University of Sydney robot has learned how to paint

A University of Sydney mechanical engineering student has programmed a robot that can produce a traditional Chinese ink painting, a style known as guóhuà.

Armed with two paintbrushes, a pot of ink and art paper, the robot is programmed to paint small chickens – the traditional elementary subject that apprentice artists must master before moving on to more complex images.

Wenzheng Zhang has been drawing and painting with ink since childhood, but it wasn’t until his university days when he was experimenting with a robotic arm during a mechanical engineering class that the idea to combine his two passions struck.

“What I have achieved is the frame work of a painting process which uses a program that allows the arm to paint in a similar way to a human. Instead of using image processing to determine the image’s trajectory, a mathematical and geometrical relation is used,” said Zhang.

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“The purpose is to try to replicate the human thought process, such as getting the robot to focus more on how the painting starts rather than how it finishes. The robot must contemplate the canvas and effectively ‘work out’ the drawing on its own.

“I’ve created a flexible program which can continue to be developed with the end goal being a program that can create a piece of art instead of simply copying existing works.”

To program the robotic arm, Zhang used an application called Python, an easily-integrated, open-source language used across a variety of applications.

“The code must be as flexible as possible for two major reasons.

“One is that there are too many parameters to be controlled, and some of these are not controlled for this project. Another reason is that these parameters should be adjusted by the computer to achieve a certain sense of creativity,” said Zhang.

Supervising Zhang’s work from the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, is Paul Brizzo, who believes the robot is an important step in marrying two often opposing disciplines.

“It is an exciting initial example of the fusion between two traditionally opposing fields, engineering and fine arts,” said Briozzo.

“At this point in our time, the robot is moving to a set of commands from a predefined, compiled database of motion that considers factors traditionally of importance to a painter, for example brush size, ink, water and paper.”

However, robots could one day be programmed to think for themselves, using figurative styles and an understanding of form to create entirely new works.

“Future efforts could see AI-capable computers developing their own creative images that can then be post-processed into commands that robots convert into the traditional medium of artistic image representation, painting,” Briozzo said.