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Drawing the Drawing Robot Drawing

May 31, 2016

The other day I was sketching at the C2 Conference here in Montreal, and found myself drawing while simultaneously contemplating the death of work in our upcoming automation based economy, and the role of artists after the singularity.

(If you believe in either of those theories).

C2 is a place where you might find yourself believing all that stuff after a few lectures :)

16May31_Robot_Drawing_01What I was actually doing, while thinking these deep thoughts, was drawing a gang of drawing robots, while they were drawing a live human model.

An odd feeling for sure!

These small robot arms are built and programmed by artist Patrick Tresset.

Each robot has a camera “eye” and some techno wizardry in its processor brain that converts the values the camera sees into densities of pen marks. The results are actually fairly similar to what human artists do – since of course these robots were programmed by an artist who knows how to draw.

When I passed by, the group of about a half dozen arms were part way through their drawings, so I quickly pulled out my own sketching material to see if I could beat them to the punch.


I was only drawing for a few short minutes, but in that time a number of hilarious things happened.

First, I was in such a rush to beat the robots that I spilled some ink on the gallery floor. I’m in the habit of flicking dirty brushes onto the ground when I paint outside – and in my rush I did it without thinking. Luckily it was a polished concrete floor – so I could just casually drop a bit of paper towel and stand on it while I drew, mopping secretly.

Immediately after, I was digging in my bag for a pen nib or something, and I cut my finger. Painfully jamming a hangnail on the edge of a drawing board and ending up leaking blood down my finger tip while juggling multiple wet ink drawings.


I could see the half dozen robot arms working relentlessly while I fumbled.

They would never need a break. Never get distracted, never cut their fingers, never spill their ink.

There is no way to avoid seeing the obvious parallels in the larger global economy. This is what all those auto plant workers or deep sea welders, or the fabled John Henry must have felt like.

But I’m an artist – I was so sure this didn’t apply to me! Supposedly I am the one thing that cannot be replaced by a machine – and here I am being forced to confront my human frailty in this one sided drawing contest with a bunch of mechanical back scratchers bolted onto grade school desks.


But then, as I was turning the corner in my imaginary sketching race, well ahead of the sluggish robot team, I was congratulating myself on starting late and finishing early – totally owning those wind up toys – when  I noticed a bit of programmatic theater.

The robot cameras were actually bobbing their heads, like an artist does.

Looking down at the paper then up to the human subject, then down again at the paper. A gesture any artist will recognize from life drawing class.

It was then I realized the true (terrible) nature of the situation.

There is no way the robots were actually analyzing their drawings visually. That would simply take too much artificial intelligence. I am techy enough to know this could not be the case here.  It has to be a simple one-shot image analysis algorithm.

That means the camera head-bob was programmed in to make it *look* like the arms were thinking about the drawing.

In fact – the entire process of the pens scratching away while the model tried not to fidget? That was mummery. A puppet show designed to entertain the humans. Look how cute the robot overlords are!

The human didn’t have to hold still! He could have walked away at any time! The robots only need a single glance to capture the likeness of our model (Mr. John Farquhar-Smith of FLUX). (I’m not sure he wasn’t a ringer working for the robots).

In fact – the robots don’t need time to do these drawings at all!

They could have executed them in a blur of motion, so fast they melted the ball point pens. They could have extruded the final drawing as a single stamped shape in a millisecond. They could probably have 3D printed a clone of John’s DNA in the time it took me to figure out how badly I was actually losing this race.

This fantasy that I was speeding past the machines was just  a bit of re-assurance Mr. Tresset is trying to allow me. A bit of salve to my ego. I might have walked away thinking – those robots will never replace me! I’ve chosen the one path that is future proof.

But instead, I’ve walked away knowing – it’s only a matter of time until making imagery by hand is a Luddites’ pastime. A poet’s licence.

Eventually, all of us will have to consider what automation means to us. And I suppose, we’ll have to decide how much we care.

For now I can see the humor in it all. But I wonder what I’ll really be thinking in the next decade? It’s going to be interesting times ahead!



32 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2016 8:33 PM

    Hillarious and ominous at the same time, and so well written – I could visualize all of the experience as though I were there . . . no rather, as if I were you! Something to ponder upon for sure and interesting links to follow-up on. Thank you Citizen Sketcher!

  2. Delphine permalink
    May 31, 2016 8:45 PM

    Thanks for a very entertaining article! I hope your finger is ok.

