Naturally Gifted

Artwork courtesy Chris Smith

"Trumpeters in the Mist"It’s early March and a stout nor’easter is howling across Suttons Bay. Although duck season has been closed for months, artist Chris Smith has waterfowl on the brain. But instead of huddling in a blind as he did the previous autumn, today he’s seated comfortably at his desk. In place of a shotgun, he’s holding a paintbrush and pondering his newest painting.

“We all have a God-given talent that we can share with the world. I’m still exploring that end and loving the process.”
— Chris Smith

Though spring will be here soon, Smith can smell the familiar aromas of wet dog and musky marsh air. He can hear the whoosh of wings overhead, and the prickly cold of the icy water on his bare hands is palpable.

This ability to immerse himself in moments like these explains in part why Smith is adept at his craft.

“We all have a God-given talent that we can share with the world,” he reflects. “I’m still exploring that end and loving the process. Art is an adventure, and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend.”

Drawing from experience

Even when he isn’t pursuing ducks, Smith hunts for inspiration amid the natural world in all seasons.

This might mean paddling a battered canoe along a north-country stream, hiking the Lake Michigan shoreline, or snowshoeing a remote tract of wilderness in the Upper Peninsula. This passion for nature has been part of him since childhood.

“My dad began taking me upland hunting when I was 5 or 6 years old,” Smith says. “That early exposure instilled a love of the outdoors in me.”

Around the same time, Smith’s parents recognized he had an eye for art and began to feed his creative appetite.

A Moment's Rest

“They made sure I had an endless supply of sporting magazines so I could practice free-handing the cover prints,” Smith recalls.

Before long, the budding artist was getting paid to illustrate the same publications he’d copied at the kitchen table as a kid.

Studying at Lake Superior State University in the Upper Peninsula, Smith earned a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Management and ultimately became a career artist. Drawing upon his creative background, coupled with countless hours spent afield, Smith’s unique perspective is evident in his award-winning paintings and sketches.

“This desire to capture memorable moments outdoors and put them on canvas, it’s an almost uncontrollable urge … a dream job, really,” Smith says. “I get to spend my workday outside, photographing and painting wildlife. That’s inspiring enough by itself. The act of creating is so rewarding, and to make a living of it is such a blessing.”

Duck stamp contest winner

Waterfowlers like Smith are required to purchase both state and federal endorsements known as “duck stamps” before heading afield. Parallel to this process, the state of Michigan hosts an annual contest where artists across the country compete to paint the year’s best image.

"Northern Rendezvous"Using parameters such as size, subject matter and composition, a panel of seven judges whittle down the entries and choose a winner. Since first entering the competition in 1998, Smith has taken first place three times — in 2005, 2014 and 2016. This year’s winning entry depicts a pair of green-winged teal. Ducks Unlimited hosts a similar contest known as the Michigan DU Sponsor Print, which Smith won in 2009 and 2014.

Aside from winning competitions, Smith specializes in commission pieces, including pen-and-ink sketches and oil paintings for folks wishing to honor a beloved person, place or pet. These often include landscapes, fly fishing and hunting scenes, or detailed renderings of dogs.

In addition, he’s well-known for his stunning wildlife art featuring loons and deer, swans and songbirds. With such a varied portfolio, it’s no surprise his exceptional artwork graces the walls of vacation homes across the country.

“Cottages and cabins are personal places where people house their dreams and inspirations,” he notes. “To be part of that process is flattering and humbling.”

To see more of Smith’s fine art, visit

Author and freelance writer Jon Osborn resides in Holland.

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