Growing up on his parents’ Delaware farm, Richard Clifton could often be seen perched on a fence rail with a sketchbook in hand. But what had captured the attention of the future DU Artist of the Year wasn’t a mallard or a pintail—at least not in the beginning. It was something much different but equally significant in the life of the young artist.
“When I was a kid, I’d see my dad out in the fields plowing and disking,” Clifton recalls. “I started drawing his tractors on little sketchpads and in coloring books with crayons and colored pencils. That’s my first memory of doing anything artistic.”
As Clifton’s art skills improved, he abandoned his crayons and purchased his first set of watercolors. He also expanded his subject matter from farm machinery to songbirds and other local wildlife. Eventually he would add waterfowl to his repertoire, and they would become his main inspiration. Clifton’s family owned and farmed several tracts of land in and around Milton, Delaware. One of these properties—where Clifton still lives today—lies adjacent to Delaware Bay and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). This popular NWR encompasses more than 10,000 acres of important habitat for migratory birds such as mallards, American black ducks, green-winged teal, northern pintails, and wood ducks traversing the Atlantic Flyway.
“My family has always been big-time waterfowl hunters, living so close to the refuge and the bay,” Clifton says. “By the time I was 15, I had bugged my dad enough that he took me duck hunting with him. I got hooked right away. Once I could drive, I started going as often as I could, by myself or with my cousins.”
Naturally Clifton found his way to DU not long after. In the late 1970s, a friend gave him several back issues of Ducks Unlimited magazine to encourage his burgeoning interest in waterfowl art. “I looked at the art in those early magazines and thought, Wow, maybe someday I could make it to that point in my career,” Clifton recalls. “I wanted to be part of DU’s national art package, but my ultimate goal was to become Artist of the Year.”
In the years that followed, Clifton’s artistic talent and passion continued to grow, but it took a push from his family to turn it into a career. “I have farming in my blood,” he explains. “I planned to graduate and take over for my dad, but I also dreamed of becoming a wildlife artist. In the beginning I would’ve called myself a farmer-artist. Then an artist-farmer. I give my parents a lot of credit for being open-minded and allowing me to drop the ‘farmer’ part altogether and pursue my art full time. They supported me while I went after my dream.”
Waterfowl art enthusiasts would surely thank the Cliftons for supporting their son as well. Over the past 25 years, Clifton’s exquisite depictions of ducks and geese have appeared on more than 40 state waterfowl stamps nationwide, including seven in his home state of Delaware. His painting of a pair of ring-necked ducks also graced the 2007–2008 federal duck stamp.This year will mark Clifton’s 10th appearance in DU’s national art package and his first as Artist of the Year. He earned the 2015 title with Afternoon Pintails, an acrylic painting of three drakes and two hens on the water. Clifton’s inspiration for the piece came just around the corner from his home, on Prime Hook NWR.
“A lot of times in the winter, I ride up and down Prime Hook Beach Road looking for birds,” Clifton explains. “Ducks get used to the traffic late in the year, so you can use your truck as a ‘blind’ to take photos. One day I pulled up and there were pintails, mallards, and black ducks working in the golden glow of the afternoon—that’s where Afternoon Pintails was born.
Clifton’s property is also home to his art studio, where he welcomes visitors and hosts exhibits throughout the year. He’s worked to make the rest of the 115 acres appealing to waterfowl as well, restoring a wetland, adding a few impoundments, and creating several small areas that can be flooded for ducks. As he did all those years ago watching his father till the earth surrounded by the beauty and bounty of nature, Clifton continues to draw inspiration for his art from the land and traditions that have been passed down through the generations.
“I can stand upstairs in my studio and watch ducks and geese working a field right outside my window,” he says. “I can walk my land and feel that connection to my family and the hard work we were raised on. I’m blessed to be able to do that.”