    As an artist …and a bit of a programmer, I would say : what makes a drawing is the personality of the artist. What makes a robot is its software, and a software cannot have personality, at last, not more than the programmer who wrote it. As the Apple jail break law suit proved recently, code is written. It’s a text. It’s a way to express oneself. So to get a good artist robot, you need an artist programmer. And the robot can’t learn more by itself, because to make good art, you need to express human emotions from human experience. So the robot would be a snapshot of the artist/programmer at that moment, nothing better. And create art accordingly.

    So I can imagine a robot doing good pictures, but not excellent one. And they would be always the same snapshot of a programmer’s mind. In a way, this robot would be a work of art, but not doing art. It’s fascinating to see the drawings done, but the drawings themselves are only an analysis of what a human does when putting his/her heart in a sketch,in a moment. An accumulation of art clichés. ( I went on the website)

    Since I began to work on Photoshop 25 years ago, I am waiting for the machine to do my work with me directing from the sofa. Still not happening. And if it happens, I think I will still have to touch up the results for the extra bit of personality.
    (sorry, long comment)

    • May 31, 2016 9:09 PM

      I love long comments!

      And yes, I do (mostly) agree with you:) But still – for instance – as you say, right now an artist-programmer can teach the machine one style (which they will never improve on). This robot here does a kind of value/density mark making trick that isn’t too different from Pointillism. So, It’s not too far to think, one day I could paint in front of some software, and it could immediacy emulate me perfectly. Observing how I simplify, what edges I enhance, what kind of mark making I choose, what perspective distortions I impose. What palette I use. And it could look at all my past paintings online and know exactly what composition / shot I’d choose at a given location. (Statistically speaking, I do choose similar subjects. Everyone does).

      So it would have my style simulated, and could instantly do ‘my painting’ – whatever I would have chosen, all over the world simultaneously. Every scenic view I could get to in my lifetime, and thousands I couldn’t. I bet I could out paint this imaginary machine on a case by case basis, but not on a total body of work basis.

      Yes the human touch is probably better in the short run – but what the tech can do would probably prevent me from working an an illustrator or travel journalist. It could just out-pace me! Conde-Naste could have a travel sketching article done faster than trying to phone me. Ultimately that’s probably ok – because then there’d be no more ‘rendering’ jobs for artists. The last drawing of a car ever made :) If you see what I mean. But it does mean we might have to consider what is worth drawing or writing about, and what’s worth letting the computer draw :) I’m looking forward to seeing what happens! Remember this post when you’re watching Disney movies where we can spin a dial for artistic style in real time, or when we can export our photo albums rendered as Van Gogh :)

      • Delphine permalink
        May 31, 2016 9:55 PM

        Thanks for the long answer ! Let me see. I agree with you. The computer would be able to render a statistically correct Marc Holmes art. Which would be particularly interesting, noting how you excel in creating with the random accidents of paint. As a CG artist I know how difficult it is to reproduce. But still, just like the terribly flat Rembrant they rendered recently (, it would be only statistically your art.
        And humans are full of happy accidents and inventions. So if it’s only 75% accurate, it works for, let’s says, a medication, but not for art. Art is not about the 75% statistically accurate. It’s about the 30% of invention that is left. That’s the reason why experienced artists get more work than the fresh out of school students.

        I expect something like what happened in special effects. Now there’s only good jobs for people with a lot of experience. Finding a mid level job is getting difficult, because of out sourcing. But how can you get the experience necessary to reach the upper level without the mid level jobs? I’m afraid it will be the end of good art if we favor too much the machines…

  3. May 31, 2016 9:58 PM

    Not only did your ink and blood spilling not, in the end, get in the way of your sketches; but it made for a far more interesting story than anything the Bots could come up with!!

  4. May 31, 2016 10:04 PM

    A computer will NEVER replace an artist… if people want perfect reproductions… They’ll take a photograph. No way a computer will ever reproduce the soul and heart that an artist puts into his art, his vision, his interpretation of reality. Interesting post though… made me think, and made me realize that no matter how bad my drawings and paintings are, they are MINE, all mine… and I LOVE doing them, having a computer do it for me wouldn’t give me the same pleasure. So the programmers can program (did I mention I’m a programmer) but I’ll continue doing my own art, thank you very much.

  5. May 31, 2016 10:14 PM

    When you read about the computer that can paint ‘new original Rembrandts’, it gets even more scary :-(

    • May 31, 2016 10:44 PM

      That Rembrandt is surprisingly good! Even with 3D brush stroke texture. They say it was printed with pigments, I’m sure it would be possible to print with both glazes and impasto eventually.
      I found a video about it – let’s see if the link works in the comments here:
      This is pretty amazing considering it’s such an early attempt.
      Very interesting to see, the project is sponsored by a bank!
      It’s like out of a William Gibson novel.

