Science Watch

Like all spotted bowerbirds, one we'll call Sam weaves an archway of twigs that opens into a courtyard where he conducts his mating rituals. He then decorates the archway and adjacent area with objects from nearby garbage cans: green glass, orange bottle caps, black plastic ribbon.

When Sam was younger, he used to just pile like-colored objects together—like many neighboring birds. Now, after about 10 years of practice, Sam fans them out, creating intricate, symmetrical patterns.

"He put decorations in key spots, and they captured the light beautifully during certain times of the day," says Gerald Borgia, PhD, the University of Maryland biologist who has studied Sam's creative flair for more than a decade.

Sam may be well-rewarded for his art. Female bowerbirds choose males based in part on how good they are at building bowers and decorating them, researchers have found.

While human artists generally lay claim to loftier motivations, Sam and Picasso may share some inspiration. Researchers are finding that the drive to paint and draw is strong among both humans and some animals, and it may be guided by similar aesthetic principles.

Don't eat the art

If you take a paintbrush from a chimpanzee before it's finished drawing, it's likely to throw a tantrum, says Lesley Rogers, PhD, a neuroscience and animal behavior professor at the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia. Chimps, along with a variety of other species, seem to enjoy making art, she notes.

"There have been reports about painting elephants, dolphins, gorillas, chimpanzees and even a crow," she says.

Many zoos use painting to keep their primates and elephants from getting bored, says Kim Livingstone, a San Diego Zoo keeper. A few times a month, Livingstone gives Janey, a 46-year-old orangutan, paintbrushes and a canvas, and the orangutan will contentedly paint for about an hour with a look of concentration on her face.

Janey seems to enjoy the activity, says Livingstone. Janey's roommates, however, largely prefer napping.

"Most of the other orangutans are just not interested in painting," says Livingstone. "Janey's friend Karen will paint, but you won't necessarily get the canvas back in one piece."

As a species, chimpanzees may be more artistically minded than orangutans. They draw spontaneously, without instruction, according to research by Ohio State University psychology professor Sarah Boysen, PhD, published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology (Vol. 101, No. 1). That's also true of young children, says Claire Golomb, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

"Toddlers are quite interested in what the hand can produce," says Golomb, author of "The Child's Creation of a Pictorial World" (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003).

However, both young children and animals have only a fleeting interest in their final products, researchers say. While they paint, they become immersed in the creative process. But once they are done, they will abandon their artwork, or—in the case of orangutans—even eat it.

"It seems to be the doing of it that's important, rather than the final product," Rogers notes.

This may give a clue to the early motivation behind painting. At first, young human and animal artists may simply enjoy manipulating objects. But once paintbrush touches canvas, they may feel the rush that comes from making a mark on the world.

"When you draw, you become very powerful," says Golomb. "You can create and undo."

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that humans and other animals would be interested in our effects on the world, notes Edward Wasserman, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Iowa who studies animal cognition.

"We are highly sensitive to the consequences of our actions," he says. "I think art represents the seeds of operant conditioning."

Gull galleries

A randomly marked up canvas, of course, wouldn't count as art to most people. There has to be an aesthetic vision behind the creation, notes Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, MD, PhD, a University of California, San Diego, psychology and neuroscience professor. But while many believe that aesthetics are unique to humans, research by ornithologist Niko Tinbergen, published in the 1950s, suggests otherwise.

Tinbergen observed that herring gull chicks would chirp, peck and beg for food when they saw their parents' beaks, which are long and yellow with a red dot at the end. So, he tried showing the chicks progressively more abstract versions of the beaks, including a rectangle with three stripes at the end.

"The chicks responded even more vigorously to the long, thin strip with the stripes—something they had never seen before," notes Ramachandran.

The strange behavior of the chicks, says Ramachandran, may be because their brains use a shortcut for identifying parental beaks. The gulls may be programmed to respond to contour, the border where yellow meets red—the more of it, the better.

"The punch line is, if the gulls had an art gallery, they would hang this long stick with three stripes on the wall," he says. "They would call it a Picasso and they would have no idea why."

Some aesthetic preferences may even cut across species. Bowerbirds tend to decorate their bowers with symmetrical piles of feathers and plastic, notes Borgia. And research by Boysen shows that chimps generally mark toward the center of a paper—a tendency that's also found among children as young as 2, says Golomb. "Children do seem to have a preference for symmetry, as far as they can control their hand and eye," says Golomb.

