A University of Sydney mechanical engineering student with a passion for fine art and robotics 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,” Zhang explained.
“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 UR5 Universal Robotics 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,” says Zhang.
“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.”
Supervising Zhang's work from the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering is Paul Briozzo, who believes the robot is an important step in marrying two often opposing disciplines.
“Wenzheng's work is of great significance because it is an exciting initial example of the fusion between two traditionally opposing fields, engineering and fine arts,” said Mr 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.”
Robots that think for themselves
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,” Mr Briozzo said.
China has some of the world’s oldest artistic traditions, made famous by ink and paper works depicting landscapes and native animals by masters such as Ma Yuan and Qi Baishi.
“Art has long been a passion of mine, having studied Chinese painting since I was five years old, but I also believe robotics is an important field because it can help people to complete tasks previously unachievable,” said Zhang.