  6. ybromfield permalink
    May 31, 2016 10:45 PM

    I’m not sure if I’ve ever commented here. Hi Marc. Long-time lurker here, and yes, that sounds creepy.

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit about automation and machine-driven society. I just recently read an article that claims most of our jobs will be obsolete – that machines do everything better. And though that may be true, I think there will always be people like me who like imperfections, true empathy that only comes from feeling individuals, and unpredictability of human creativity. Machines may reproduce a Rembrandt perfectly, it will lack the soul of the artist.

    In one of your Craftsy class, you talk about capturing the energy of people and it’s hard for me to imagine machines being able to distinguish and interpret all the subtle human interactions. Interesting stuff. Hope your finger is better.

    • May 31, 2016 11:02 PM

      Finger is good thanks :) But you know paper cuts? Imagine a coroplast paper cut right to the cuticle! Makes you want a robot hand :)

      Yes, I do agree with most of the comments. I’m mostly teasing :) I’m not giving up to the robots anytime soon. But it’s fun to think about what we’ll see in our lifetime. For instance – they’re working on software that predicts hit novels based on past successful texts. If we can put genre fiction through a program and spit it out – one day we’ll be able to do with with emotional cues. All those micro-expressions analyzed and played back making us heart-string puppets to the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I’m interested to see what happens – and how it pushes humans do do better.

      • ybromfield permalink
        June 1, 2016 11:37 AM

        The article I wss reading is this: I am all for efficiency and accuracy and perhaps the rise of machines will push us to bring out the “humanity” part of us being human. I am a teacher – I know all about paper cuts. ;-)

    • May 31, 2016 11:03 PM

      Oh! And thank you for de-lurking on the blog!

  7. May 31, 2016 11:12 PM

    You might want to read this book… The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

  8. May 31, 2016 11:23 PM

    Wow! Super intriguing post, Marc! (And had to laugh at the comedy errors moments…can totally relate. Though sorry about the finger!) I agree it’s fun to ponder the what if of it all. One would think the replacement of artists is the sign of the end of times for humanity as we know it. I don’t think I have any fear of that ever being truly possible. At least as long as real artists exist to show us the difference. If society is left only with emotionless yet statistically accurate replicas of dead artists and “okay” with that and stops seeking something more, then we have a real problem.

  9. barbara permalink
    June 1, 2016 12:03 AM

    Mark, I have purchased both your Craftsy classes and also your Urban Sketcher book. I was reading from the book today, and I was struck again by how much information is packed into that one book. I appreciate the care you took in its preparation. It really is a very comprehensive and complete guide. I am sorry that you had to cancel your plans for this summer, but I also respect the fact that you are making family matters a priority. Thanks again for all your hard work and your inspiring posts. That reminds me that recently I shared your sketches from your Cambodia trip with my bookclub members. We were reading an excellent book about the Khmer Rouge: In the Shade of the Banyan Tree by Veddy Ratner. An compelling non-fiction book based on her family’s experiences there. (They loved your work, too. ) Barbara Cunningham

    Sent from my iPad


  10. June 1, 2016 12:14 AM

    How totally weird!

  11. June 1, 2016 2:48 AM

    Doesn’t this all highlight the fact that making art is not just about the product? If artists only made art to get a result and a robot could produce the same result then drawing robots might replace artists, but artists surely make art because the act of making it (and the thinking/feeling that is involved in the act) is worth doing for its own sake. It’s like saying if someone made a robot that could digest food we wouldn’t need to eat any more. The existence of chess playing robots hasn’t stopped people playing chess…

    • June 1, 2016 9:01 AM

      Now this is an excellent point. Very true! I take the art making for granted, as so much of my thinking is about blogging – but in fact yes, the art-making is the real reward for the artist.

      • June 1, 2016 10:08 AM

        after I posted my reply I also thought even if robots made ‘better’ art than us it wouldn’t stop us – after all most of us know that lots of people do make ‘better’ art than we can but we keep on going ;)

  12. June 1, 2016 3:55 AM

    This hit home with me. Many years ago it saddened me to think that the camera was replacing the painter. Of course, it never did. And now a robot. I worry today that the “young” are not learning cursive as they can type on their electronic gadgets. The human hand is individual and cannot be placed by a machine. To see something written by a hand is special. And equally so is the artwork. Very special. Thanks for this story. Love your bloodied painting.

