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Duck painter’s early work pays off

December 25, 2017 GMT

When duck hunters take to Connecticut’s rivers and coastlines next year, they’ll carry hunting stamps printed with a painting of two surf scoter ducks flying across blue-green waves near a lighthouse.

Artist Chet Rensen, of Lyme, was the first Connecticut resident to win the state competition from which stamp designs are chosen, and the triumph was a long time coming — his painting took 54 years to finish.

Reneson, 83, explains that he first painted the surf scoters in 1962 for a federal duck stamp competition.

He knew the competition as “the million-dollar duck,” for its potential to balloon an artist’s sales.

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Renson had just graduated from the University of Hartford Art School. He was broke, jobless and good with a brush.

“So I sent it to Washington,” he said. Far short of a million dollars, he got the 5-inch-by-7-inch painting returned to him by mail with a kind rejection note.

Since the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, duck stamps have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for federal wildlife conservation.

The success of the federal program inspired Connecticut to start its own duck stamp program and art contest in 1993 — hunters have to buy both stamps.

Reneson, meanwhile, put his ducks in a drawer and went after real ones.

“I was a duck-hunting fanatic,” he said.

He carved and painted his own duck decoys, pieces of functional art that helped him find his first full-time job. One day another hunter asked him to make one.

“This guy’s father was the head of the art department at UTC,” United Technologies Corporation’s Pratt and Whitney illustration office. “And he said ‘they’re hiring.’ ”

Over the decades, Reneson worked as an illustrator, published books, and sold some 1,400 hand-painted duck decoys. He’s best known for his wildlife watercolors, which he sells from his gallery in Lyme.

At 77, he finally gave up duck hunting. And he followed what became a craze over the federal duck stamp competition that rejected his piece.

The 1996 film “Fargo” imagined it as a postage stamp contest, and portrayed a painter agonizing over the outcome of his painting. Last year, “The Million Dollar Duck” documentary toured the film festival circuit.

On the wildlife art circuit, Reneson became critical of the state competitions, which he said “diluted the market,” and of art dealers who flipped winning pieces for what he considered exorbitant profits.

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Then one day a friend was visiting his studio.

“What’s this?” he remembered the friend asking while pulling out the 5-inch-by-7-inch painting from a desk drawer.

“That’s the 1962 duck stamp that didn’t make it,” he responded.

His friend urged him to enter it in the statewide competition, and he agreed. The surf scoter ducks met the competitions species criteria. To score points for the background, Reneson painted a 1-inch Saybrook Jetty lighthouse into the top-left corner.

DEEP selected Reneson’s painting over 21 other entries, including a record 12 from Connecticut residents. The state hopes raise about $50,000 for wildlife conservation with duck stamps sales.

Reneson isn’t sure how much his winning painting is worth. Like a prized shotgun or a perfect duck call, it might serve better as an heirloom.

“I think I might give it to my son,” he said.