When Steve Hamrick graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1978 with degrees in business and biology, he wasn't sure what he would do next. He was considering going back to school, but his mind was often preoccupied by two of his passions in life: art and the outdoors.

Hamrick was no stranger to either. He grew hunting and fishing with his father and brothers and, thanks to his "artsy" mother, always had materials to pencil-sketch landscape scenes that occasionally included various wildlife species — scenes, he says, he often experienced afield. He also took art classes in junior high, high school and in college. His love of art and his fondness for painting only grew as he got older.

"After I graduated, I really felt like something was missing, but I wasn't sure what it was," said Hamrick, 58, of Lakeville. "I eventually took my name off the waiting list at the University of Minnesota Law School and decided against medical school. I even sold real estate for a while. During this time, I painted in my spare time and on weekends, but I was also at a crossroads."

In 1981, Hamrick pushed all his chips into the middle of the table. He decided to pursue "his art" full time — a gamble, he says, that has enriched his life immeasurably. "I was always worried about being a starving artist, but you only live once, and to me that meant doing something professionally that I loved," said Hamrick, who grew up in Minnetonka. "I love to paint now as much as did when I started full time in 1981. It was one of the best decisions of my life. "

Today, Hamrick is an award-winning and commercially successful wildlife artist. In fact, he recently won the 2015 walleye stamp contest sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, becoming only the second person to win all five DNR-sponsored stamp contests. All told, Hamrick has won 10 state contests. His art has graced the trout and salmon stamp in 1986, 1992, 2004 and 2015; the pheasant stamp in 2003 and 2015; the turkey stamp in 2004 and 2014, and the waterfowl stamp in 2012.

"It's been wonderful to win, a real honor," said Hamrick, who is also an accomplished sculptor and woodcarver. "As an artist, I set goals like any other professional, so it's been really satisfying to win all the state stamp contests. That's been a goal of mine for a long time."

Field to easel

Don't ask Steve Hamrick what his favorite species are to hunt or fish — he simply can't decide. He loves ruffed grouse, pheasants, waterfowl, big game, trout and walleyes, and all the differing landscapes they inhabit. What's most important, he says, is how each field outing informs his paintings.

"I paint what I see, whether I'm in a buck blind, a tree stand or chasing pheasants in South Dakota or ruffed grouse in central Minnesota," he said. "I don't know if artists are born, but I've always been a very visual, detail-oriented person. When I'm outdoors, I see certain landscape features — like when the sun comes up on the horizon and the world comes alive — that others might not. I take those with me when I leave the field and go home to paint."

Hamrick, who affectionately calls his outings hunting and fishing "research," said he often takes his camera afield to capture "those certain inspirational moments" that may become part of one of his paintings. Before he starts painting, he draws, in pencil, the landscape he envisions. Typically, he'll incorporate a wildlife species, or a sporting dog, into the sketch.

"The photos help," Hamrick said. "They serve as my memory and give me the detail I'm looking for."

Daily grind

Hamrick says there's really no typical day of painting. Some days he's in the zone, other days he gets the painter's equivalent of writer's block. He typically rises early, has a cup of decaffeinated coffee (he used to drink copious amounts of regular coffee until he became an insomniac), and goes downstairs to his studio, a renovated bedroom.

"Some days are paint days, some days aren't," he said, noting he typically uses fast-drying acrylic paint, especially for stamp competitions, rather than oil. "Some days when it's really going well I'll paint for eight to 10 hours at a time. I've had times when I'm working on a stamp where I'll finish it in two days. Those are the good times."

When "things aren't going well," his behavior turns idiosyncratic. "I turn the painting around toward the wall and work on something else, like my three-dimensional art," said Hamrick, who hand-carves, and sells, decorative bird decoys. "I've been doing that for years. I just have to get away from it [the painting] for a while, and then I can come back to it fresh on another day. It's a little trick that works for me."

Finding success

Hamrick can't remember when he sold his first painting, but he does remember when he got his first big break as a wildlife artist. This was in the late 1980s, and he painted a head shot of his black Lab Kali, whose body was fully immersed in water. He called the painting "Birds Eye View."

"I needed to get Kali in the water, so I pretended to throw a dummy in the lake for her to retrieve," he said. "When she did, I got in the water myself and started taking pictures of her swimming back toward me right above the water. That's how the painting came about."

Hamrick published the painting himself, a limited edition of 1,000 prints. Hadley House, a Minneapolis-based print publisher, liked it so much it offered to sell the prints for him, Hamrick said. The limited edition sold out in two weeks.

"The market was far better for wildlife art back then than it is now," he said. "It's a lot harder to make ends meet today. There are fewer galleries and fewer independent mom-and-pop shops where you can hang your work. But selling 1,000 prints so quickly was something I'll never forget. "

Giving back

As an avid hunter and angler, Hamrick says he takes pride in and considers it his obligation to give back to the natural world. "I'm not only a hunter and a fisherman but a conservationist," he said. "I've donated a lot of paintings over the years to Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups for auction. I'm happy the money they raise goes back into the ground — we need that more today than ever. I consider that my duty. I've benefited greatly from our natural resources."

Hamrick doubts he'll ever fully retire as a wildlife artist. "Painting is in my blood, so I'll probably always paint," he said. "I also want to win the federal duck stamp competition. That's always been a goal of mine, and I have yet to be a finalist. I'm hoping that changes in the future."

Even if he doesn't win the contest, Hamrick knows his gamble in 1981 has paid off. "I've had a great life being a wildlife artist — it's what I love do," he said. "When a painting finally comes together — well, there's really nothing that compares to that feeling. It hits you right in the soul. It's what moves me."

For more information about Hamrick and his art, go to sphamrick.com,

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Contact him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.