Sea Lions Make Art At The Oregon Coast Aquarium!

August 24, 2009

Original art has become a regular feature at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, with a new exhibit opening annually near the shark tunnel in the exhibit, Passages of the Deep. Recently, however, an unusual art form has found its way to the Aquarium and the artists are even more unique. Colorful paintings and flipper prints by artists Max and Lea, two California sea lions, have been published in the new book, “Fur in my Paint.” The book, featuring animals as artists, explores the art work of scorpions, lizards, gorillas, macaws, elephants, meerkats and sea lions among others.

When Jen DeGroot, Aquarium Marine Mammalogist, heard that author Tifane Grayce was looking for animal artists for her new book, DeGroot responded with excitement. “We had recently finished training Max and Lea to paint,” said DeGroot, “and we were happy to contribute to her project and feature our sea lions.” The art is a fundraising tool for animal care at the Aquarium. All proceeds from the sales go directly to a fund for animal husbandry at the Aquarium. DeGroot said the Aquarium gift shop sells an average of about 5 paintings a month.

“Fur in my Paint” author, Tifane Grayce was intrigued with the idea of a flipper print. “When Jen told me about the sea lion doing a flipper print, I had never heard of such an interesting technique.  What really had me snagged was the idea that each sea lion has a different flipper print, very akin to how we have different fingerprints.” Grayce said it was interesting to watch some of the more unexpected animals in the book, like the rattle snake brood. “They just moved through the paint, but with the sea lions you could really see the bonding between keeper/trainer and animal and in many cases you could see that animal really enjoying their effect on the canvas," said Grayce.

DeGroot, who is originally from Chicago, began her career at the Shedd Aquarium as a volunteer and intern, eventually receiving her B.S. in Marine Biology from Texas A&M University. “The moment the animal figures out what you are trying to train them to do is very exciting, and the most rewarding part of my job! I work with an excellent team of trainers that work well together to provide the best care possible for our marine mammals,” said DeGroot.

How do you train a sea lion to paint?  DeGroot says it’s mostly about the animal’s comfort level. “We use positive reinforcement to train the animals, and use a series of successive approximations, or steps. The animal is reinforced with fish and verbal praise throughout the process.” Flipper prints were trained by first desensitizing Lea to the various tools needed to paint.  Lea needed to be comfortable touching different things with her flipper like a towel for drying her flipper, a paint-covered sponge, and a rigid canvas.  Max and Lea were both also trained to paint with a paint brush.  This was accomplished by first training them to hold a paint brush (attached to pvc) in their mouths, then training them to touch it to a canvas, and then to move it around on the canvas. 

DeGroot says part of the appeal to this art is that people are amazed by the intelligence of these animals, how they can be trained to do so many behaviors. “Painting is one of 60 to 70 behaviors that Max and Lea know.  We hope that the paintings are just one way of capturing the visitors' attention, and draws them to learn more about the natural history and conservation of marine mammals,” said DeGroot. 

The sea lion paintings are for sale at the aquarium's gift shop, and come with a photo and fact sheet about the artist.  The book can be purchased online at