The "painting" ape is a well-known image that originated as early as the 17th century through such paintings as The Monkey Painter by the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger. During this period, the trope was used as a statement directed against the art circus, criticizing the status of the artist in society. It was in the early 20th century that people like Nadeschda Kohts started to cross-foster apes - mostly chimpanzees - and human infants in order to evaluate the common capabilities of the evolutionarily close species. This process is still going on and the border that so powerfully separates the two creatures has been changing constantly.

Inherent Crossing investigates the self-motivated handling of painting implements in order to search for possible pre-graphic behavior among the chimpanzees of the Walter Zoo Gossau. We're researching a potential crossing of the border between the playful, motoric gesture of leaving a trace and a conscious, formal expression. We question whether chimpanzees can develop the self-motivated intent that leads to pre-graphic manifestations. A pre-graphic expression can be defined as an intended application of paint on a flat surface. Such an application of color is guided by visual observation and inspection and subsequently motivates new brush strokes that relate to the previous application.

The project doesn't just look at the outcome itself, but rather at the production process and the framework underlying them. Thus, it is important to integrate the roles and relationships of all the involved beings - including the instructors. The social framework and the individuality of each chimpanzee are decisive factors influencing the space for contemplation necessary to handle brushes, paints and a painting surface.


The group of sixteen chimpanzees consists of individuals who have been socialized among other chimpanzees. There are two individuals, Blacky and Brigitte, who were hand-raised and lived the first years of their lives with humans. At the beginning of our research, there were two adult males, Cess and Digit, seven adult females, Balima, Blacky, Brigitte, Chicca, Elisha, Fanny and Tzippi, three adolescent males, Madschabu, Malik and Mojo, one female infant, Oseye, and three male infants, Pembeele, Petiri and Pili. The youngest chimpanzees were three years old and the eldest 56 years of age.

The makeup of the group is particularly outstanding, as the great range of ages results in very active social dynamics, both in terms of hierarchical negotiations as well as shifting social alliances. This is crucial for our research, as we're looking at the self-motivation for handling the painting implements in a socially intact group. Our research therefore distinguishes itself from earlier investigations made with isolated chimpanzees that had been socialized exclusively with humans.


Over a period of twenty months, starting in September 2013, we held weekly sessions with the sixteen chimpanzees of the Walter Zoo Gossau. The sessions were recorded with different video cameras and took place in the corridor connecting the inner and outer compounds.

The sixteen chimpanzees were provided with edible paints, brushes and a painting surface during the weekly sessions, based on the understanding that this was an offer for them to interact with these materials. The chimpanzees were free to leave or to stay within the setting. We didn't isolate any individuals, nor did we offer food rewards for their participation.


We came to understand the group of chimpanzees living in the Walter Zoo Gossau as a specific and unique constellation of individuals. In the process of our research, we realized that we cannot make conclusions about chimpanzees in general. We also noticed that the humans interacting with the chimpanzees decisively altered the context. Behaviors changed based on emotional factors such as sympathy and antipathy, as well as the shared history of that particular human with that particular chimpanzee. The outcome would have surely been different if the constellation had been different - i.e., if other people carried out the sessions, or there were different chimpanzees in the group.

Only some of the individuals in the group showed an interest in our sessions. The ones that participated repeatedly cannot be classified by gender or age.

The interest in interacting with paints, brushes and the painting surface is primarily dependent upon the individual. Environmental factors such as the weather, the current season, the persons present in the enclosures as well as emotional factors such as the daily mood of the individual and the mood of the group as a whole, hierarchical shifts within the group and, additionally, hormonal factors such as the menstrual cycles of the adult females and the adolescence of some of the chimpanzees also played a crucial role in our evaluation.

In the beginning, we attached a sheet of paper to a specially built wooden structure that was meant to stand in the corridor and let us stay in the background. The structure was supposed to allow us to observe from a distance how the chimpanzees would start to smear and stroke the paint onto the attached paper. The mindset of seeing the chimpanzee as an almost human-like being who would use the paints like humans do if we just gave them some time turned out to be narrowminded, if not arrogant. These chimpanzees had never seen paints or brushes and are used to tearing paper into pieces as a playful activity.

After three months, we changed from the wooden structure to handy wooden boards that allowed us to interact with the chimpanzees individually. We also started to instruct them in the use of the provided materials. The basic instruction consisted of showing them that they can apply paint with a brush onto a surface and that this would leave a trace of color. This was done through the enclosure grid but only to a limited extent because of the close mesh separating us. Not every chimpanzee needed a demonstration in the end. Of course, it is important to mention that after the first individuals started to participate, the others were able to copy their behavior.

After four months, a female chimpanzee named Blacky started to apply the paint onto the painting surface. In the end, there were five main participants: Blacky, Chicca, Elisha, Madschabu and Pili.

Only Blacky showed differentiated interaction with the provided materials. The others didn't really start to differentiate their handling of the materials and instead stayed in a state of a playful examination throughout. Amongst other evidence, this state of mind revealed itself in the manifestations of motoric-based traces with the paint on the surface like stroking a circle with the radius of an arm on the wall.

There are several actions performed by Blacky that showed evidence of an intentional approach:

● She started to hold the brush more practically for the controlled stroking of the paint on the surface.

● She started to relate the different color applications to each other, for example, by applying one color beside the other or applying it on top of an already produced color application.

● She started to produce closed color fields on the paper by filling in the white gaps that were left during the stroking process.

● She let the liquid paint drop from the brush onto the paper while observing what was happening. She then continued stroking with the dropped paint on the sheet of paper.

● Finally, she repeatedly laid the brush down and pushed the wooden board towards us and started stroking on a new sheet of paper.

