Elephant Painting: Can elephants paint?

For starters, elephants don’t paint in the wilderness.

You wouldn’t be too dumb to assume that craft corners exist in the plains of Africa and Asia would you? So if there’s ever a place that elephants are going to paint, it’s in captive situation where they are taught by highly skilled trainers to do so.

So let’s start from there. I know you’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos lately and the things you’re seeing are simply too good to be true: elephants painting flowers, trees and even themselves as is the case with Suda the intelligent artist.

But how true are these videos to begin with? Can elephants really paint on their own when presented with the opportunity; like the platform, a brush, and a drawing canvas?

Read our exhaustive answer below. For spoilers, find yourself a quiet and cozy atmosphere in order to absorb the incoming shock!

Can elephants paint?

Yes, elephants can paint. They are perfectly capable of producing abstract images on their own when trained to hold brushes and stand in front of easels mounted with white canvas, even so with a great gusto.

Elephants however, are not capable of creating portraits or landscapes that represent external reality on their own volition. They require repetitive training beforehand and non-stop assistance from mahouts (or trainers) during the exhibitions.

On a whim, it’s abstract painting and nothing else

Don’t get me wrong. Elephants are extremely intelligent animals. Their level of intelligence is comparable (in some respects) to that of primates; i.e. chimpanzees and humans.

Their abilities to exhibit mirror self-recognition and use tools on a frequent basis; for example elephants have been observed to use the branches of trees as swatters for chasing pestering flies, are all decent evidence for that.

Despite the elephant’s intelligence which allows it to easily cognize how to secure a painting brush in its trunk and where to render lines and blobs on a loaded easel, the elephant is still only capable of producing no more than an abstract painting by its own volition.

It does this with great gusto too; enjoying every bit of the exercise, eagerly anticipating for a reward or punishment. That’s extremely laudable on its own right isn’t it?

Elephants interested in painting abstracts can go through a painting school where they learn how to develop their artistic skills. Over time they build up style and learn to construct complex and more meaningful abstracts (If there’s anything like that).

But that’s about it. No more, no less.

Elephants can’t paint portraits

It’s true that elephants can create beautiful abstracts (when left alone) in front mounted easels with brushes loaded with paints and dipped into their trunks. But that’s about it.

Elephants can’t paint realistic portraits by their own volition, or, by their own will. Thinking so is only us expecting too much from the already exceptional pachyderm. But hey, scientist or trainers (whoever first) could end up uncovering something shocking about elephants abilities in the future who knows?

Working with now or the present and what has been observed by trainers with captive breed artists, elephants simply cannot paint out portraits or meaningful landscapes no matter how much they aspire to be the next Picasso.

I know you’ve probably seen captive breed elephants on YouTube painting botanical subjects like trees and flowers and sometimes impressive pictures of themselves, apparently on their own, but the hidden truth is that a mahout or an elephant keeper is constantly by their side pitching out instruction to the painting artists.

Usually, the guide stays close to the elephant’s neck, on the side that is away from the watching audience or out of camera shot. The mahout masks his real intentions of being so close to the elephant with the fact that he or she has to keep loading the brushes with paints for the impressive artist to draw.

Most people watching live exhibitions would hardly ever catch the joke though. Because they’re completely engulfed in the magnificent splendor of the act. But who wouldn’t actually? An elephant blissfully painting itself on a canvas isn’t a sight you’d consistently catch everyday is it? Better to enjoy the golden bits of the moment and leave the scepticism for later pondering!

And even if you knew beforehand that the elephants were guided by their mahouts and that everything they produce weren’t really from within, the intelligence behind the precise location of each dot, scribble and line even after being dished out instructions is still something to marvel about. Last time I checked, my three year old was still struggling with this.

In the next action, you’ll learn how elephants are trained to paint abstracts and portrait deceptions on canvases.

Elephants training process

Teaching elephants how to paint on a canvas is a quite easy according to many elephant organizations; those have trained elephants before. Generally, it requires three main steps to complete.

First is separating the wheat from the chaff, or in other words, picking out interested elephants from those that aren’t.

