Can robots dream of painting?

At the IKEA Festival in Milan, a robot set up shop and annexed a big corner of the warehouse space. As you walked in, the high-pitched hissing of air created the feeling of a theme park. But it was just the robot, breathing in, loading up and starting to paint on its large canvas.

Patric Lüthi, IT specialist, is the creator of the machine and company, named OilPainter, which creates artistic paintings using acrylic paint. We caught up with him to hear how it came to be. “It started out with a really basic idea. I wanted to make a machine that didn’t print prints, but paints paintings.”

Physically the robot can extend itself over a large area of canvas with its long caterpillar arm, fully software controlled. Pumps mix the paint in a chamber ahead of the brush, and then depending on the configuration paint is applied with any level of strength, as well as different widths of brush heads.

The brains of the OilPainter and Patric’s work-station, as seen at the IKEA Festival in Milan.
The brains of the OilPainter and Patric’s work-station, as seen at the IKEA Festival in Milan.

The brush heads rotate on a wheel which is connected to a rotating head, giving the machine painting abilities not achievable by the human hand. As Patric says, “the machine paints in a human-like manner, but with machine-like qualities, it produces something completely unique and never seen before.”

It started out with a really basic idea. I wanted to make a machine that didn’t print prints, but paints paintings.

So the question arises, how does it produce art? In collaboration with the Swiss design school ECAL, a group of students have helped in making signature and original paintings. We spoke to Marc Camponovo & Pierry Jaquillard from the Bachelor of Fine Arts and the Bachelor of Media & Interaction Design programmes about what it’s like to produce paintings with a programmable machine.

“For the machine all we have is numbers. So we had to create a program that would help us commute our mouse-strokes into visual projections and then into the numbers. In the program each number stands for size of the brush, coordinates and axes- x, y and z, colours, speed, and the amount of paint – thin or thick” says Pierry.

The paintings themselves, Pierry and Marc say, can be put together in layers, creating consistent patterns yet with organic looks. “I’m not even sure my mum could tell the difference between this painting done by the robot and if I were to paint it”, Marc says. Of course, even with the robot’s mass production capabilities, “at the end, it’s always an artist behind the pieces.”

The robot’s rotating brush-head in full action as it creates a large canvas painting.
The robot’s rotating brush-head in full action as it creates a large canvas painting.

For Patric, it’s all about making paintings people like and appreciate. So collaborations are key. “The robot isn’t artistic without the mind of an artist. It has the abilities to reproduce anything from renaissance art to modern interpretations. Take the IKEA logo for example, as seen at the IKEA Festival,” he says.

Looking to the future, Patric says it was a natural idea to approach IKEA. The potential of the machine is still not fully explored, so we’re excited to see the things to come.

Patric Lüthi, founder and owner of OilPainter, ecstatic after a successful week in Milan.
Patric Lüthi, founder and owner of OilPainter, ecstatic after a successful week in Milan.

OilPainter Ltd. stands for a team of artists, designers and technicians. Their works can be found online at their website