01 | Teaching Elephants How to Paint
An accomplished student
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 artists first have to go to school to learn how to paint. Elephant painting began in 1998 when the conceptual art partnership of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid taught 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.
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.
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 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, to know when the paint has dried up and to develop a style of brushstroke that suits them.
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. Today there are 17 elephant artists at the Center and all of them thoroughly enjoy painting.
To view over 70 finished elephant paintings please be sure to check out The Gallery.