Elephant that Paints Other Elephants


Special thanks to NK for sharing.

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You're kidding, right? You never see a full shot of the elephant as she's painting elephants, only a "trunk" holding a brush. Where's this clip from?

Some clarification from Asian Elephant Art & Conservation:

Two years ago, Hong began painting with her mahout, Noi Rakchang, and has steadily developed her skills. After learning how to paint flowers, she moved on to more advanced paintings. She now has two specialties. One is an elephant holding flowers with her trunk, and the other is the Thai flag. An elephant with so much control and dexterity is capable of amazing work. Just for clarification, with these realistic figural works, the elephant is still the only one making the marks on the paper but the paintings are learned series of brushstrokes not Hong painting a still life on her own.

I'm not surprised - you can teach an elephant to do all sorts of tricks. When they get creative on their own we get interested - zoo elephants will play tricks on keepers in order to get their pens open. I've heard about the elephants and chimpanzees in a Swedish Zoo painting, not memorized strokes but much more advanced art work, we're talking abstract works that get sold. And talking about elephants did you know that they listen through their feet (those enormous ears are just for looks). We all know that they are far smarter than us... why are we surprised? Visit www.elephantvoices.wildlifedirect.org to find out about their talking skills!

Was the picture already sketched on the paper?

Gary, no, it looks freehand to me.

Well, free-trunk, anyway.

What gets me is that the elephant is very visibly CONCENTRATING on what she's doing, not speeding through the exercise to get a treat.

By Theodosia (not verified) on 06 Mar 2008 #permalink

One of my favorite debunking sites has a blog on elephant art. It is a VERY good source for checking facts. After reading this, I was able to wrap my brain around it a bit better. They also have really good video and photos of the elephant painting too. Hope that this helps :)


By nikkiness (not verified) on 06 Mar 2008 #permalink

I've seen the TV show that this clip is from, and yes, the rest of the show was terrible. They mention that elephants are more or less colourblind and that they little Thai guy standing next to the elephant is holding it's tusk and directing the movement. Take the Thai guy away and you get a mess.

I was thinking the same thing: that somehow the trainer was involved in the process since that shot of him looking on made it look like he was paying as much attention as Hong was to the work, indicating some form of direction.

I think they're quite right; that the wonder of the video is that she has the dexterity to reproduce what seems to me a pattern that she's been taught. I almost shat my pants when the vid first started--I thought 'JESUS CHRIST! SHE DRAWS BETTER THAN MOST PEOPLE!' It makes me wonder if, after she learned the pattern, she makes the visual connection to other elephants. That'd be so neat, abstract visual-pattern recognition!

What they don't say but that Theodosia points out is that Hong is concentrating, really trying to make it look right. She isn't hurrying through in order to get a treat. One thing I've noticed when working on a painting or some other creative venture is breath control--I hold my breath when I'm doing fine work so that a deep breath won't unsteady my hand. I obviously can't tell from a video but from here it looks like Hong's doing that. She's at least keeping very still anyway.

Not raining on your parade Andrew, but you can see someone's holding the elephant's ear in that video of the painting lesson, moving it around in a funny way. That could be the directing technique for teaching the brushstrokes.

I think another level to this fascinating topic is the difference between memorization and improvisation. But many people, once they've learned a particular skill, don't improvise on it or embellish it. We're teaching an intelligent animal a form of self-expression that's important to us. To an elephant it might seem ridiculously oversimplified. Maybe their form of self-expression would be something we can't even register, something dealing with subsonic communication or the way they sway from side to side.

Still fascinating!

I think DRK is on to something and another person who commented on the quick cut, just before the elephant (?) begins to paint.
And do not be influenced by the audio of the gasps and amazement of a supposed live audience. Any audio could also be cut into the recording. Ever heard of "laugh tracks"and the effect on the lsitening audience.
Also, anyone familiar with the "magic" of Kris Angel knows how much can be done by video trickery, selective audio and video cuts and use of an audience to help "sell the effect" by signing non-exposure waivers.
I guess it's possible to pre-train and overtrain an elephant to make certain repetitive marks....but, the profile of the elephant that one painted is too much to believe!
Be wary out there...."Doc Ben" ("Doc Benjamin and His Wizardelia Wagon of Wonders")

By "Doc Benjamin" (not verified) on 04 Apr 2008 #permalink