Children may take that preference for symmetry a step further than other animals, however, when they start to draw pictures that incorporate the idea of "visual balance." That's when, rather than clustering objects in one corner of a paper, an artist harmoniously distributes the elements of a drawing, says Constance Milbrath, PhD, a senior researcher at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, and author of "Patterns of Artistic Development in Children" (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

"Kids will mark anywhere on a paper when they first start drawing," she says. "They don't start to put things into relationship until a little later."

Between the ages of 5 and 7, children begin to see their drawings as coherent pictures and they start composing pictures so that a viewer's eye will be drawn to all parts of the picture, Milbrath notes. According to her research, some gifted children use particularly sophisticated techniques. For instance, Kate, 4, counterbalanced a tall stack of pineapples in the upper right corner of her picture with a densely patterned object in the lower left.

In addition to symmetry, animals and humans may also share color preferences, according to research by Deborah Wells, PhD, a psychology professor at Queen's University, Belfast. In a study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology (Vol. 122, No. 2), Wells found that chimps and gorillas pay significantly more attention to green and blue objects than red ones—a finding that dovetails with past research with children.

"They may prefer green and blue items because most of their food items fall in the blue-green spectrum rather than toward the red spectrum," she says, noting the herbs and foliage make up the bulk of gorillas' traditional diets.

There's no research yet on whether that preference shows up in primate paintings, Wells says. But the presence of an aesthetic sense and a drive to create are two steps down the road to gallery-ready art.

A bird's-eye view

Don't hire a bowerbird to be your art curator just yet. Animals have their own ways of viewing the world, and their art may not translate well to human eyes, notes Rogers. Human eyes have three color receptors, while birds have four—giving them a view of the world that's perhaps more colorful than we can imagine. Elephants, on the other hand, have only two color receptors; reds and yellows probably look brown to them.

Dolphins, which also have two-color vision, may even prefer performance art over painting, says Barbara Ann Levy, formerly an art therapy student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. For her master's thesis, Levy observed dolphins painting at the Dolphin Research Center, in Florida, and published her results in Art Therapy (Vol. 9, No. 4). When trainers asked one dolphin named Misty to paint a circle, she interpreted the command broadly.

"She would swim a circle in the water, and then dab a little paint on the canvas, swim in a circle, and then make another dab," says Levy. "By the time she was done, she had painted a circle."

These dolphins and other animal artists, however, may be simply following human instructions rather than their own creative instincts. Some elephants in Thailand paint impressive "self-portraits," but can only do so under the explicit instruction of a trainer, notes Rogers.

Three-year-old humans make the jump to representational art more naturally, adds Golomb.

"The real impetus for drawing comes when children draw an oval and put two dots in it, and it looks back at them," she notes.

At that moment, she says, children become interested in their drawings after they are done with them. That's also when toddlers start signing their art and protesting if someone else takes credit, she notes.

But while even our closest cousins generally stick to abstract art, animals' paintings can give us a glimpse at the germination of the human impulse to create, Rogers says.

"Art is something we tend to see as part of our highest aspects of culture," says Rogers. "But I think that, like most things, it's not unique to humans."

Further reading

  • Borgia, G. (2005). Why do bowerbirds build bowers? In Sherman, Paul W. (Ed); Alcock, John (Ed), Exploring animal behavior: Readings from American Scientist (4th ed.). (pp. 175–180). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

  • Milbrath, C., & Houston, T. (1998). Patterns of artistic development in children: Comparative studies of talent. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

  • Rogers, L.J., & Kaplan, G. (2007). Elephants that paint, birds that make music: Do animals have an aesthetic sense? In Read, Cynthia A. (Ed), Cerebrum 2007: Emerging ideas in brain science. (pp. 137–150). Washington, DC: Dana Press.

  • Tinbergen, N. and Perdeck, A.C. (1950). On the stimulus situation releasing the begging response in the newly hatched Herring Gull chick. (Larus argentatus argentatus.) Behavior, 3, 1–39.

  • Wells, D.L., McDonald, C.L., & Ringland, J.E. (2008). Color preferences in gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 122, 213–219.