In my story, humanity engages in World War III, ultimately bringing about their extinction. The irradiation of the ocean causes a mutation in an octopus (Enteroctopus Dofleini), enabling her to pass on knowledge to her offspring.

Over the course of thousands of years, the octopus gradually becomes the dominant species on the planet. Technologically they flourish. Starting with stone tools, their civilization progresses past modern-day human science. At the end of six thousand years, they create huge Generation Ships, take the species off the Earth, and disperse across the universe.

While designing their history on Earth, I noticed a cultural hole--the lack of art. Now, these octopuses have a narrow emotional spectrum--curiosity, fear, admiration and disgust. However, the need for stimulation, something to occupy themselves with, as well as the desire to capture scenes from their history, is to me sufficient basis for the development of artforms.

Literature, music, and sculpting I have covered. However, I'm having difficulty when it comes to painting, specifically the materials required to produce it. Assuming everything remains aquatic (the act of painting upon a surface, the materials that make up the paint, etc.), how can an octopus create the materials needed for painting underwater?

  • Octopuses will eventually venture onto land to gather materials, so assume for this question that this has not happened yet.
  • Assume that this is occurring fairly early on in their history. Their technology is still pretty simplistic.
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    $\begingroup$ (a) Your octopus already creates a type of ink naturally. (b) You might be thinking too literally about how people paint. Painting expresses everything from simple decorations (coloring a fence) to complex emotions (canvas art). However, in either case, a colorant is adhesed to a surface. Underwater, you're talking about pigments that are not water soluble - but most oil pigments aren't. Is this not a sufficient answer to your question? If not, can you clarify what you're looking for? Because "how can..." is very ambiguous. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ So you want them to have art, why does that art have to involve paint? .. so what's wrong with sculpting, statues, Japanese pebble gardens, carving, etching or any of the very many other options and mediums that exist and have been used for artistic expression besides painting? .. mosaics made of small bits of coloured stone or tile work just fine underwater, you don't 'need' paint so why are you hung up on it? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ You know how they can have complex chemistry, astrology, metallurgy etc,. underwater but not how to make a crayon? $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ Can they learn molting? $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 6:55
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't how your particular octopus does anything down to you alone? If not, who else comes into this? Fairly clearly, octopus ink alone will not be stable, under water or anywhere else. So what? Is our octopus limited to natural ink, or not? If not, what limits your imagination? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 18:49

6 Answers 6


Frame Challenge - Not because there's anything wrong with the question, but I think there's an interesting answer

The Octupi specifically don't do permanent Art as it conflicts with their culture, which believes that Permanence is to be avoided and that it was a key cause of the downfall of Humanity.

As Ocean dwelling creatures - their entire culture is built on the understanding that everything changes - the Tides change, the winds change, The Ocean changes Even the Octopi itself, it's colours, changes - Nothing is ever as it once was.

Then, couple that with when they started to explore the remains of Human civilization - they believe that Humanities attachment to 'trying to keep things as they are' was a fundamental reason for their downfall and subsequent annihilation.

And so when they create Art, they do so knowing that the Ink underwater will never dry and that tomorrow it might be washed away or swirled into something anew.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer. I think the OP is trying to humanize the octopi when, in reality, they would develop a completely different aesthetic. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ Why are chameleons known for their color change? Cephalopods are far better, many also can change texture in under a second. Chameleons should instead be renowned for their tongues. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 4:06
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    $\begingroup$ Art is too permanent, but heavy industry isn’t? I’m dubious. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielB - Good point - I would like to think that such a society would use temporary type structures that can be disassembled and rebuilt as needed - kinda like a more complex version of Lego. Or... For bonus story points - have that as an internal struggle of Cephalopod society - The old against the new. Industry vs Nature. Return to Monke etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ All of the answers have been really helpful. Though my question was geared more towards how paintings could be produced (not the cultural significance), this answer fits my story the best. The octopuses discover that stagnation, both culturally, biologically and technologically is dangerous and should usually be avoided. This would make any permanent pieces of art more important to the story, but I can definitely envision most art going with the flow of temporalness. Thanks for the suggestion! $\endgroup$
    – Wyvern123
    Commented Dec 31, 2023 at 3:31

Octopuses do not paint as humans do. Instead they arrange colored pebbles or (where the water is very still) sand. Octopus art is meant to be observed at a distance. It is possible that they may be able to dye things in their ventures on land and bring them underwater for this purpose.

