Oil Painting & Nature - An Amazing Journey

One of the things that I'm most grateful for is the life in which I've been able to live and how it’s led me to my journey of art and what inspired me to portray some of God's most beautiful creations.  At the age of 23, I got my first job as a recent Wildlife Biology graduate which led me to many different experiences throughout the next decade.
Western Mountain Landscape Wildlife Painting - Elk Migration
That inevitably shaped who I was and who I was to become. I met many extraordinary people along the way and made some of the most genuine and lasting friendships  throughout my time in the field. But the one thing that I can't stop going back to is how  lucky I was to expand my knowledge and understanding of what I'm passionate about most in life, which is wildlife and the outdoors.
Rocky Mountain Elk Oil Painting

The Paint I Use

Rocky mountain elk to me are a fascinating animal. Their social dynamics are what intrigues me the most. The personality traits from animal to animal vary greatly and they  really are much more social than probably most would ever bet. Part of my job duties throughout the years and one of the main things that I did as a wildlife manager was to track elk with radio collars.

a herd of elk

I had the opportunity to study these animals and to help manage elk populations to help the national parks and state agencies learn about their numbers, their movements, and their behaviors. When I first started getting involved  with these animals, I was under the presumption that they were pretty basic: the males bugled, the cows mewed, and they generally moved along the landscape in a very basic way, communicating back and forth, to see where they are in relation to one another as they make their way from point a to point b and back again.  

radio telemetry for wildlife

I wasn't really aware of how deep their social dynamics went and really how special these animals are. I guess I mostly figured that their thought process didn't go much deeper than what they see in front of them and the calls that they hear from other elk. I suppose I just didn't give them much credit. I guess I figured that they probably didn't think much further beyond what they heard and smelled and could see in front of them. I figured that probably like most animals, their thought process was extremely basic and their behavior was uniform throughout their population. But that actually couldn't be further from the truth.
bull elk - wildlife painting
As I quickly begin to learn over the months and years, their social structure, their ways of  thinking, and their movements were very unique and some of the animals we tracked would refuse to leave a square mile section while others being the same age, the same sex, in the same social situation would go tens if not hundreds of miles at times. Some would go these large distances and stay, others would go and come right back six months later. The more and more that I got to interact with these animals the more I realized that not only did their movements differ so much but their  personality as well.
 bull elk - wildlife art

Some of the elk preferred to stay in very tight and close family groups, while others like to group up in large gatherings with many different family groups. Some welcomed other elk into their areas, while others avoided unfamiliar elk when they came into their areas. 

When it came to their language, it went even deeper; depending on the landscape that they lived in, depending on the predators that existed, depending on where they roamed, they had different ways of speaking back and forth to each other. Sometimes loud, long, drawn out calls in the prairie were non-existent in the high elevation. Thick mountain timber covered regions where their calls not only didn't travel as far, but they had to worry more about some of the larger predators that existed around them.

elk bugling - wildlife art

So depending on how comfortable they could be in their given landscape, they almost develop different dialects within their language. All of this can vary depending on the time of year, how much human pressure is in the area at any given time, and these swings in their calling and their movements are actually extremely variable and very fascinating.

landscape painting - oil on canvas

My Favorite Detail Brush

When I eventually moved to Montana I could tell right away that I didn't know as much about the elk in this region as I thought I would. Like most places I've been, their behavior and their way of communication is unique and one thing in particular that I'm  drawn to is their migration, which on the prairie can sometimes be non-existent as they don't have much incentive to go or travel long distances when their food and their water and their habitat is consistent year round. However, in places like Yellowstone and places that have huge swings in weather from season to season, their very survival is dependent on how they move through the landscape.

hiking in the mountains for elk

My Go To Portable Camera

Now if you ask most people what time of the year do elk bugle they would probably tell you during the breeding season  during September or around that early to mid-fall time of year. However, what surprised me was how much they actually continue to vocalize and bugle well into late fall and into the winter. During a big migration like the one you see out of a place such as Yellowstone National Park, where the environment gets so extreme during the winter  they're forced out of their preferable habitats and for the summer and fall, they're squeezed through these small gateways through the mountains where they have to all traverse to the winter range where they can find safety and forage for the upcoming months.

elk herd - wildlife art

As these smaller family groups and small herds begin to come together, the large bulls have just come off of a long and grueling breeding season. They begin to meet each other face to face in a different light. All of these elk start to form very large herds for the winter and as they come together they begin to vocalize once again, establishing their dominance for the upcoming winter season. It’s vital to get to know other elk in the area because their survival will absolutely depend on staying together and while learning to live with one another again after a competitive breeding season is not easy, it’s a necessity.

wildlife painting - elk and nature

This painting takes place in a real location, a valley that holds special meaning to my heart and it's also one of the major stopping points along one of the largest migration routes out of Yellowstone National Park. I'll never forget being there for the first time in mid to late December when I thought a lot of the elk activity had calmed down. Hearing these old lonesome sounding bugles in the distance, dozens of them, hundreds of them, all day as these herd bulls began to start communicating with one another as they're forced into larger herds.

However, this time instead of sounding aggressive towards one another, their calls were much different, much lower in tone, more drawn out, less raspy, and a lot more dynamic. The tones of these bugles change mid-call they change from bugle to bugle, they're much more communicative with the cows as well. They all begin to talk a lot more amongst one another, however the excitement in all of these  vocalizations is almost  non-existent. 

I watched these elk at this time for hours sitting on the hill and listening to their calls back and forth. It just brought me back to all the  experiences that I've been so fortunate to have and all the things that I love so much.
"An Amazing Journey" - 30x40" Oil on cradled canvas board (2.5" depth).
My art and studio supplies I use.
Prints available here.


 

 I'm Chuck Black, landscape and wildlife artist based in Southwest Montana.




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