Can a robot create a painting?
I attend a monthly artist business group in Vancouver, when I told them about my idea of a painting robot the reaction was confusion “Why would I paint pictures of robots?”. I quickly learned to rephrase this idea: I actually meant that I wanted use a robot to do the action of painting.
I’ve had this idea for a long time, even more-so after taking a stone-cutting workshop with Vancouver artist Michael Binkley in 2015. I found out first-hand that tools required to break stone are very labor intensive and exhausting and create significant dust and noise. Finding a location is challenging as the noise created from stone cutting is not neighborly. It might sound romantic to have been neighbors in Florence to Michelangelo… but it probably was a nuisance! It made me wonder if the process could be automated – reducing the labor AND be done more remotely.
However.. before I have my dream R&D art lab away from civilization where I can make chips and create masterpieces… let alone afford a machine with the ability to cut stone, a desktop painting robot is a much quieter project I can take on in my small studio space.
Starting with existing technology
Before designing something from scratch I started with an existing robot, to understand the challenges the process of painting poses.
Part of the novelty of getting a studio robot is naming it! I named my new studio-mate Alfred (after the youngest, later joining member of the Canadian Group of Seven). Alfred is a small desktop robot that has a range of about 6” x 8”, I bought it online and it comes with open-source software. I selected this robot in particular because it already comes with a vision capabilities. Based on my experience as a mechanical engineer, I think this will be the most challenging aspect of this project.
The first painting
Although Alfred did not meet my expectations of being a prolific studio mate, getting to know this robot made this whole idea even more interesting. Having worked with automotive manufacturing robots (the really expensive ones) in my past work as an R&D engineer, I quickly found out an affordable, home use desktop robot is a disappointment – but I learned so much.
Alfred’s power and accuracy were so low with it could not even overcome the friction of the marker moving while in contact with the page or go to a specific location in space. Even within the same pen stroke it would lose its z-position (the vertical position from the page) – thus not making a mark or slamming into the page. I tried two strategies of controlling the brush/pen:
- Based on its visual position in the present moment – I used a QR code to assess the location of the brush
- Based on inputting G-code (same code a CNC works)
But both posed different problems that will help me design a better painting robot.
Ethics of a Painting Robot
I love this technical challenge – But I also love the philosophical question a robot that creates art poses. The idea has an immediate reaction when I speak to people.”That it is not art!”, they say. However, when I ask them about digital art or art created by a DSLR camera, which still requires a skilled artist to use technology, they consider that it is art… Or when I bring up the point that French sculptor Auguste Rodin who had assistants make the full scale statues/sculptures from his models. Yet we call him the artist…
What do you think?