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I saw this youtube video of an elephant painting. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foahTqz7On4&t=301s) There are others as well.

It looks completely real. However, like other people in the comments, I was also skeptical if someone was conditioning the elephant to paint, or if there was some trickery involved.

I'd like to know from a scientific perspective (i.e. via research or from some credible source) if elephants can actually paint things without being conditioned (someone shows them what to paint, then they recreate it) or trickery (someone has lines on the paper the elephant traces which are not visible to the camera).

Specifically, do elephants really have the creativity and mental capacity to paint things like flowers and elephants from their own imagination? Are they really that smart?

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  • $\begingroup$ Can most (excluding the possibility of a few genusies) humans paint without being conditioned? Or is it just that with humans, we call the conditioning "art class"? FTM I can't paint despite those elementary school art classes :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jul 23 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Any parent of a toddler can testify to the sheer enthusiasm of spontaneous artistic creativity that is often expressed by humans. The motor skills aren't great, however, and choice of media may often be disheartening to the adults... $\endgroup$
    – jakebeal
    Jul 25 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @jakebeal: But how do the productions of toddlers splashing paint on paper (or other materials on any available surface) compare artistically with elephant painting? (Always recognizing that in the modern world, "artists" can get remarkably high prices for splashing paint :-() $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jul 25 at 22:05
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Interesting question! While it doesn't exactly address the topic of your question, I think the paper Is painting by elephants in zoos as enriching as we are led to believe? might have some insight.

I originally found this paper from the animal-made art wikipedia page, which states that:

The elephants draw the same painting each time and have learned to draw it line-for-line.

Although I couldn't find that claim in the paper they cited, it does seem like this is a highly structured activity (as opposed to a more free-form "art"). For example, from the above paper:

Painting involved following instructions from the keeper and performing the task in front of an audience. ... The brush was then handed to the elephant, which it then held with its trunk. Instruction was given by the keeper to the elephant when to start and stop painting, and when to give the brush to the keeper for colour changes. ... Each session lasted between 2 and 5 min, and was a highly structured event. For example, when the elephant was not holding the paintbrush and awaiting the next instruction it was directed to rest its trunk tip on the ground.

There might be more information in this book, Cerebrum 2009: Emerging ideas in brain science, as it's cited a lot in the introduction, but it doesn't seem to be available online.

Overall, it doesn't seem like the elephants have much agency in what/how they paint. As the authors put it:

[T]he results indicated that elephants gain little enrichment from the activity of painting. Hence, the benefits of this activity appear to be limited to the aesthetic appeal of these paintings to the people viewing them.

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Could and elephant paint from its own creativity? maybe but unlikely

Gorilla and chimps can paint creatively. elephants might be able to is allowed although studies on elephants in zoos show elephants do not have much desire to paint. elephants are not as visually oriented as apes, so creative painting may not hold enough attraction to do so, even if they could. But that is not what we are seeing in the video.

Is the elephant in the video painting creatively? No

The painting elephants are trained to paint line for line, stroke for stroke. the elephants in question always paint the same picture every time. the training to paint itself is not abusive, but the training to get the elephant to submit to training generally is abusive. Desmond Morris, a well known ethologist, (animal behavioral scientist) went to observe this personally and up close which requires special permission (link below). He noted that each animals always paints the same picture and the trainer is likely guiding the elephant with taps and tugs on the ear. so this is not a creative exercise but a trained response like a dancing bear or counting horse.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p049jfky

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