Can Elephants REALLY Paint?

elephant painting

Pigs may well fly—but can elephants really paint?

In Thailand, it’s not such an oddity – elephants can be seen wrapping the tips of their trunks around brushes and painting on canvases. Though some create abstract pieces made of brushstrokes and doodles, often it’s their paintings of landscapes and portraits that fascinate the tourists… and leave them somewhat perplexed (see this famous video of an elephant painting a self-portrait).

But are these elephants truly the ones creating the art?

 Though they are indeed the ones in front of the easel painting, the designs of the detailed landscapes or portraits are not their own.  To arrive at these human-like depiction of objects, the elephant’s keeper gently pulls and tugs the elephant’s ear in different directions, guiding the trunk to draw lines and shapes.

Those elephants have been trained to repeat patterns by the keeper’s guidance, but do the elephants have an understanding of what they’ve produced?  Since elephants in the wild have always been known to use twigs and pebbles to doodle on the ground, this ‘guided’ art could perhaps be limiting their innate artistic creativity.

But not all elephant art is created this way.  At the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), elephants are able to paint by their own free will, without human guidance.  They’re simply trained to learn the technical skills of painting: gripping the brush and staying within the boundaries of the canvas.  After training, the elephants are encouraged to paint freely, making brushstrokes and doodles that are unrecognizable by humans – but creating masterpieces of abstract art.

What do you think counts as true elephant art?  Do you think there is special meaning behind these abstract doodles… or is the process of creating art with meaning uniquely human?  Let us know what you think in the comments below.

NOVICA sells abstract elephant paintings produced by the natural doodles of the elephants from the TECC.  Proceeds from the sales help to pay for medicine and food for the elephants.  

Judd is NOVICA’s Communications Manager and resident Brit. An avid traveller, his love for the work of international artisans was born from hours spent in the local markets of West Africa, Brazil, The Himalayas, Polynesia and Central America while working as a production buyer for the US TV show Survivor.

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