  13. amats123 permalink
    June 1, 2016 6:58 AM

    Gives new meaning to the words “blood, sweat and tears”! Darn those left handed robots. Ah well, they do look like lefties. That’s the thing about art, it’s an individual response to life, life past and at the time it was created. It’s the work of the individual. So the interesting thing about robots drawing to me, is less about mechanical skill and more about the thought of them having awareness and individual presence of mind.
    Keep doing what you do! :)

  14. June 1, 2016 12:08 PM

    It seems to me that this set up was staged for our benefit so we can “humanize” the robot and watch him draw, as you said. Once the “snapshot” is taken, it can be analyzed, interpreted and printed very quickly in whatever style was desired (the programmer’s or an app like Waterlogue) and there’s really no reason to watch the robot draw ~ except for romanticizing the event. Drawing from photographs ~ in the sense that we are analyzing the snapshot into value shapes, etc. and applying our skills to interpret the result seems to be where there might be comparisons and robots are faster and more accurate if that’s what you want. As a teacher, it’s amazing to see how many different paintings come from the one photograph assigned to the class. Human experience and personality are certainly factors even when drawing from photos. And drawing from life or a live model is another situation altogether. There is a relationship created during the time spent observing and responding to the connection through our eyes to brain to hand and back again. The mind is inspired and responds with the sensitivity of touch. And it is happening moment by moment during the entire exchange. Many times, I have fallen “in love” with my subject through this focused observation which is fine when I’m painting cherries in a bowl on the table, a little more disconcerting observing someone else’s children.

    I, too, am so saddened by the loss of using pencils in our schools.
    Here is a wonderful interview with Frank Wilson who wrote “The Hand: How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture.”

    Such an interesting conversation! Thank you, Marc, for all the sharing!

  15. Erik Madsen permalink
    June 1, 2016 3:49 PM

    Hi Marc, enjoying this blog and chat, however, as I said to you several weeks ago.” I wonder what Marc has up his sleeve next”. No matter now sophisticated the computer and robots become, they can’t answer this question. They can only predict the future by patterns of the past, and they miss one very important element, our creativity, which we are not so good at predicting either. So, when I look at a painting of yours and see something I haven’t seen before, I’m certain no robot can do what you have just done………..

  16. joe van berkel permalink
    June 3, 2016 11:20 AM

    Great writing! A very entertaining and thought provoking piece. Thanks.

  17. Cheryl Goyer permalink
    June 8, 2016 11:20 AM

    I’m primarily a fiber artist and everything I love to do has been automated and sent overseas for production. In fact, it’s been automated for well over 100 years. But I still love all of the steps of making cloth, from spinning yarn, to dyeing, to the finished product, woven or knit. What I do can be reproduced by machine much easier and faster but buying cheap clothing, towels, rugs, sweaters, doesn’t fulfill that part of me that needs to make something. I even love to make marks on paper, attempting to document what I see. Making is part of what makes us human. Whether it’s making robots to simulate human activity or making art or just making an excellent dinner, no robot or factory will replace our drive to create. Robots can be made to replace us in manufacturing, to make our food, to clean our homes, but eventually we will become bored and impoverished and a new cycle of making will begin. It’s in our DNA.

    • June 8, 2016 11:25 AM

      It’s my great hope that all our labor will all be made redundant by robots – and that society will rise to the opportunity and go through with guaranteed income and sharing of wealth, and a new golden age of arts will flourish. I”m not sure it will all roll out like that – but we can live in hope. The trick is, in the short run, allowing jobs to be replaced by machines without undue hardship for the workers. I guess it’s not always the case hey?

    • June 8, 2016 11:28 AM

      Can I ask – did your own work-life get affected directly by automation? (were you put out of work?) or was it natural for you to move out of the machines domain and do your own thing?

      • June 8, 2016 12:43 PM

        My working life, at a community college in Oregon, dealt primarily with technology. I worked as a Help Desk supervisor, taught intro computer classes, and helped faculty put their classes online. My job enabled me to pursue the things I really loved, mainly making slow cloth.

        • June 8, 2016 1:15 PM

          Excellent! :) I like that term slow cloth. Had heard ‘slow food’ so that make sense.

        • June 8, 2016 1:19 PM

          I don’t honestly think technology will replace drawing anytime soon – but the watercolor photo filters are getting better every year. So they might surprise me. But of course, I draw things all the time that can’t be photoed – or at least not without heavy hand editing. But that too is getting better all the time. (See, Photoshop haze-reduction or content-aware fill, etc). I’d be curious to talk to any artist has actually been replaced in our lifetime. I suspect all the printmakers and weavers were replaced commercially as you say, years ago. I do know my digital artwork is getting quickly challenged by 3D artforms. So it’s not replacing me with a computer, but with other artists with different tools. And it’s not a replacement – just a shift in which tasks are done by whom.


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