Alternatively, they could favor sculpture instead. Possibly even tactile sculpture, which is not unknown among humans, but has distinct advantages for a species often lacking in light.

  • $\begingroup$ My knee-jerk answer was that they don't "paint" so much as make semi-flat collages. For that matter, "painting" (at least when we're talking about Monet and canvas, not Sawyer and fence posts) is roughly a very specific sort of collage. Adhesives can make things more permanent, but I approve of the echoes of TheDemonLord's frame challenge. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 19:44

There are lots of things under the sea that both (1) have and maintain color and (2) can be made into a fine powder or fluid. So, assuming "fairly early on in their history" is at least equivalent to human cavemen and "Their technology is still pretty simplistic." includes being able to turn things into powders, then this is no problem.

There are also various viscous fluids in oceanic nature that can act as a medium for painting under water (mucus and oils from various animals, then eventually petrochemicals just like on land). So, "mixing colored powdered into egg whites" on land becomes "mixing colored powders into whatever slime hold clumps of fish eggs together" ... this is also an easy analogous activity.

There are plenty of hair-like things from sea plants and animals that would make for good brushes...especially if they are kept wet (even if they would get too stiff when they dry out). But the earliest paintings were done with hands...and octopi have those in abundance.

So, smearing colored mucus onto a rock with tentacles would be their equivalent to cave paintings.

The painting techniques could progress analogously to humans' with their technology level if you want them to. I mean, I assume they eventually make something akin to paper and/or canvas from seaweed or animal skins or whatever.

A bigger challenge is thinking about what are they using for light (instead of fire). One option is only painting near the surface, but more likely your octopi civilization is harnessing some kind of bio-luminescence, right? Until they figure out the advanced technology, the naturally occurring stuff is usually blue-green (I think), so that's going to have a huge effect on the perceptions of colors. Fire has a similar problem (being strongly orange-red) and many surviving cave paintings are in caves deep enough that no sunlight will reach them; so, again, this is not a problem for the earliest paintings which will just be like single color stick figures anyway. But between the primitive and advanced (electric light) stages, there is going to be a big difference is natural light availability and quality.

Mosaics using colored rocks and shells and stuff (instead of ceramic tiles) would also be a natural low-tech visual art-form under the sea.


Some pigments used by ancient civilizations came from aquatic creatures. The best example is Tyrian purple, which you obtain by butchering sea snails.

So octopi can get purple from snails, and black from their own a... I mean, syphon organ. The blood of some crabs is blue and many other creatures have red blood. You might be able to get some yellow from corals, and algae can be used for green.

In time the octopi would figure these out just the same way humans did, through the FAFO method (Frolick Around and Find Out).


Oil on canvas is pretty much a viable approach underwater, once these creatures develop the necessary technologies.

Variations like oil on stone are even easier.

The key is extracting oil from the sea fauna, something a sapient creatures will have early on. The pigments extractable with oil will be quick to get discovered.

And I think that you miss an important art form for an octopus - the dance.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the problem of painting underwater has already been solved by human dive-painters and the solution is the same proposed here: oil based paint. youtube.com/watch?v=uv8UAQT7YuU $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Pere looks like someone invented the idea before I did, thank you for the search $\endgroup$
    – fraxinus
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 17:27

With coloured or textured sand and other raw materials

Various aquatic creatures cover themselves with debris. Caddis fly larvae for example will cover themselves with sand, soil and gravel. Gerald Durrell recounted in one of his books that as a kid he caught some caddis fly larvae, scrubbed them clean, and put them in tanks with different coloured sand to get red, white and blue striped larvae. He did say the stripes weren't that even, but then the achievement was getting them to do it at all.

Many sea creatures have sticky secretions which set underwater, so there's no problem with raw materials. The octopi may not produce it themselves, but then we don't produce paint from our bodies either.

Their artwork could be more like mosaics, at least initially. But it doesn't take much technology to grind vegetable matter finer, or locate fine sand.


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