elk watercolor by Alison Nicholls

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

What could be better than sketching elk in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, during the rutting season? 

I decided to go straight for watercolor, with no drawing underneath. Painting this way definitely works best with animals who have recognizable silhouettes, and the elk were perfect. I started with the head or body, making sure this is correct before adding the antlers as the finishing touch. The antlers are complex shapes and even a slight change in the angle of the elk’s head gives you a totally different view of them, so I had to concentrate on sketching exactly what I saw, even if it looked strange and I couldn’t really tell one antler from the other. Working in just 2 colors was very effective for the elk with their darker necks and heads and paler bodies.

elk watercolor by Alison Nicholls

Watercolor sketches from life of elk bulls by Alison Nicholls Sept 2021.

The elk bugles – high-pitched calls you wouldn’t expect from a male deer – carried eerily through the trees. One very chilly morning, before the sun warmed the valleys, 6 or 7 bulls bugled at each other, approaching from all directions to try their luck in stealing some cows from a bull with a large harem of females. The smaller bulls (with 4 or 5 tines – points – on each antler) didn’t try to take on the bigger bulls, they all just hung around the edges adding to the tension and hoping that in the chaos they could possibly snatch a female. Fights break out when 2 well-matched bulls encounter each other, and we could antlers crashing together as the big bulls fought among the trees. 

Elk photos

Top row: 2 big bull elk & 1 interested bystander. Bottom row: bull elk with harem, tired bull resting his head.

Its an exhausting time for the bulls, even when they’re not actively fighting, because they are in a constant state of alert, trying to gain, or keep, their harem. They barely have time to eat, and they expend a lot of energy at a time of year when they need to be building up their reserves to get them through the winter. As a result, some of them will die during the winter from starvation, while others may die due to injuries received during the rut. The sleeping bull shown above had a tine from another elk lodged in his neck right behind his ear. It stuck out about 4 inches. Imagine the force needed to break a piece of an antler and then have it remain stuck in your neck. He seemed OK, but it can’t be comfortable. I’m sure if he could talk he’d just be saying “you should see the other guy”. It didn’t seem to be affecting his ability to keep other bulls away from his harem of females. 

Apart from the elk, there were many other attractions in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, including moose and of course, stunning landscape.
More about those next time.


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