Sunday, March 16, 2008

Gorilla Portraits

If you want to draw portraits of great apes, you have to approach them in the proper way. You can’t just march up to a great ape enclosure and start staring at them, or they’ll get all shy and disgusted and turn their back on you, because staring is a threat to them.

Yesterday we went to the North Carolina Zoo, the third largest zoo in the U.S.A. We got there early in the day when the gorillas were just waking up.

I remembered something I learned in my primate social behavior class. I approached the glass with a submissive posture, looking down at the ground and backing up with my hand out.

The gorilla loved it. She had never seen a human act like a polite ape before. She came right up to the glass and posed for me while I did this half-hour portrait from just two feet away. It was like sketching someone on a subway. I tried to just glance at her discreetly out of the corner of my eye.

I tried the same approach on the chimpanzee, an wild-born 33-year-old male named “H.N.”

He watched me draw with tremendous interest.

Every ten minutes or so he wanted me to show him how I was coming along on the sketch.


Victor said...

Those sketches are awesome. Making that interspecies connection must have been amazing.

jeff said...

This is great, I love that you know their behavior and that the apes respond in such a positive way.

The chimp's interaction is priceless.

ricardo said...

Oh, man... this is so great.
And yeah, like jeff said, your interaction with them was just fantastic.

Erik Bongers said...

I wonder what they were thinking as they watched you draw them and as you showed them the result.
Did they understand what you were doing ? I thought that primates recognize themselves in mirrors, so what about drawings ?

Is this a new carreer opportunity ?
Would these customers be willing to pay with bananas for a 20 minute portrait ?

Jennifer Rose said...

That is really amazing that you were able to sketch so close to the gorilla and I have to remember to act the same way when I get the chance to draw gorillas to see if I can get as close. It would be interesting to find out like erik said if primates would recognise themselves in drawings.

James Gurney said...

Erik, good question: I really don't know if the chimp recognized himself in the sketch. I suspect not. Drawing is such an abstraction.

But both the gorilla and the chimp were keenly interested in the fact that I was making marks on paper, and they seemed especially observant--in their nonchalant way--of my pencil sharpener, maybe because it was such a novelty.

Koko and other gorillas who have been studied clearly recognize themselves in photographs and in mirrors, and many retired trained chimps pass the time by painting semi-objective images.

In this case the keeper in the zoo told me they really don't work with the animals here any more than they need to to administer medicines and that sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

Holy cow that is so cool, what an awesome way to start my day. First, I had no idea our NC Zoo was that big, we live in Charlotte and have never stopped by there --- where is it?? Raleigh?

Anyway, thanks for this post, I came away from it with a HUGE grin and great feeling. How wonderful it must have been to make those connections. Excellent drawings by the way! :)

Laurel Neustadter said...

This is a wonderful post! It made me feel good and smile. The drawings,photographs, and prose are all great.

Anonymous said...

That's great! :)

Did you hear about the dolphin in New Zeland who rescued two beached whales?

Unknown said...

Fantastic sketches and a great post. It really made me smile.

Kim said...

I'll have to remember that next time I'm at our local zoo. Last time I got some great gestures of a chimp mother playing with her baby. I didn't want to intrude on them, so I kept my distance and sketched from a bench a couple yards away.

They didn't seem to mind when I sketched, but as soon as I pulled my camera out, mother shooed her baby away into their hiding place. I assume they've learned where all those annoying flashes come from and didn't want anything to do with it.

Chuster said...

Great post. I must tell you how much I enjoy your blog. Wonderful work and very generous with your knowledge. Thank you!

Brine Blank said...

That's pretty great you were able to do that...if you ever get by the Columbus Ohio area the Columbus Zoo has pretty sharp exhibits with differing members of the ape crew (plus some other new builds that allow for indoor drawing opportunities...the new fox-bat exhibit is where I am looking forward to some sketch-time...) the problem has been for me each time I've went that the people haven't always been so cordial...slapping the glass or running in front of the windows to get reactions while the zoo keepers try to educate the patrons on proper behavior of not slapping or 'staring down' the animals...I'm hoping this coming spring break might allow for some time to hit it with a low traffic turnout...

Dan Gurney said...


Great post! I love the way you use art as a way to open up the world and see beyond the surface. Yesterday I started a book, "Your Brain on Music" that talks about the many similarities between artists and scientists in their approach to work. I immediately thought of you.

You said: "Koko and other gorillas who have been studied clearly recognize themselves in photographs and in mirrors, and many retired trained chimps pass the time by painting semi-objective images."

That makes me wonder if you can direct us to any websites where their paintings can be seen. I wonder if they look anything like children's art.