Unfortunately, Blacky died in November 2014. After her death, the interest in participation within the group slowly diminished. In the final sessions, most of the chimpanzees just passed by our setting and didn't even look at us. Their interest in interacting with paint, brushes and a painting surface didn't seem to trigger an urge to develop those skills as it does in human infants. Nonetheless, as Blacky's involvement shows, it can be concluded that some chimpanzees are able to develop the skills for pre-graphic expression. However, it is also important to state that Blacky was hand-raised by humans before moving to the Walter Zoo in 1968. We don't know whether she gained previous experiences with paint, brushes and paper. In any case, these experiences would have dated back 45 years. In addition, Brigitte, the other chimpanzee who was hand-raised by humans, didn't participate in the paint stroking at all, although she showed a lot of behavior that was taught by humans, such as tying the shoes of the caregivers, wiping the floor, etc.

In our research, for some individuals, the first stroke with paint on a sheet of paper indeed triggered - at least in the beginning - a self-motivated repetition of that action. For one of those individuals, the fascination led to a differentiated handling of the tools in use as well as a development toward a pre-graphic way of applying the paint to the paper. Yet this kind of expression only happened within a framework that allowed us to interact with each participant on an individual level and work with intuitive and emotional feedbacks that were mostly based on personal experiences with those specific individuals.

To be aware of the consequences of a brush stroke on a surface is not a matter of course, but it is essential to the handling of painting implements in a way that leads to pre-graphic expression. We observed that most of the individuals we worked with did not demonstrate attention towards the action of leaving a trace of paint on a surface. Some chimpanzees left traces of paint, but didn't look at the consequences of their actions. This lack of attentiveness has to do with both the general interest of that particular chimpanzee in the action itself and the interfering distractions around that individual.

Applying paints onto a surface with the intention of creating a specific visual incident on that surface is an indispensable step towards a formal conception. Such an intentional approach can be identified by actions of repetition, alternation and variation: For example, Blacky repeatedly produced closed color fields or alternated the way she was reacting to already produced color fields by over-stroking them or by stroking right beside them. Most of the participants reacted to already produced color fields in some way, but it was only Blacky who started to differentiate her color applications by varying, alternating and repeating certain pattern of actions as described above.

The necessary concentration on the painting implements, which enables an individual to create an intended expression with them, requires a mental state that allows the individual to concentrate fully and, furthermore, to isolate herself or himself from surrounding distractions. This state of contemplation is, on the one hand, dependent on the self-motivated involvement of the individual and, correspondingly, on the self-gratification of the action of stroking paint on a surface. On the other hand, that state of contemplation is highly reliant on the way the surrounding distractions affect the individual.

Our research led to the conclusion that the emergence of a graphical expression in chimpanzees has less to do with their physical and mental capability than with contemplation. Chimpanzees are motorically more skillful than human infants of the same age with regard to their physical ability to control instruments with their hands and fingers. And as we have seen in Blacky's actions, there are peculiar chimpanzees who are mentally able or willing to relate their color applications to already produced applications made by themselves through a visually guided intention. Yet Blacky only produced those conscious formal expressions in a certain setting that allowed her to concentrate fully. The interest in getting involved with paint, brushes and a surface is therefore not only dependent on the specific individual's interest and skills but, crucially, on the space around that individual.

We understand now that the constellation of attention, intention and contemplation is essential to a crossing of the border between a playful handling of the materials towards the creation of a pre-graphic expression. This makes any methodological evaluation more intricate, however, because the sphere between attention, intention and contemplation is rather fluid and inscrutable. To define this sphere or space is difficult, because these mental states are permanently affecting each other and, at the same time, they are by definition delicate and ephemeral.


● A regular participation in handling paper, paints and brushes depends on the individual as such, on the individual's relationship to the caregiving human and on the basic instruction given on how to apply colors to a sheet of paper.

● Against this background, five out of the sixteen chimpanzees have shown an interest in handling paper, colors and brushes on a regular, self-motivated basis.

● Four of these five chimpanzees have shown an uneven interest. Only one of them, the female chimpanzee named Blacky, showed a constant level of interest in producing differentiated manifestations.

● Based on Blacky's manifestations, the question arises of whether her productions show approaches toward a formal, pre-graphic differentiation. In particular, we witnessed adjustments in her way of holding the brush while applying the colors, a continuous reference to the application of paint on already existing color fields and simple graphical arrangements such as side-by-side or intertwining applications.

● In our research with the chimpanzees of the Walter Zoo Gossau, we have not been able to observe a graphical differentiation, as it is known from research investigating the early manifestations of human children. However, we did observe the potential of a basic differentiation in one chimpanzee out of 16 individuals.

● We observed that a mental state of contemplation is necessary for developing attention to the painting implements in a way that allows the individual to differentiate her or his actions toward an intended, pre-graphic expression. The contemplation itself is dependent on the individual's interest in the action of stroking paint as well as on the influences of the surrounding environment.

monkey painter

The Monkey Painter
Oil on panel, 24 x 32 cm
David Teniers the Younger
Ca. 1660

setting final 01

Illustration of the setting at the Walter Zoo Gossau

painting implements

Painting implements

The wooden structure we used at the beginning

Instruction of the chimpanzees

manifestation by chimpanzee 01

Manifestations on a sheet of paper by chimpanzee (before and after Blacky's death)

Pembeele smears paint on the floor (12 September 2014)

motoric gestures

Examples of motorically motivated gestures

Brigitte applies the white paint on her hands and arms (26 March 2015)

Differentiated handling of the brush by Blacky (24 March 2014)

closed color field

Blacky strokes a closed color field (140211 #Blacky #3)


Thierry Lenain, Monkey Painting, 1997