Exchanging Portraits with a Creative Robot

Burning Man Grant Application

Brief Description

This installation will begin with a 700 sqft heavy duty circus style tent surrounded by empty easels.  Inside the tent, there will be stacks of blank canvases, a robot arm, and two easels with blank canvases. One for the robot and the other unattended.


Over the course of Burning Man, the robots will paint a portrait of whoever wanders into it's tent and begins painting on the unattended canvas. It will do the portrait, trying to imitate the style and colors of the person painting with it. When finished, they will offer to exchange its painting with the painting of the volunteer.  This will create a large number of canvases, half of which will be given away to collaborators and the other half will be put either on the empty easels inside and outside tent in a growing art collaboration between man and robot.


While installation will begin as a plain tent surrounded by blank canvases, by end of Burning Man, there will be hundreds of human and robot painted canvases in and around the space.


The Artist


I am a painter, but my art is trying to capture my own creativity in algorithms.

My exploration of creativity and Art has been recognized by multiple organizations over the years including NPRGoogle, The Barbican, Microsoft,  Elastic, Intel, and NVIDIA. I recently gave a TEDx Talk on my art in Washington DC and was just named Top Technical Contributor to the international Robot Art 2017 competition. Exhibition history, awards, and several press write ups can also be seen at http://www.cloudpainter.com/press/.

The Portraits


I have been collaborating with my robots to make portraits for over twelve years. Database records indicate that we have probably painted over a thousand portraits though I don't have an exact count. While the style and process behind each creation has varied, they were all painted with a brush on canvas. Some of these portraits, most approximately 14"x18", can be seen above.

Physical Description


This installation will be debuting 3 of my 7th generation custom painting robots arms - the 6th gen version was recently awarded the top technical prize by Robot Art 2017, so imagine that these will be even cooler.

In the space, each 4' tall robot arm will have its own blank canvas on an easel with a full selection of art materials. In view of robot but at safe distance, a second easel will be set up with same equipment for human use. The installation consists of 3 of these 10'x10' stations in center of a 30'x30' space.

When people enter space they will see people painting robots, and robots painting people. They will have option to join in and in turn get their portrait painted by a robot. They will also be given portraits robot make of them in exchange for portraits they make of the robot.

Interactivity Mission

Am obsessed with where my own creativity comes from so I try to capture it in algorithms and teach it to robots.  But this often upset people as the creativity behind my robots become uncanny. Viewers who don't like idea of creativity machines are not only unsettled, but also confused. It is not obvious if my robots are being truly creative, or if it is just a gimmick.

This interactive project attempts to make my robot's artificial creativity more relatable and transparent by letting people paint alongside them in a portrait exchange. As volunteers paint the robot's portrait, the robot will look at them, their work in progress, then start a portrait of them in a style similar to their artwork. It doesn't matter if the human artwork is good, bad, or even abstract. The robot will use deep learning to find patterns in it and paint a portrait of its creator with those patterns.

Is the robot being creative, or just imitating, or is it a collaboration? Will be up to the audience to decide.

Philosophy Behind Installation

Creativity and especially Art are often thought of as exclusively human capabilities. While some other animals show signs of creativity, the general public has yet to accept anything as Art that was not created by a human.

I also used to believe that creativity and Art were exclusively human, but as the AI behind my robots grew in sophistication, my opinion started to change. While I believe Art is still uniquely human, I now think that machines are capable of near human levels of creativity due to the effectiveness of Deep Learning. For example, my past work has demonstrated that within the constraints of portraiture, machines can independently make most of the creative decisions made by an artist. They can even use Deep Learning to apply abstraction in unique and intentional ways. Is robot created portraiture Art? No, but it looks exactly like Art and is probably the result of creativity.

In this installation volunteers will be making portraits of the robots, and the robots will be painting the volunteers in the style of their artwork. 

Is the robot being creative, just imitating, or collaborating? 

The robot paintings will have so much apparent creativity, that I am hoping it will convince some that it is in fact being creative. Related to this, I am hoping it encourages some to question whether their own portraits of the robot are being created by a process similar to the robots use of Deep Learning, and therefore creative, but not Art either.

The Creative Software

The software behind my robots use a variety of artificial intelligence and machine learning including Feedback Loops, OpenCV, Style Transfer, Convolutional Neural Nets, and Generative Adversarial Neural Nets. A brief overview of my art with the robot can be seen in the August 3rd, 2017 HBO Vice Interview below as well as in my TEDx Talk from last year. Details regarding some of the more recent innovations can be seen in the animation below them...


Burning Man and The Desert Environment

While I have never been to Burning Man , I do have experience with challenges of robotics in desert environments.  I was Co-Team Captain of Team ENSCO in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. We spent a week camping in the Nevada desert as we did final development and testing on our self driving vehicle. Staging this project for Burning Man will have similar challenges, and require similar planning.


Pindar Van Arman