14 December 2013

Paintings Drawn By Elephants

Since prehistoric times, man has been drawing pictures of his surroundings — animals, natural events, scenery, etc. Recent years, people have discovered the ability of domesticated animals to paint. These animals include the ape family (such as monkeys, chimpanzees & orangutans), dolphins, seals, horses, dogs, and other animals. This unnatural ability had been reported several hundreds of years ago, for instances — monkeys in the 17th Century and elephants in earlier centuries at circuits or public performances. The paintings produced by these animals are basically of abstract nature, except those by the elephants in which there are some artistic elements comparable to the skills of human novice painters. The elephant paintings show planned outline and composition, perspectives of objects, controlled intensity of colours, and colour balance.

According to Mia Fineman, the author of When Elephants Paint, the paintings are made by a team of an elephant and its keeper or mahout1. The mahout sets up the outside workshop, choose the paint and passes the brush soaked with the paint to the elephant, who will hold the brush by the tip of the trunk and then apply the strokes on the canvass, as shown in the video below.

The question is — Does the elephant really have the intelligence to make such a recognizable picture? or Does the mahout the real producer behind the work?

A scientist, Desmond Morris, went to Thailand to investigate the truth about elephant painting in 2009. He found out that the mahouts often guided the elephant in their movements by nudging the ear of the elephant.2 Some other people also saw the mahout nudging the elephant's ear at the start and end of each stroke in the painting show — especially when two lines making a very clean joint. These findings are supported by the explanation in the website of The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC).3 Thus, the elephants are not likely to have painted from memory or have created from their minds alone; the trained elephants have enough intelligence to follow the "asking" by their mahouts. Nevertheless, one could still marvel at the remarkable physical ability of the precise eye-trunk coordination of these elephants, and the elephants should deserve the recognition as an equal artisan in the man-animal team.

The following show three more videos, including the famed elephant Suda:

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Elephant Art

"Real elephant art is an original painting that is created by an elephant of its own volition, unaided in the creative process by humans, " defined by The Elephant Art Gallery (TEAG)4. Also, "The fact is that real art by elephants has an immediate visual, aesthetic appeal."

One famous elephant who painted in the United States is Ruby. She was born in Thailand in 1973 and was shipped to the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona at about 7 months old. the keepers noticed she was drawing in the dirt with a stick and gave her a canvas and painting supplies. Ruby learned to use the paint and wonderfully painted all on her own. She was reported to have selected the colours and chosen her brushes. She became a favourite attraction of the zoo. Her paintings fetched a selling price of $5,000 back in 1980s. She died in 1998.

There are other elephants who paint, mostly in Thailand.6,7 The selling prices of their paintings range from US$275 to US$400 in the United States.
Paintings by elephant Ruby (left)5             and elephant JoJo (right) 6
The abstract pictures above show a pleasing coloured theme with unity and balance in the composition.


1. Komar, Vitaly; Melamid, Melamid; Eggers, Dave and Fineman, Mia: When Elephants Paint: The Quest of Two Russian Artists to Save the Elephants of Thailand, Harper Collins, 2000.
2. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1151283/Can-jumbo-elephants-really-paint--Intrigued-stories-naturalist-Desmond-Morris-set-truth.html (2009)
3. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC). (http://www.thailandelephant.org)
4. The Elephant Art Gallery (TEAG) (http://www.elephantartgallery.com)
5. Ruby's Portfolio: A sampling of her paintings from 1987 through 1998. (http://www.themanorvillemural.com/flushingclasses/ruby/Rubyportfolio.htm)
6. How Abstract Art May Save Thailand's Elephants. (http://www.thecultureist.com/2012/07/12/how-abstract-art-may-save-thailands-elephants/)
7. Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project (AEACP). (http://www.elephantart.com)