Anonymous said...

Here's a fun page about animals painting (including Koko and another gorilla):

Erika Baird said...

I've been an avid watcher of this blog for quite some time (usually commenting as Starhorse, when I have something to say that hasn't been said already) and I have to say, this has been one of my favorite posts so far. I've gotten priceless hints on color, composition, painting...many of which have helped me in my schoolwork. But this one is just so simple and...honest? Kind of struck a chord in me I guess as one of those more beautiful moments as an artist.


The Paint Studio & Gallery said...

Great sketches, what fun drawing him from real life, I bet he knew he was the subject and was just laughing it up with his friends see you peeking at him now an then.
Love the art cones also, great idea. I have thought of using yellow crime "art" scene tape also. Great Blog

Leslie Sealey said...

What a great post, I really enjoy reading your blog.

Unknown said...

I love the picture of you showing the chimpanzee your sketchbook. That, to me, is the definition of art: expression that spans all divides.

Anonymous said...

Hey - Any of them ol' boys play the banjo half way decent?

Anonymous said...

I loved your post, even went back to it a few times to read it again. I have one question though, who took the photos? Did they approach in the same way and did the ape/chimp react to the photographer?

I will be visiting some goats this weekend. Any tips on getting them to pose?

Thanks for a great blog!

James Gurney said...

Kathy: My wife Jeanette took the photos. She hung back a bit and used telephoto with the flash off. I love sketching goats, and goat owners tell me that they don't really want to eat your sketchbook, just taste it. If you figure out how to get them to pose, let me know.

Hey, Swampwater! I'll never forget your performance of Brown-Eyed Girl. The crowd went ape over it!

Lizzie: You probably know already that the zoo is in Asheboro, east of Charlotte. I added the link in the post.

Cat: thanks for that fascinating link. I remember there was another one about a gorilla rescuing a toddler that fell into a zoo enclosure.

Dan, There is a whole gallery of paintings by the gorillas Koko and Michael at Even though the images look gestural and abstract to our eyes, apparently they were all representational to the gorillas, who titled them with the names of the people and animals they were portraying. Koko usually worked from memory. She was very deliberate in her color choice and strokes. She even painted a self-portrait!

There are also websites showing the paintings of Ruby the Elephant at the Phoenix Zoo.

Thanks to everyone else for you kind comments, which really mean a lot to me.

Anonymous said...

Yet another fascinating Gurney Journey, I had to pass on this story to all artists I know. I will concur with everyone that this has been one of the best posts thus far. A true artist can reach everyone with his craft -makes me wonder if the animals get lonely and if they enjoy the interaction. It is somewhat different to flashes and staring. It'll make me think differently about the inhabitants of the zoo the next time I'm there. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Great post. The comments about whether or not the other primates recognize themselves in the drawings are interesting. I will say that I am consistently amazed by how early on in their development my nephews started recognizing faces of people in photos. Maybe abstraction comes easier than we know? At the National Zoo in DC there is an ongoing experiment with the orangutans to see if they can use abstract symbols as a sort of language. It was fascinating to watch the huge male orang use the touch-screen computers as he participated--I think of him every time I operate an ATM!

Anonymous said...

Your behavioral tips will come in really handy. Last time I was at the San Diego Zoo trying to sketch a gorilla, he jumped at the glass and then after disappearing for several moments returned and threw a handful of crap at me that splattered all over the glass right in front of my face. Everyone's a critic! I found the sleeping lion a much more cooperative subject! LOL

Anonymous said...

Thanks, this is brilliant advice. Why should approaching an animal in a zoo be any different than approaching that same animal in the wild? Obvious when you think about it, but it never would have occurred to me!

Lindsay said...

I'm so enjoying both your site and your brothers. I love both your sensitivity to all your subjects and the thoughtful way you present your posts. I'm also learning a lot.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Lindsay, my big brother Dan (Mr. Kindergarten) is a big inspiration to me, and was the guy who got me started drawing in second grade.

Joe: I forgot to mention in the post that the glass in front of the chimpanzee enclosure had a huge crack in it. A guard explained that it had been hit by a rock: "If they can find something to throw, they throw it," he said.

poggy said...


I can't believe I found out about this blog so late! I love it to pieces - it's not just resourceful, it's also very entertaining ;-)

Anyway - that chimp is awesome.

Fabian Göranson said...

Very interesting. So are you supposed to approach them with your back and hands towards them?

Made me think of writer/artist Desmond Morris.
He wrote The Naked Ape analyzing human behavior with zoologist methods and is also a collector of primate art.

Keeper Jesue said...

