5 Animals That Create Art

Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, back by popular demand. It was originally published on December 26, 2012. Enjoy!

Animals can paint and make sculptures. But is it art?

In a study published in 2006, Gisela Kaplan and Lesley J. Rogers examined this question very carefully. The researchers considered how animals perceive colors — elephants only see two pigments, while humans can see three — and attempted to understand if they feel any pleasure from looking at their creations.

That is, Kaplan and Rogers sought to consider animals’ creations with paint and other materials from their perspective. To humans, the paintings of elephants may resemble abstract art, but to assume the elephant thinks the same overlooks their anatomy and physiology. Additionally, we do not know if animals produce art in their natural environments.

Nonetheless, studying animal artwork certainly shows that many are capable of more complex behaviors than had previously been thought. Kaplan and Rogers also note that a better understanding of animals’ aesthetic sense and abilities can have implications for animal welfare:

… might realize that sounds and colors matter as much as structures in the way housing for animals is organized, whether in zoos, research facilities, or other human settings, and that we should have a much broader perspective on the types of activities we make available to these animals. Ultimately, finding that some animals share a sense of aesthetics—as humans use the term—might well change our sensitivities and attitudes to animals overall, offering further evidence to dismantle the outworn claim that animals are “just” animals.

Here are five animals that make what we humans consider art.

1. Gorillas

There have been numerous reports of captive primates painting. But not only have the gorillas Koko and Michael painted, they have also been able to explain what they have painted as they learned to sign.

Koko painted what looked like a bird with wings, albeit too many, and signed that she had painted a bird. A chimpanzee named Moja also communicated that she had painted a bird.

Video uploaded by J. Patrick Malone/YouTube

2. Seals

Seals in captivity have been taught to paint with color. But as Kaplan and Rogers point out, the animals are colorblind. The cells of seal retinas contain only green cones, so they can only see green. It is not clear why or how the seals choose different colors of paint.

Other marine mammals, like whales and dolphins — which have also been known to paint in captivity — have the same monochromatic vision. Kaplan and Rogers believe the adaptation is ”likely to have evolved for life in the sea.”

Video uploaded by NewEnglandAquarium/YouTube

3. Cows

Not only are there bovine artists, NPR reports, but they use quite an unusual medium: 50-pound cubes of salt.

Ranchers give the salt cubes to cows as nutritional supplements. A few years ago, Whit Deschner of Baker, Oregon, observed that the blocks, once licked over, had an array of grooves and curves that left them resembling “vertebrae from prehistoric creatures.” Others appeared to be “windswept sandstone formations you might see in canyon country.” Accordingly, Deschner dreamed up a crazy idea: the “Great Salt Lick Contest.”

While most were initially dubious about the idea, the contest has become a community effort to raise funds for research on Parkinson’s disease, a condition which Deschner himself has. The salt lick creations are auctioned off, with most selling for $200 or $300. The highest price tag ever was $1,000. Overall, more than $30,000 has been raised from “Deschner’s folly.”

Video uploaded by holsteincowboy/YouTube

4. Elephants

It is not entirely surprising that elephants can paint with a brush or their trunk. After all, they use a range of tools in captivity. Just like humans, different elephants have unique painting styles, which Kaplan and Rogers attribute to individual trunk movements.

While elephants paint in a number of colors, they can only see two pigments — bluish-violet colors and yellowish-red ones — a possible adaption for improved night vision.

Video uploaded by Oregon Zoo/YouTube

5. Bowerbirds

Bowerbirds select objects for their shape and color and then arrange them in their bowers in what — to humans — seems a deliberately artistic ordering. Satin bowerbirds even paint their bowers with their saliva and plant extracts.

The Bowerbird is the only creature noted here that has been observed creating art in the wild and not in captivity. However, the question remains: Are animals in the wild actually being artistic? Or do animals only create art in zoos and water parks because they have nothing better to do?

What do you think? Are the paintings of elephants and seals, the drawings of chimpanzees and gorillas, the salt sculptures of cows and the trinket-filled bowers of bowerbirds “art”?

Video uploaded by DaelwynRaeala/YouTube

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Photo Credit: Yu-Chan Chen/Flickr


Aaron F
Past Member 6 months ago

This article is ridiculous (except for the bower bird). Shame on Care2!

Melania Padilla
Melania Padillaabout a year ago

You should mention that many of these animals work on "art" because they are abused to do so.... Like elephants, they are abused to do stupid tricks for human entertainment

Marie W.
Marie Wabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

Evelyn M.
Evelyn M1 years ago

Art?? Not sure about that. I'm agreeing with Angela and Judy too.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Rosslyn O.
Rosslyn O1 years ago

Judy T, Angela K and Renata B, I agree with each of you. How demeaning to make animals do tricks for we humans to judge. If these were expressions of art in the wild, like a pattern that bees fly or the agility of the tree swinging, resourcefulness in how to crack open nuts, rescuing a baby elephant calf from a water hole to save its life....That to me is something awesome to study or watch.

Renata B.
Renata B1 years ago

Angela K, totally with you. I wanted to write the same things. People should just get informed before writing an article: it's basic, isn't it? Shame on Ms Kristina C. It's really shameful.

Margie F1 years ago

Thank you

Ruth C.
Ruth C1 years ago

Smarter then humans

Philippa Powers
Philippa Powers1 years ago

Animals have creative spirits. We just need to open our eyes to see them.