How I come up with designs for the “Lame Ducks” painting series

"Duck Blind" shows a play on the hunting blind with a rubber duck with eye mask and one playing hide-and-seek in window blinds.


Duck Blind, acrylic on aluminum panel painting by Kevin Grass, 20" x 16," 2020.

I begin my image development with an understanding of the popular meaning of the term or sentence fragment that serves as my subject. For example, duck blind refers to “a shelter, often camouflaged with reeds and grasses, for concealing duck hunters.” An illustration of the definition of this term would not be visually interesting, nor is it conducive to an image using yellow rubber ducks. I developed a list of related terms or items associated with duck blind to gain diverse and interesting options for my design.

  • Camouflage
  • Hunting
  • Window blinds
  • Dark sunglasses
  • white-tipped cane
  • Eye mask
  • Forest
  • Lake
  • Reeds
  • Materials for constructing a duck blind
  • Something hidden or hiding

This list of items served as a springboard for visual ideas related to duck blind and potentially served as the basis for different design ideas. One idea included one or more rubber ducks wearing dark sunglasses and holding white-tipped canes. Another design involved using rubber ducks as window blinds. Both ideas are good, but they tended to be too simplistic. I felt that to be effective, my image needed to include as many of the ideas in my list of terms as possible.

  • Camouflage and window blinds – A camouflage pattern was included behind the still life subjects. The window blinds hide, or camouflage, the second rubber duck.
  • Hunting and something hiding – The scene was developed as a game of hide-and-seek, with the masked rubber duck “hunting” for the second rubber duck.
  • Blind/mask covering the eyes – A sleep mask “blinded” the closest rubber duck.
  • Materials for constructing a duck blind – An old weathered board served as the ground plane for the still life.

After I developed the basic concept, I obtained subjects and set up the still life. The window blinds became the main compositional element for Duck Blind. I got free blind remnants at Home Depot and experimented with their positioning. I arranged a camouflage pillow as the background and a weathered wooden seat from an outdoor swing as the ground plane.

various types of yellow rubber ducks

Various duck types I have used in my Lame Ducks series of paintings

When choosing rubber ducks for each still life, I think about the sizes of the supporting elements in the design. Tiny rubber ducklings would have been dwarfed by the 2-inch wide window blind slats. I decided to use two Infantino rubber ducks in the composition because they were similar in scale to the other elements in the still life. I faced them toward the center of the design to concentrate a viewer’s attention inside the painting.

There is a wide variety of rubber ducks available online. They vary greatly in shape, size, detail, and complexity. Many are even heavily accessorized.

I prefer using simple, unadorned rubber ducks – my favorites are those from Infantino – and creating my own accessories for them. For example, the rubber duck in the foreground of Duck Blind is wearing a sleep mask. I completed the entire painting first, then placed an 8-inch yellow foam ball beneath my light source. I placed the eye mask on the ball and then painted it on the duck in Duck Blind. This allowed me to be more creative. The accessories I used are more believable than the heavily stylized items found on some of the more elaborately decorated rubber ducks.

foam ball with a face mask on it

How I use accessories with a yellow foam ball for the head.

Some of the still lifes I set up for the Lame Ducks series can be elaborate. One of the most complex still lifes was set up for my Cold Duck painting. The background was based upon a photographic reference, but the rest of the image was painted from still life subjects. The still life contained surprisingly realistic artificial snow, plastic ice cubes, and a small ornamental sled, all purchased online. My wife crocheted the scarves and hats for each of the rubber ducks. It was quite a production, and it was a lot of fun to set up and paint.

For some of the compositions, it is useful to employ photographic references. The photos can include landscape elements or animals. However, the alligator in Sitting Duck was painted from a taxidermized alligator head that I purchased in a local souvenir store.

It is important to ensure that the light in photographic references matches the lighting in my still life. Image editing software can be useful for flipping images to address this issue. Usually, I start with the photographic references for the painting, so I just match the lighting for the still life to the lighting in the photo.

two rubber ducks with crocheted hats and scarvesHere are some of the still life objects for my Cold Duck painting

I do not need to complete small preliminary studies for these paintings because I already have the idea for each piece in my head. The composition is fleshed out when I set up the corresponding still life. 

When I block in a painting, I use a small paper window, cut to the proportions of my panel, to help me decide how to crop the image. I place marks on each side of the window that divide it into quarters and sometimes draw a simple grid onto my panel to help with general placement. The remainder of the painting is completed with free-hand drawing and painting techniques, without the aid of rulers, T-squares, projectors, carbon tracing paper, etc. 

Developing ideas and setting up subjects for the Lame Ducks series can be complex. But it is worth the effort, because the results are humorous, original, and definitely fun to make. My hope is that these paintings are as entertaining to see and own as they are for me to create.

grid and window used to plan Lame Ducks paintingsGrid used with paper window