Do elephants like to Paint? Are they trained?
Today there are over 14 elephant artists and they love to paint. However, when we started back in the year 2000 there were only two painting elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservatory Center (TECC): Wanalee and Jojo.
Elephants love to do creative things and to play games and as long as they are not pressured into doing anything they don’t want, they will quickly develop their skills in whatever they have shown an aptitude for.
Although elephants are very intelligent and naturally creative, painting on an easel with a paintbrush in their trunks is not an activity that any have been found to perform in the wild! Therefore all the aspiring elephant artists first have to go to school to learn how to paint.
Elephant painting in Thailand began in 1998 when Richard Lair invited the conceptual art partnership of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid to teach selected elephants at the TECC to paint. Elephants had done this before in over 20 zoos and circuses around the world, but this was the first time in Thailand and they were the first to bring this activity to prominent media attention.
It takes only one day to discover if the elephant has real interest in the activity and any aptitude at art.”
The mahouts who have had the most experience in elephant painting now perform all the teaching themselves. It takes only one day to discover if the elephant has real interest in the activity and any aptitude at art. Once the most promising students have been selected, they then continue to be taught for up to a week before they are considered ready to ‘make a living’ from it.
They are taught by first showing them how to hold the paintbrush. While some curl the trunk around the brush instinctively, the preferred method at the Center is to hold the brush in the ‘nostril’ at the end of the trunk, which gives the artist greater range of movement for the brushstrokes. For this purpose, the paintbrush is modified so as to be the right length and thickness to hold easily and not cause any discomfort.
Next they are introduced to the easel and taught how close to stand to it so that they can extend their trunk comfortably. Finally, they are guided by the mahout (only during training) to apply the brush to the paper. Some artists take to this quicker than others, but all of them need time and encouragement to learn how to apply the paint within the confines of the paper and to develop a style of brushstroke that suits them.
It is quite unnecessary to force the elephant to learn how to paint. Those that do not seem to enjoy the activity are introduced to other activities.”
During the training the artist’s natural instinctive style becomes evident. No two elephant artists have the same style and just like human artists, their style develops and matures over time. It is quite unnecessary to force the elephant to learn how to paint. Those that do not seem to enjoy the activity are introduced to other activities.
…we have truly discovered an activity which the elephants thoroughly enjoy.”
We only work with elephants to produce abstract paintings which they create using their natural talents and in doing this we have truly found an activity which elephants enjoy.
By contrast the training process to get elephants to paint ‘portraits’, ‘landscapes’ and similar recognizable images that are currently in vogue is quite different and we do NOT do this at The Elephant Art Gallery. To perform such tricks the elephant has to be trained away from what it can do naturally and instead has to be prompted by a mahout to perform strange repetitive acts.
If an elephant artist has been trained away from making abstract art naturally, to making stylized images instead, it becomes confused when brought back to the easel to paint again in the way that it wants to and evidently enjoys. These are the reasons why we do not sell anything other than genuine abstract creations that are painted by the artists using their own volition.