Mr. Gurney,

I am a gorilla keeper at the NC Zoo and that is an amazing sketch of our 40 year old female Donna. She is very interested in people, especially children, but I'm glad she spent time with you. Do you have any copies of that picture? Please let me know!


Aaron Jesue
Gorilla Keeper
NC Zoo

James Gurney said...

Aaron, it's so cool to hear from the keeper. Sorry I mixed up Donna's gender. Please email me your mailing address (jgurneyart (at) and I'd be glad to send you a photocopy of the sketch.

Everyone should check out his Aaron's blog about working with the gorillas at the NC Zoo.

Mikey said...

Awesome stuff, James!
I noticed a similar principle in action while sketching dolphins.

I used to work at Sea World (Orlando) and I enjoyed spending the early mornings - before the park opened - sketching in the dolphin underwater viewing.
I decided that the best way to approach this was to adopt a passive role, to observe, not to try to interact. Plus, it helped me to focus on the task at hand and not get sidetracked.

At first the dolphins found it strange that a human was just sitting there, watching them and scratching away on something, but not trying to interact, not vying for their attention.

Some of the animals - particularly the younger dolphins - were curious, and would come to see what I was doing. Some of them became regular visitors and would come up to check out what I was doing. They found the drawings curious, I'm not sure whether they recognized the subject matter.

Eventually, they became used to my presence, and I was able to observe their more innate behaviors and movements, and to begin to see differences between the individual dolphins.

I look back with gratitude for the wonderful opportunity to observe them in this manner.

One Woman's Thoughts said...

I don't even know where to begin . . . first congratulations on being a blogger of note, and my compliments on your beautiful, educational and intriging blogsite. Fantastic. I have enjoyed the creative process you share and am most fascinated by the section in regards to animals, especially on the chimps. I am looking forward to repeated returns. Bravo and best wishes!


James Gurney said...

Thanks, OWT! This was a rare encounter, and I'm glad I remembered my sketchbook. I'm always amazed at the sagacity of animals. I'm glad you took the time to visit earlier posts.

Juliette Wade said...

This is wonderful, Mr. Gurney. Just the kind of thing that fascinates me, as a linguist-anthropologist turned science fiction writer. I may use this as inspiration for alien behavior in one of my stories for Analog magazine in the future - who knows? I've passed the link along to the followers of my blog, who will also love the post.

nuum said...


This is, by far, the best post I´ve ever seen in an Art site.

Simply wonderful.

What about an animal sketchbook ?

Your book (The Artist´s Guide to sketching) is one of my reference in sketching and drawing.

I Love your approach.
Yours is the first site I open in the morning

Keep up this beautiful work.

God bless you and your family.

Rio de Janeiro - Brazil

Dr. Lucy said...

A friend of mine sent me your blog - not sure how she found it...but she knows of my love of animals and art, that I am teaching a course on primate behavior, and also and that there is a story in my book about a chimpanzee, Hondo, that lives at the NC Zoo. It sheds some additional light on how these amazing animals interact with their human caretakers, and about how much they do, or don't, understand about our intentions. The book is, The Rhino with Glue-on Shoes - see http://www.rhinowithglueonshoes or The story about Hondo by Dr. Barb Wolf is excerpted here on line: Great blog! ~Lucy

Harold Fowler said...

Dude, thats like totally insanse!


Daniel Silberberg said...

That is just delightful. Now I can't wait to go to the zoo!

James Gurney said...

Thanks for all your interesting comments, Daniel, and have fun looking through the blog!

Unknown said...

Just plain awesome! The drawings, the attitude you took towards those animals in captivity and the feeling that the post obviously has on people. :) Awesome!

Anonymous said...

This is great! Saw this from your link on your 2500th post (congrats by the way!), it's so cool that someone else knows ape etiquette! I went to a summer camp at my zoo and learned the do's and don'ts of interacting with them, they're amazing creatures and these are some amazing sketches!

Warren JB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Warren JB said...

Apologies for commenting on a 6-year-old blog entry, but I followed a few links here and greatly enjoyed reading about your experience and advice here. (Not to mention seeing the results from your sketchbook) It reminds me of when I sketched chimps at the Belfast Zoo recently - one of the youngsters came up and peered through the glass, intensely curious about the the contents of my pencil tin. And there was a similar connection some time before... with a blue-eyed cockatoo! It also came up to the glass to watch me as I sketched it. I showed it the results afterwards and it's crest went skyward - I still don't know if it was praise or criticism!

(I enjoyed your latest Station Points article about sketching animals, by the way. Looking forward to the next issue of International Artist to see part two.)

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Warren. I wonder if animals have a universal fascination with drawing. Or at least crows, parrots, and apes.