Painting memories: Artist pays attention to detail

Ken Kieser
Monte Burch painted this beautiful scene of bluebills dropping in front of a storm.

Memories flourish in the minds of waterfowl hunters. Scenes from past hunts are absorbed. Visions of sunrises over marshes with decoys are enough, but add a few ducks or working dogs and waterfowling becomes addictive. 

I discussed a favorite duck hunt a year ago with my longtime friend and fellow outdoor communicator, Monte Burch. We mainly talked about hunting divers on lakes.

Kenneth Kieser

My memories centered around an oxbow named Sugar Lake, just south of St. Joseph, Missouri, where once clouds of diving ducks dropped in. I hunted this lake with a hunting buddy that we just lost, Fred Simmerman. We had great adventures in his well-constructed blind until the big flood of 1993 washed the structure away. 

Most notably, scaup, often called bluebills, fell in this pool that was made famous in Lewis and Clark’s diary a few hundred years before. They called it Gosling Lake, but it changed to Sugar Lake years later because of the abundant sugar maple trees lining the shorelines. 

The lake provided good waterfowl hunting for several decades until flood waters and changing waterfowl migration patterns took a toll on this ancient oxbow’s quality hunts. Some still put out blinds every year, but it is doubtful the good old days of hunting on Sugar will ever return except in memory. 

We discussed scaup hunts on stormy lakes while remembering huge flocks flying just in front of storms and landing in our decoys. Burch had the same experiences hunting off lake points and we spent a delicious few minutes remembering, especially the scaup and stormy weather theme. 

Burch happens to be a very talented painter. Our conversations led him to create a time-consuming project that would eventually become a beautiful work of art. He decided to capture scaup on a stormy lake by creating the waves and darkening skies before adding surrounding shorelines. Then the decoys were added and finally about 100 scaup setting their wings and dropping down to waiting decoys.

Paintings of waterfowl are cherished by hunters and non-hunters alike. Those that no longer hunt because of age or health problems view these scenes and remember while current day waterfowlers long for their next trip to the duck blind. Burch has accomplished this vision through his painting titled, “In Your Face.”

I was taken by this painted vision showing diving ducks dropping into a lake, reawakening memories. Scaup numbers are down now and we may never see this sight again, but I hope and pray that future generations will, through the works of groups like Ducks Unlimited. 

Waterfowlers will not be surprised at this passion for viewing these magnificent ducks. I love to photograph flocks of waterfowl. Their very movements rival all things of grace and beauty. 

Burch captured flocks swinging and turning as one in flight. I have always wondered how they manage to turn at the exact moment with their flight leader. A flock just shot at will rise in a controlled panic without flying into each other, another amazing feat.   

Many travel to wildlife refuges to view fowl dropping in from their migrations. Long camera lens are used to capture the gleam in a duck’s eye, the measure of an excellent photo. Others bring binoculars to view the many different fowl in their habitat.

Those blessed with artistic abilities like Burch never miss a detail. They pay attention to the sky, shorelines and water. Diving ducks generally land in slightly deeper waters compared to mallards that dive for shallow aquatic growth. Ducks like scaup dive down for weeds, fish or whatever is available. 

The experienced artist makes a mental note of each detail before touching paint to canvas. Modern day waterfowlers turn away from paintings that lack details and buy pieces that remind them of great moments on the marsh or out in a bay.

When the painting is finished, artists see exactly what they missed or forgot to add. This is reconciled by simple additions to the picture.

The finished piece is then judged by peers. The real test comes from how veteran waterfowl hunters perceive the painting. For example, what do you see while viewing a painting? Do you see the cattails on shore or the dog impatiently waiting to make a retrieve? Experienced dogs’ eyes study flying flocks, another great artistic addition. 

Count the waves. How many did the artist have to paint? Are the duck colors and feathers correct? Can you see a light in the bird’s eyes or did the artist depict them too far away for this detail? What will you take away from a beautiful painting?

I have no idea where Burch’s painting will eventually hang, but hopefully some place where young and old can see what we once witnessed and hopefully will again – exactly what any veteran waterfowler or talented artist hopes for.