Volume I, Number 6, Spring/Summer 2006


© Copyright 2005


Orangutans as Artists


Orangutan art big in Austria

. . An Austrian zoo says it has been flooded with requests for paintings created by its orangutan.
. . Schoenbrunn Zoo in Vienna said staff thought it a joke when people started calling up offering large amounts of money for Nonja's paintings.
. . Demand for Nonja's artworks come after the sale of three pictures by a chimp at a London auction for £14,400.
. . Schoenbrunn Zoo had its first painting ape in the early 1950s when Johnny the chimpanzee, who died in 1992, was given a set of paints.
. . After his death Nonja inherited his paints and carried on the good work, in spite of a boyfriend called Vladimir who eats her artwork if not locked away in his cage.
. . Keepers believe Vladimir, who tried painting himself but kept making holes on the canvas, is jealous of his girlfriend's success.

Fun for Apes: Art Is Not Essential
By Mag. Claudia Kment, Schönbrunner Tiergarten, Vienna, Austria
Volume 3, No. 2 May 1994

. . Apes were introduced to paint during the 1950s and 60s, in Europe as well as in America. Frequently, the main point was to gather physiological data, such as color recognition and preference, or to define aesthetic principles. Today at the Schönbrunner Tiergarten, we have a new motive: the pleasure the animals may derive from painting and the occupational possibilities of the activity are now considered important aspects. Our ape artists-a male chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) named Jonny, who died in 1992, a female orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) named Nonja, and a male orangutan named Vladimer-have produced drawings that can be compared to that of two- to three-year-old children in the "scribble stage." Their efforts cannot be perceived as art in a traditional way, but the apes seem to enjoy both the motion and the playful use of the painting tools.
. . I found the first reports on ape paintings at the Schönbrunner Zoo in our zoo records from the years 1956 to 1958. Jonny, who was 10 years old in 1956, was already painting at that time. It was characteristic for him to draw with a pencil, producing very fine, thin wavy lines on the paper. He had a special liking for these markings. He also used chalk, preferring the color red. Thick cardboard was used as drawing paper.
. . In 1991, Jonny was offered soft red and gray pencils as well as blue oily chalks and white paper, sized 30 x 21 centimeters. Jonny accepted the painting tools and carried them to his sleeping place, where he started to paint. He laid down on his belly and elbow or on his side with the left arm under his head. The average time that our apes will paint is about 20 minutes. Jonny, however, would usually paint an hour or more, with short interruptions where he played with the paper without destroying it and added details to the picture again and again.
. . When he considered his painting finished, he returned it, together with the pencils. Jonny accepted the painting tools whenever they were offered, drawing different amounts of wavy lines on each occasion. Jonny was not enthusiastic about paintbrushes and colors, maybe because the wavy lines he favored could not be produced with them.

Nonja - Untitled

. . Our orangutan, Nonja, prefers to paint in the morning between 7:00 and 9:00, when she is thoroughly awake and no visitors are in the zoo. Periods of time before and immediately after feeding are not advantageous, and she is also deterred by the presence of unknown people and certain times in her oestrous cycle. The presence of Nonja's keeper is essential while she paints.
. . She was offered paper of various sizes, including circular paper. Nonja definitely prefers paper of large sizes, such as 120 x 86 centimeters. The paper is put before Nonja on the floor or on an elevated board where she likes to sit. Nonja paints an average of 30 minutes, but she can be stimulated to carry on if the paper is put on the wall with adhesive tape or if one of us makes some spots on the paper. Then she concentrates especially on these spots and paints over them.
. . When Nonja chooses the paper herself, she shows no preference for any particular color. Once she even drew with a red-colored pen on red paper with the same tint, so that the markings were barely visible. The optical result did not seem too important to her. Nonja also uses the paintbrush over her head, behind her on the wall.
. . The painting tools we offer her are: a thick pencil, like those used by carpenters, which she can handle much better than a normal one; very thick nontoxic water-based markers in black, red, green, and blue (Nonja can be stimulated to continue to paint for an hour with the black marker after having finished with the other colors); and nontoxic food coloring in yellow, red, purple, pink, orange, green, and blue. These colors are dissolved in water and are offered to Nonja in yogurt cups. She chooses the color and dips a paintbrush into it. And she always tastes the colors.


. . Nonja also likes to mix colors. She pours all the fluids together until a poor-looking brown originates, with which she starts to paint. She also has a "spraying technique" of her own, whereby the color on the paintbrush is splashed on the paper through jerky movements of the wrist. Finally, Nonja pours all colors on the floor and distributes them with her hand. Then she rinses the cups under running water and dries the floor with a cloth.
. . Vladimir destroys his pencils immediately and rolls the pencil pieces over the paper. There is not any special pattern to recognize in his efforts.
. . We offer the opportunity to paint to both the orangutans at irregular intervals, two to three times a week, so that they don't expect the activity. They always willingly participate, and they seem to enjoy it very much.

Our ape artists produce drawings that can be compared to that of two- to three-year-old children in the "scribble stage." Their efforts cannot be perceived as art in a traditional way, but the apes seem to enjoy both the motion and the playful use of the painting tools.

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