LEFT TO RIGHT: Snowy Egret (Issued 10/24/03, #3829), Florida Panther (Issued 5/12/07, #4137), Bighorn Sheep (Issued 5/14/07, #4138), Dragonfly (Issued 5/19/08, #4267), Polar Bear (Issued 4/16/09, #4387) & Dolphin (Issued 6/12/09, #4388).
For a stamp artist, there's nothing quite like the thrill of seeing your work in use for the first time. Veteran postal illustrator Nancy Stahl fondly remembers the first time she saw one of her designs — in a neighbor's garbage can.
"I hadn't seen it printed yet," Stahl recalls. "And there it was, sitting in the trash on the corner of my block. It might have been dripping with mayonnaise and I still picked it up."
Stahl put it back into the trash soon enough, but she likes the idea of her work being seen, and even collected. "A fine artist is happy to do a painting and have it hanging in one person's home," she says, "but an illustrator wants to be seen by as many people as possible."
If so, Stahl's relationship with the U.S. Postal Service has been a happy one. In the last decade, she has produced more than a dozen stamp designs — with more to come — all in the definitive format. This small size is used for general (or "mail-use") stamps, so each stamp stays in circulation as long as its postal rate stays current. As a result, more than a billion stamps of a given design can be produced.
And these mail-use stamps are attracting the gaze of collectors, due in no small part to artists such as Nancy Stahl. Sometimes, collectors' interest can create a de facto series where none was intended.
"For years, the definitive format was the stepchild of the stamp program," says Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development for the Postal Service. "We devoted most of our time and energy to the commemorative program, which featured the bigger stamps, the more colorful and more exciting subject matter."
As a result of efforts within the Postal Service to improve the variety and interest of mail-use stamps, collectors started to take notice. As a stamp artist, Stahl is best known for her illustrations of animals, starting with the Snowy Egret stamp in 2003. So far, she has produced six such stamps in what has become an "accidental" series.
"We kept going back to the well more and more, because everything she produced was just as good as the last one, if not better," McCaffrey says. "All of a sudden, the collecting public defined the stamps as a series."
Nancy Stahl's clean and graphic visual style — essential for the small definitive format — gives her work a distinctive look that invites collection. And the animal stamps include visual cues that lend consistency as well. Since the Snowy Egret stamp had a primarily blue color palette, for instance, she kept the color scheme, giving later stamps a beautiful case of the blues.
"I like to do that sometimes — limit my palette, limit my choices, and then I have to design within those limitations," Stahl says. "It actually makes you more creative."
"Artwork for stamps has to be simple, strong and effective, because it reads at such a small scale," McCaffrey says. "Nancy continues to surprise us with the way she takes these unique animals and does such beautiful things with them."