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Severn artist captures his wildlife subjects by exacting detail


With sunlight streaming down on their backs, the two ducks appear so lifelike they could waddle off the easel.

But wildlife artist Louis F.X. Frisino isn't done with them. He puts his glasses on, dunks a thin brush in a glass jug, swishes the wet bristles in white watercolor on the palette. He wipes excess paint off on a rag, and then feathers the tiniest line on one of the ducks. He scrutinizes the waterfowl and delicately lays on another white slit. It's as if he is painting these ducks feather by feather.

Mr. Frisino is known for this kind of attention to detail.

The Severn artist's ability to capture wildlife so realistically has won him dozens of honors -- from the colorful ribbons strung high across a wall of his studio to having his artwork hanging in the Ward Foundation Wildfowl Art Museum in Salisbury, from seeing his prints selected for National Wildlife Federation Christmas cards to this month winning the Maryland Migratory Waterfowl Stamp Design Contest for the third time.

"It's like a photograph -- when he paints he can draw the feathers with such fine quality that you want to reach out and touch it," says Gail Fields, state Department of Natural Resources illustrator who ran the duck stamp contest.

This marked the first time an artist has won the duck stamp

(1993-1994) and trout stamp (1993) contests for one year, says ++ Ms. Fields.

Though Maryland offers no monetary award, artists vie to have their design on stamps that hunters and sport fishermen must buy. Beyond that, artists hope the stamp gains them recognition, as they are on their own to market the work.

"I have a passion for art," Mr. Frisino, who was born deaf 59 years ago in Baltimore, explains in sign language. "I couldn't hear. I was able to concentrate on drawing and painting."

The youngest of his three children, Helen, 22, interprets for a visitor to the family's home tucked in woods.

He drew when he was a student at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick and graduated with honors from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

His love for dogs and wildlife -- as a child, Mr. Frisino says, he drove his parents crazy by bringing home strays and gulls -- led him to develop his talent.

He credits visits from childhood on to an aunt near Cambridge with opening the Chesapeake Bay to him. He still drives out to see her, and digs out photos of her cows to show a visitor. "You never know when you'll want them in the background," he says.

He enjoys the Bay's wildlife and outdoor serenity so much he'd move there, except that his wife, Elaine, won't go. The closest he's come was some years back, when he kept a few young mallards in his yard only to have other wildlife eat them. He does, however, have four dogs.

Mr. Frisino's studio holds furniture from his 25 years as a commercial artist for the now-defunct News American, including a wooden chair that co-workers gave him when he retired in 1978 to pursue wildlife art full time. A tabletop is laminated with eight of his prints that have sold out.

The shelves are piled with thousands of prints and a few originals he's done in watercolor, tempera and acrylic. Trout and bass are mounted on walls. Nine drawers contain stuffed ducks, which he uses to get the nuances of colors and shape. Two hang by his easel.

He also works from hundreds of photographs: tangles of reeds, the lace of winter's bare branched trees, nose-close shots of attentive bird dogs and photos of ducks in flight that appear to have been taken from the next bird over. He has shot them all.

"Sometimes when I am driving, I look, I see ducks flying. I stop and take a picture of it. If I see a hawk, I stop and take a picture of it," he says. "I always keep a camera in the car."

Winning stamp contests -- he's won 16 from various states -- and having his work in books has given him exposure nationwide, helping sales. However, he said, winning the federal duck stamp has eluded him; he wants to be the first deaf artist to win it.

His prints list for as low as $20, but an original for as high as $7,000. Some he markets himself, others through galleries mostly in states where people hunt, fish and enjoy the rugged outdoors.

"His work is so finely done," says Lance Bendann, owner of Bendann Galleries in Baltimore, which is among those carrying Mr. Frisino's art.

The gallery's window has featured a painting of a yellow Labrador on the shoreline for three weeks -- "way over our limit" Mr. Bendann says. But it stays.

"The dog gets people in here. Every hour, somebody comes in here about the painting," Mr. Bendann said. The price tag: $2,500.

"I think the appeal of this kind of art is not only the aesthetic, but if you will, the cultural, the people who relate to hunting, the Skipjack, the Bay, what it stands for," Mr. Bendann says.

Stanley Katzenstein, owner of Ludwig Katzenstein Custom Framing and Art in Baltimore, says Mr. Frisino's work sells well -- well enough for the men to have a deal to market a limited edition print of two paintings. The works show ducks in the foreground and Baltimore's harbor in 1940 and 1993 in the back.

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