF, he also paints musicians and their instruments.
He's one of just a few artists his age who regularly enter the duck stamp competition, and he's been successful. He won Oklahoma's regional duck stamp competition in 2008 and placed first in Florida's junior duck stamp competition in high school.
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Simmons met Brennan while judging the junior competition. He awarded Brennan the winning entry, he said, because his work was simply "leaps and bounds" above others of his age, Simmons said. He later invited Brennan to his studio in Dunedin, and the two often painted together.
Simmons says he has entered the contest about 15 times, but painting duck stamps is more a hobby than anything else. Unlike some entrants, who regularly spend months working on their stamps, he'll finish his in about two weeks. Still, his paintings have consistently placed in the top 10.
"I think I have as good a shot as any of those names that keep coming up in the top 20, top 10," he said. "Next year I'll probably take the whole summer to paint it — really give it my best shot."
Simmons says he's encouraged to see young artists like Brennan pursuing wildlife art.
"Kids today realize that trying to make a living doing artwork is a very difficult career to pursue," he said. "And I'm sure their parents are encouraging them to go to college and go into careers that probably are a better gamble for them in the future."
Brennan believes that he has a shot at this year's competition. The details of his duck, however, shouldn't be disclosed publicly — portraits are submitted in such a way that their artists' identities are kept secret from judges.
But whatever the outcome, Brennan says he's not stopping anytime soon.
"You're competing against some of the best wildlife artists in the country. It's more fuel to the fire if you end up losing or not doing as well," he said. "Every time I enter, I try to do better than I did the last time. It just raises your own standards."