Who Let Robots Paint?
A study by Rutgers University in the United States revealed that people cannot distinguish between paintings created by a human and those created by a robot. Unsigned works produced by a machine were able to make the same impression on respondents as recognized masterpieces of art. So why are robotic artworks stigmatized in society when the robot acts as a tool, just like brushes and paints?
My name is Vladimir Tsimberg, I am the founder of Robohood Inc. Our technology teaches robots to paint with acrylic and oil paints on any surface. In this article, I will explain why our software is a natural evolution of artists' tools throughout history.
The artist's arsenal of tools is constantly expanding, and modern technologies now allow us to go beyond human capabilities. Auction houses are selling paintings created through a symbiosis of digital and traditional tools. However, in the past, things were different.
Before the Industrial Revolution, when machine labor replaced manual labor, artists used stone, clay, cement, and wood for painting. The first canvas was the wall. The ancients worked with substances similar to paints such as wood charcoal, black soot, ochre, and manganese mixed with fatty grease.
In the 15th century, canvas became widespread, replacing wooden panels. This surface was easy to obtain because the same material was used to make sails, and it was also easy to use and transport.
The 1440s saw the emergence of the printing press. This invention allowed for the reproduction of large quantities of engravings, enabling artists to reach a wider audience. Jewelers, potters, and stained-glass artists purchased these prints. Similar to viral videos on the internet today, a single picture could become popular and earn the creator a substantial amount of money. Raphael collaborated with the Roman engraver Marcantonio Raimondi to reproduce his works, while Albrecht Dürer earned a fortune from his engravings.
The Renaissance paintings are known for their photographic clarity and meticulous detail, achieved through the use of available technology such as the camera obscura and camera lucida. These devices were box-like with a hole on one side and a screen on the other. The artists could easily trace the contours and add color by projecting the image onto a flat surface.
Masters who used optical devices often kept this fact a secret. The public's reaction may have been the same as it is today in the 21st century. Neural networks, robots, and other technological advancements evoke mixed reactions, from admiration to outright rejection. However, the works of Jan Vermeer and Jan van Eyck, who used optical devices, are not diminished in value as works of art. Many artists have been helped professionally by these devices. In Flanders, workshops were established to create paintings using optics during the 16th and 17th centuries. These workshops produced approximately 1.5 million paintings.
- Arnolfini Portrait. By Jan van Eyck.
- The Music Lesson. Jan Vermeer.
The Industrial Revolution had a significant impact on painting. The new technologies that emerged during this period increased efficiency and automated many processes. Mass production of brushes and paints made them more affordable, enabling artists to purchase larger quantities and work more productively. Artists worked with publishers and advertisers who commissioned paintings and prints using the lithographic process. The design was applied to stone or metal and then transferred to paper.
- Poster for the Troupe de Mademoiselle Eglantine. By Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
- Poster for the pantomime ballet "Princess Hyacinth". By Alphonse Mucha.
However, not all artists welcomed the Industrial Revolution. Followers of Romanticism criticized the technological revolution, while the Art Nouveau movement embraced it for its own purposes. Posters and advertisements in this style flooded the streets, giving rise to a new philosophy of democratizing art. Art should be available to everyone, not just the chosen few.
The Industrial Revolution is sometimes considered a precursor to Impressionism. In 1843, artist John Goff Rand invented squeezable lead tubes with caps, which allowed artists to be more mobile and paint outdoors en plein air. Jean Renoir, Auguste Renoir's son, remarked, "Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism."
In the 19th century, brushes underwent an upgrade. Coarse bristles were introduced, allowing for bold and well-defined strokes. A metal ferrule replaced the thread, and brushes became flat. This meant that artists could more expressively depict the movement of life, capture fleeting moments, and work faster.
