The Primate Picasso: How to Teach Chimps to Paint

Brent, a 37-year-old chimpanzee at the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Louisiana, might not know it, but he has won $10,000 for a painting he made using his tongue in lieu of a brush.

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Brent, a 37-year-old chimpanzee at the Chimp Haven sanctuary in Louisiana, might not know it, but he has just won $10,000 for an original painting. That's a sample of his work above. He made it using his tongue in lieu of a brush—his preferred method of artistic expression.

As the Associated Press reports, Brent's rising profile in the art world is thanks to an online contest organized by the Humane Society of the United States. While it would be fun to point at the award-winning humans bested by this prodigious chimpanzee, the contest was in fact only open to chimps. Here's a quick look at just how you go about holding an art contest for apes.

Embrace stylistic innovation. As we've already said, Brent paints with his tongue. Others employ brushes or point to the colors they want to use. Past chimpanzees, such as the late Congo from the London Zoo, have been known to paint with their long arms. Congo eventually completed more than 400 paintings, which were praised by the likes of Salvador Dali and Picasso.

Hold on to the canvass. You can't give them too much artistic freedom. You just can't, okay? According to the New York Times, "the canvases that chimps paint on are generally held up to their cages while they work." Otherwise, the animals are liable to "throw it around and step on it."

Let the chimps decide when they are finished. Congo, the London Zoo chimp, apparently grew angry when rushed. According to Desmond Morris, a scientist who studied him, it was even worse when he was asked to continue work on a completed painting:

On the rare occasions when attempts were made to encourage him to continue working on a picture that he considered "finished," rather than on a new one, he lost his temper, whimpered, screamed, or, if actually persuaded to go on, proceeded to wreck the picture with meaningless or obliterative lines.

Get Jane Goodall involved. Because of course you should. In this contest, more than 27,000 people voted, but Goodall was also permitted to choose her favorite. It was by a chimpanzee in Florida named Cheetah; his painting came in second place in the vote and won an additional $5,000 due to Goodall's endorsement.

Don't expect any gratitude from the winner. Brent was unavailable for comment, according to AP. Said a spokesperson: "I think he's asleep."

Don't actually give the award money to the chimpanzees. It's not just that they wouldn't know what to do with it. It's that they're not in it for material rewards—they're in it for the creative outlet. When he was rewarded with a treat for painting, Congo reportedly seemed to lose interest in the work. In other words, chimps aren't capitalist pigs like you are. Which is why Brent's prize money is going to Chimp Haven.

Treat winners and losers alike with kindness. These chimps have been through a lot. Like his fellow Chimp Haven chimpanzees, Brent is a retired laboratory animal. Cheetah, the second-place winner, suffered 19 years of medical research, during which time he reportedly went through hundreds of liver biopsies. These animals have more than earned their retirements.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.