Photograph by Mark D. Whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

Paint Bots and Human Creativity

Last time we talked about how photo bots are changing photography. Of course photography is a very technical medium especially when done digitally so this is no great surprise, but what about something a little more organic like painting? How are the ‘paint bots’ doing?

Well they’re making some pretty impressive headway there too. You can check out the 2018 Robot Art Award winners here:

Besides coming up with the details of the image, the paint bots of course have the added task of figuring out how to translate the image into a physical painting through some sort of printer apparatus or mechanical arm so they’re doing the photo bots one better. The people programming the bots seem to be a bit more philosophical than the photo people too.

In my experience the vast majority of photographers seem to think that photography is just a science problem to be solved – if we can get enough compute power to solve the exposure and edit filter equations then we can eliminate photographers completely. Almost completely, the photographer’s job will be reduced to dragging the equipment to the right location and switching the unit on. Super.

It’s different with the paint people.They look at their medium as an art form.They aren’t trying to find some way to make painters obsolete. They believe in human creativity and they understand that art is a way to connect humans and communicate truths between them. They’re using their research in computational creativity as a way to explore the very nature of art itself and the human artistic condition.

Here’s a quote from Pindar Van Arman whose robot painter won this year’s Robot Art Award.

“Have always wondered what exactly creativity was. Dissecting my own artistic process and trying to teach it to robots is my attempt to better understand it. While my robots may never be able to make truly original creative decisions, what they are capable of reveals the point where computational creativity ends and human creativity begins. It was not until I began exploring this threshold that I began to understand my own creativity and what it revealed about me as an artist.”

During my research for this post I was always struck by this difference between the photo world and the paint world.

The tone in photography camps is all about being totally sure that one day we will be able to conquer photography. That there is a finite set of conditions for each and every situation and once we teach those to a computer it will be as good as any photographer that ever lived or ever will live. In not so many words they think of their research as a way to destroy the medium and, get this, ‘photographers’ agree with the goals, welcome it, and even help finance it.

The tone in painting is one of exploration and learning. Paint bot creators are using them not to destroy human art, but to better understand the human mind and the work it creates. As Van Arman points out he finds that his experiments shine light on his own creative process.

The first work toward building a painting robot started back in 1973 when Harold Cohen created AARON. Cohen continually enhanced AARON up until his death in 2016. Cohen’s work was always much more direct than current technologies of neural networks and the like. He programmed in certain algorithms and the computer worked from them to produced paintings. At first they were just line drawings that Cohen then painted in himself, but as technology advanced the robot could do more and more of the work itself.

AARON’s works have been shown in museums around the world, but once again no one suggests that this is the future of painting. That someday the painting riddle will be solved and the human’s job will be reduced to setting up the easel and throwing the switch. Cohen is quoted as saying this about his work.

“If what AARON is making is not art, what is it exactly, and in what ways, other than its origin, does it differ from the ‘real thing?’ If it is not thinking, what exactly is it doing?”

Instead of saying to painters “Send me a couple hundred bucks and I’ll send you a machine that you can load with paint and brushes and it will do your art for you.” these guys say “I’ve created a machine that does something like art, let’s study it and explore what this means to us as humans and artists.”

I find the later approach inspiring and intriguing. It makes me wish I had picked up painting when I was younger instead of photography.



Comments on "Paint Bots and Human Creativity"

  1. Hi Mark,

    One of my fun perverse things to play with is to take photos and try to make them look like paintings…. My favorite program for this at the moment is Dynamic Auto-Painter Pro 5 (or DAP for short). It can take a pretty ordinary scene and make it look quite painterly.

    There are some examples at: . I find since I do paint, and often from a photograph I took, that treating it with DAP with different presets first gives me ideas to incorporate into my own real painting. (I tend to be too tied to exactly what I see, and DAP loosens me up.) Plus it is fun, and maybe I never get around to painting the photo at hand – still interesting.

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