Louis Daguerre invented photography in 1839, which caused a divide in the art world. Two opposing camps emerged among artists. Some believed that photography lacked artistic value and would replace traditional painting. Others, like Edgar Degas, embraced photography and incorporated its principles into their work. Artists could now use photographs instead of sketches. Concepts such as framing, depth of field, focus, and the accidental snapshot inspired artists and offered new directions in art. This did not signal the decline of painting itself.
Blue Dancers (painting based on a photograph). By Edgar Degas.
The decline of traditional art did not occur with the rise of digital painting using tablets and pens. Instead, it opened up more opportunities for artists in their profession. Classical masters combined their traditional skills with digital ones and explored graphic programs. The emergence of Photoshop, 3D programs, and other similar editors attracted many new people to the field, including those without artistic training who learned to use the new tools proficiently.
The debate between classical education and self-development of talent is a common topic among creative individuals. Comparisons are often made regarding the amount of effort invested in their profession to determine who is more of an artist, singer, or writer. However, it is important to note that these two sides can coexist, as there are now many new ways and paths to achieve success in the art industry. Throughout the centuries, tools have been developed to facilitate and complement the work of artists. Currently, we are experiencing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will bring new adaptations to creativity.
Neural networks and robots, which also serve as tools for artists, are subject to criticism reminiscent of the criticism once directed at photography. However, many artists are interested in exploring neural network algorithms and incorporating them into their work. Paintings created using these technologies sell for thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. For example, "Portrait of Edmond de Belamy" sold for $432,500 at Christie's in 2018, and the work "Memories of Passersby I" sold for $42,000 at Sotheby's in 2019. These paintings were created by real artists, but in a less traditional way.
Portrait of Edmond de Belamy, by the French collective Obvious's neural network.
Several artists are suing developers of neural networks that generate images from text descriptions. They are concerned that these tools will imitate their individual style, creating forgeries and damaging their financial standing.
Another point of contention in this technological landscape is the fact that paintings created with the help of a robot and its algorithms lack real emotion and, more importantly, the soul of the artist. It's a question of perception and acceptance. When an artist uses a robot to paint, they go through the same stages as if they were using a brush themselves. However, in this case, the machine holds the brush. The human makes every decision, from the idea to its realization, and the robot executes it. The robotic brush is controlled by the human. At Robohood, our robots have the ability to generate images based on textual prompts, but both the descriptions and the final result depend on the human. The artist invests just as much effort and skill, and it is her emotions that are transferred to the canvas through the robot.
Paintings by Robohood.
In his book, 'What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye', Will Gompertz beautifully explains Marcel Duchamp's idea. He says: "(Marcel Duchamp) contested that the medium — canvas, marble, wood or stone — had, up until this point, dictated to an artist how he or she would or could go about making a work of art. The medium always came first, and only then would an artist be allowed to project his or her ideas on to it via painting, sculpting or drawing. Duchamp wanted to turn this around. He considered the medium to be secondary: first and foremost was the idea. Only after an artist had settled on and developed a concept would he or she be in a position to choose a medium, and it should be the one with which the idea could most successfully be expressed. And if that meant using a porcelain urinal, so be it. In essence, art could be anything as long as the artist said so." I can rephrase that to say that if robots and neural networks are tools to help the artist realize his or her vision, there is no reason to hinder them.
As mentioned earlier, we are currently experiencing a scenario similar to that in the history of painting. Some see robots as partners, others as adversaries. However, the emergence of the Robotic artists is a logical development. Technological progress affects every aspect of life, and every means of expression corresponds to its time.
I think due to the rapid emergence of new devices and the transience of processes, negative criticism may arise. We often do not have enough time to fully adapt to one innovation before others appear. It is important to note how slowly the development of artists' tools progressed until the 20th century, and how quickly they appear and improve now.
We have become so accustomed to tube paints, folding light easels, tablets, and wireless pens that we forget how things used to be different. Each era builds upon the accomplishments of the previous one and shapes the next. Future generations will see Robotic artists as commonplace, and I am confident there will be more tools to match their brand-new era.
Might be interesting: Can a robot paint like a human?