Uninterested elephants often throw paint brushes, leave the vicinity of training ground, or persist out of the instructed task by performing activities outside it. It takes no longer than a day to identify artist from inept according to the Elephant Art Gallery (website).

Next is training the elephant to hold paint brushes. By instinct, investigative elephants often curl their trunks around brushes, but the proper way to grasp them is at the tip.

Because the inside of an elephant trunk is a hollow, paint brushes are often modified in thickness, length and with a projecting dividing bar at the middle to prevent slippering and to enhance proper and comfortable grip. Training elephants to hold brushes usually takes nothing more than a week.

Finally, elephants are introduced to painting platforms which are easels having wooden or whatever platforms resting on them. On this wooden mediums or whatever platform is where a white card or canvas is secured firmly in place for artist elephants to paint on.

Elephants that are allowed to paint by will, will always paint out abstracts; putting lines and dots wherever and whenever they like.

And these set of elephants aren’t passed through any other process outside the three steps mentioned above. They practice, practice and learn and with time they adopt to their own style of painting.

Elephants that paint meaningful pictures like a fellow elephant holding a flower by its trunk often go through a repetitive training process to comprehend the game.

They paint a specific picture two to three times daily. And as you’ve already comprehended, with the dedicated assistance of a mahout who guides the artist elephant with each mark.

Artists are nudged up and down by their tusks to make vertical lines and are pulled or pushes sideways by their ears to get horizontal ones. Spot and blobs are encouraged by a gentle tug of the ear forwards, towards the canvas and curves are created by careful manipulation of the tusks.

The two types of elephant training

Training elephants to paint isn’t as easy as you just read it. It requires lots of manipulations from the trainer’s side and cooperation from the elephants’.

That’s why there are two types of training that elephants may undergo in order to learn not just how to paint, but also to do things that we see them do in circus.

First is the non-dominance training: As the name suggests, elephants are encourage to perform a certain acts usually by giving them a reward. Get the perfect line or connect the prefect spots and you earn yourself three bananas kind of thing. That’s an effective method of taming elephants that has been employed since the twentieth century and is still widely used in developed countries.

The second is the training crush: As the name suggests, the spirit of young wild elephants (intended to be tamed) are crushed so that the animals turn readily submissive to their guardians.

As the name would imply, this process isn’t a neat or clean practice. Elephants are tortured with all sort of weaponry from bull hooks, chains to shackles whilst sometimes restricted in tight cages; so tight that they can barely move their bodies, kick with their legs or even swing their heads. They are only allowed the liberty to breath within these inhumane confinement.

After the elephants spirits are crushed, the animals are then taught all sort of tricks and activities such as hand standing and painting.

During these processes too, animals are often punished rather than rewarded when they fail to achieve the target task i.e. to draw a line at a specific point chosen by the mahout. The fear of being hurt when they fail, drives artists to mark point, blobs, spots, and draw lines whenever and wherever their trainers want them to.

This form of training elephants to perform certain tasks is mostly observed in developing countries. It’s inhumane and it’s cruel to these beautiful species!

Profits from elephant painting

Elephant paintings, especially the portrait ones are highly sought after commodities. People buy them expensive just to hang on the wall and boast to friends and family of the rarity. Some, however, do so for historic intentions.

Whichever way it is, we can say the people profiting from elephant paintings are of two types.

Mahouts and trainers that subject animals to constant torture and pain and force them to paint against their will, and those that encourage artists to paint (within or outside their volition) for the primary benefit of their population including those living in the wild, for example, non-profit organizations such as the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project (AEACP) donating earnings to conservation organization to promote rehabilitation and the release of elephants back into the wild.

The former must be stopped at all cost and the latter may still be inappropriate, but sacrificing a pinch of the elephant population for the greater benefit of the whole doesn’t seem like a bad idea either!

Cite this Article (APA Format)

Bunu. M. (2020, October 6). Elephant Painting: Can elephants paint?. Retrieved from http://emborawild.com/can-elephants-paint/

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