What Are They Thinking?

Characteristic facial expressions, postures, and movements are the key to an understanding of animal psychology and the soul of animal art.

elephant illustration by Charles R. Knight
The elephant is the only mammal that can really be said to kneel when reclining. His true knee joint, the first below the hip, touches the ground while his very short hind foot sticks straight out behind.

Peculiarities of the elephant

For some reason, the elephant although much used in the art of certain countries is seldom represented with a true knowledge of its real characters. The tusks themselves are very difficult to draw, and their proper position and growth in the head of the pachyderm will require close observation. They are usually and absurdly indicated as growing from the lower instead of the upper jaw. As a matter of fact, the tusks are merely very much elongated and specialized upper incisor teeth, growing downward on either side of the trunk from a point in front of the eye-sockets. Also their shape and manner of growth is most peculiar as they turn in a sort of cork-screw fashion throughout their entire length. First down and out then up and in—a very subtle twisting form difficult to understand and portray.

Psychologically the elephant is, of course, a most interesting animal, big but intelligent, easily trained and with a most extraordinary command of its huge and ungainly body. The flexible and unique trunk is its most distinguishing feature, but mentally and physically it is unlike any other animal now living. The gait is peculiar—a swift shambling walk or amble, the foot-falls being very close together and well under the body. All in all a majestic and impressive creature—one of the strangest and much the largest of all the land-mammals of our time. In this huge and massive brute we see to perfection the superior intelligence which so successfully controls the massive body, the marvelous proboscis with its powerful and well directed mechanism, the gigantic form and the great post-like legs executing under direction seemingly impossible feats of skill—all requiring balance, strength and brains to a surprising degree. Thus we might proceed indefinitely in our survey of the life about us for with increasing knowledge a fresh vista of interesting phenomena opens out—intriguing, fascinating and highly instructive in every way.

lioness illustration by Charles R. Knight
Attention and a trace of anxiety are shown in the lioness at the left. This attitude may instantly change to one of rage, with ears back and fangs bared.

I have tried to show that at least a superficial knowledge of psychology, anatomy and behavorism are all part and parcel of a must-be-acquired equipment which should he carried along on your life adventure in this rather strenuous field of endeavor. Even our own behavior is made up of so many attributes that we fail to realize the infinite complexity of every movement or analyze the brain stimuli which produce an emotional response. So it is with the whole world of animate creation—mind and body being inextricably mingled to create the thing we call a living creature. How very important it is, therefore, to make an intense and careful study of all the different factors that enter into the make-up of the particular animals we may wish to portray. Without a fair amount of knowledge on the subject our work will be sadly lacking in character, wishy-washy and devoid of interest both to ourselves and to the world in general.

All art work should be undertaken as a joy and a pleasure, not as mere drudgery but as something very absorbing, extremely interesting and remunerative, at any rate esthetically if not in a practical way. To explore even a few of these mysteries from whatever point of view most appeals will surely demonstrate very convincingly the joy of deeper understanding of Nature’s story—a bit of truth and knowledge that we may call our own.

Related links:

The World of Charles R. Knight

Selections from "Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Cavemen: The Art of Charles Knight"—a changing exhibition that toured U.S. and Canadian museums for seven years.



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