Hoaxes & Rumors

Elephant Painting a Portrait: Real or Hoax?

Elephant Painting a Portrait: Real or Hoax?

A series of videos have been making the rounds on the major social media outlets for several years which depict elephants painting. Are these videos real or fake?

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The videos are real.

The elephants are actually painting, as the creatures have been carefully trained to duplicate certain strokes to produce “art” that is sold to tourists and animal lovers. The paintings bring as much as $500 and the money is used to fund many of the elephant conservatory projects throughout Asia.

It has been argued that the elephants creating portraits or images of objects are not actually “painting” in any meaningful sense of the word as there is no creativity involved. Left to their own devices, the animals would not choose to paint on their own. It is merely the performance of a trick at the urging and prompting of their “mahouts” or trainers.

In fact, the mahouts set up the canvass, choose the colors, load the brushes with paint, and then urge the animals on with a set of commands that they’ve already been trained to follow. Through practice and replication, many of the elephants have become quite adept at this trick.

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This video of an elephant making an original oil painting is approaching 10 million views:

Each animal does the same painting time and time again. For casual viewers, the eyes are drawn to the brush being held by the elephant’s trunk as it paints. Upon closer scrutiny, however, you can see the handler manipulating the elephant’s ear with pulls and tugs. The mahout pushes and pulls for vertical and horizontal lines. For dots, spots, and blobs, the elephant’s head is pushed toward the canvass.

It is debated if the elephant is creating an original work of art, or simply following the instructions of its handler. Below is another video example of an elephant painting a “self portrait.”

Abstract Elephant Art

Some elephants have been trained to create original, abstract art. In these cases, the elephant is given a brush with a pre-determined color, and it then paints random lines and squiggles on the canvass. Some may argue that this elephant art is more original than the parlor trick described above. This original elephant art is also typically sold with the proceeds supporting elephant welfare and conservation.

Interest over Time

As you can see in the Google Trends chart below, the interest in this story has been relatively stable over the years, with its biggest peak in April 2008, and smaller peaks occurring multiple times in 2014.

2016 Update

In February 2016, a story went viral about a painting elephant in Taiwan by the name of Suda. Photos of Suda were shared on social media showed the elephant painting pictures of elephants, trees, and even spelling her own name. Suda also has two siblings which are also trained to paint.

Bottom Line

Painting elephants are real with the caveat that the animals are trained, and not actually painting of their own volition when it comes to the painting of objects. Elephant art which appears abstract and consists of lines and squiggles is typically created more freely by the animals. In both cases, the money is often used for causes which benefit the elephant.

Updated March 15, 2016
Originally published September 2014

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