A small silver robotic arm stands in front of a blank canvas. A paintbrush sits delicately in between its joint-like grip. The arm turns slowly to its side and dips its paintbrush into yellow paint from a palette. The robot faces the blank canvas and swiftly glides the brush on the fabric, stroke by stroke. With a flick, it creates a painting with near-perfect artistic precision. Although artificial intelligence (AI) technology is often seen as a competitor in art, this robot is not. This robot was designed specifically to help artists make more income and create more sustainable and affordable art. 

Created by Montreal-based technology and art startup Acrylic Robotics, the company was founded by visual artist and mechanical engineer Chloë Ryan. Ryan developed the organization with two goals in mind: to create high-quality, sustainably made, and affordable art not only for buyers but for the artists to make. Ryan’s objective to make art with these qualities aligns with the  United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, specifically Industry Innovation and Infrastructure

Since she was a child, Ryan has painted. “I was a hobbying artist,” she laughs. In high school, Ryan was involved in gallery shows and would sell her artwork when she could. Her medium of choice was abstract art and, as the name suggests, acrylic paint. “I would also make sculptures out of electronic parts, like humanoid robots,” explains Ryan. 

Three Sisters by Matt Chessco. Recreated by Acrylic Robotics. Image Courtesy of Acrylic Robotics.

She was able to make money from her artwork and, for a time, considered being an artist as a potential career path. However, Ryan had a few qualms— one, she could not keep the art she made for commission for herself, and second, the art she was commissioned to create was not always art she enjoyed creating. The upkeep of selling and printing her artwork became a discouraging process; “It would take a month to make and sell each painting,” she explains, “and I could only sell one painting at a time.” She recalls wishing she had a machine to replicate her paintings. Ryan dreamed about the possibility of having multiple originals rather than just one. “I had this whole plan cooked up,” Ryan says, but the plan did not come to fruition until years later. By her last year of high school, Ryan had given up on being an artist and had done a “full 180.” Instead, she enrolled at McGill University in Montreal, QC., for mechanical engineering. 

During one of her many late-night study sessions with classmates, Ryan shared her robot artist idea with friends, thinking not much would come from it. But the more they tossed the idea around, the more feasible it became. After obtaining a grant from the McGill Engine Centre for Entrepreneurship and Engineering, Ryan was able to build her prototype. To her surprise, the prototype did function, but the robot's brushwork quality was wobbly and imprecise. Ryan concluded that it would be more productive for her and her team to buy a robot online and reprogram it, “we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” jokes Ryan. The technology behind Acrylic Robotics may appear complicated, but according to their Chief Operating Officer, Kyle Suri, it is not.

An artist will start the process by digitally painting in Adobe Illustrator on an iPad or tablet. “We turn that into robotic code and then can reproduce each brushstroke,” says Suri. If an artist uses red paint, the robotic arm would do the same. Each movement the artist makes is precisely replicated. The idea is the robotic arm can build up the same piece as the original file with robots, only multiple times over. After a few attempts, Ryan was able to perfect the robot's ability to paint. 

According to Suri, when an artist signs up to work with Acrylic Robotics, the artist owns the copyright to the original artwork and the original rendering. Acrylic Robotics owns the copyright to the actual paintings made by their robots and cannot reproduce more than the agreed-upon amount, typically ten paintings. Suri explains that profits from the Acrylic Robotics paintings depend on the artist they work with. For example, printmakers normally give artists around ten percent of the prints' sales, and Suri says, “We offer much higher even at our lowest kind of percentage level.” According to Suri, it is essential that the artists they collaborate with have a “sustainable living and the life that they want to live.” Currently, artists are not charged to create or collaborate with Acrylic Robotics and its technology. “It just creates a much better environment for them to be creative and make incredible work,” says Suri. 

Acrylic Robotics' first art collaboration was with Montreal-based artist Matt Chessco on the striking bright orange and green-eyed lion. Since that collection, Acrylic Robotics has worked with other Canadian artists, including Ryan herself. The cost of each painting varies in high art affordability, from $500 to $5,400. On the other hand, the original artworks created by the artists can cost up to ten times more. 

Lion by Matt Chessco. Image courtesy of Matt Chessco’s Website.

According to Ryan, Acrylic Robotics is meant to help artists create more and expand. Ryan is incredibly passionate not only about Acrylic Robotics and the company but also about the artwork itself. “My vision is to use technology to make it easier for artists to make a living, to make fine art more accessible to the public, and to accelerate creativity for all,” says Ryan. She suggests that robotic recreation of artwork offers an alternative to the current art market, where high art tends to be less affordable for the average person. More often than not, artists who rely on their art for their livelihood work a second job for income, according to Ryan. “Most artists [live] below the poverty line and [are] forced to work second jobs. Art lives when it’s seen, not locked away in private collections. And finally, because photo prints of original works do not do them justice,” she says on their website.

Close-up of Lion. Image courtesy of Acrylic Robotics.

For Ryan, Acrylic Robotics must not be seen as discouraging artists from creating more art. “Machines are the future, right? So you might as well get friendly with one and figure it out.” Ryan explains that it has been such a “magical experience” to see something she imagined as a teenager come to fruition in real life. Ultimately, Ryan’s goal is to make art more accessible to all, whether to buyers or artists themselves. “This mission statement is, I want everyone to be able to access it,” she says. For Ryan, art is not dead and Acrylic Robotics is an example of how technology and AI can fundamentally help grow and support the creation of art rather than destroy it. “Fundamentally, the whole point of acrylic is such that all artists can use it,” says Ryan, “And it's the artists who aren't making tens of thousands per piece who need it the most.”

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