10,000 Strokes to a Masterpiece

Painting isn’t inherently difficult.

You put some wet paint onto the fibers of a brush and then stroke it against a canvas and you’re off. A few thousand more of those actions and you’ll have yourself a Picasso or a Matisse or something similar.

But not quite.

The problem with painting typically isn’t in the act itself. If you have a working hand, fingers, and an elbow, you can paint. Whether you can paint well or not, that’s a subjective matter.

Yet, if the act of drawing or painting or otherwise creating isn’t that difficult, why isn’t everyone creating masterpieces, one after another? If this is all so basic and easy, why give any value to the work of historical artists – the Dali, Renoir, van Gogh, and Banksy work? Simply because they were able to do what any able bodied man or woman (or elephant) can do?

To find the answer, let’s look at something that has been happening behind our artists’ backs for a few years now.

A robot painted this picture of Matterhorn. Seriously.

Say hello to David, a robot that is equipped with a brush, a camera, and a lot of energy, to create stunning acrylic paintings.

You can watch a video of David at work here. Go ahead and watch it and then come back, I’ll wait.

By simply taking a picture and then programming the robot to re-create what it “sees” (using an array of colored paints), it’s plain to see how simple painting actually is.

Any painting starts with a single brush stroke and ends with one. Everything in-between is just more brush strokes.

Except, it’s not.

In between each stroke David runs some algorithmic equations which calculate which stroke to make next, what color to make it, exactly what angle to make it at, and how it will impact the next thousand strokes (give or take).

The machine moves its arm, first to a small cup of water, then to a palette of paints, then to the canvas. Stroke. It pulls the arm back, rinses the brush if necessary, analyzes the mark, then repeats the process. Water, paint, canvas, observe, think. Repeat.

And now we’re onto the part of painting that makes it all worthwhile. The singular reason more people don’t paint or feel that they can’t: observe, think.

Painting is the movement of a brush, but creating artwork requires a keen ability to observe and think on those observations.

In robots like David – and his companion robots, including Paul who draws amazingly creative portraits with a ballpoint pen – we can see how truly simple painting can be on the skin (or metal, or whatever). But when we start to really look at what’s going on beneath the surface of the actions, painting starts to become much more of a deep and difficult process. So much more than we give it (and those who do it well) credit for.

These painting robots use powerfully complex computer systems to calculate where a dab of paint needs to go and exactly what color it should be, all based on a photograph.

A human painter does the same thing, only with a few different tools. The process is the same for both parties: Observe, think, water, paint, canvas. Observe, think, water paint canvas. On and on.

To paint well is to observe, not only the objects or world of your subject, but also the work itself as it comes together. To paint well is to think on each stroke, each color, each blending line of pigment.

There aren’t any stunningly beautiful or revolutionary paintings made simply by doing half of the process – water, paint, canvas – what makes the greatest masterpieces great are the steps taken between. The steps we can’t directly see, but are evident in the artwork itself.

For the robot David, a single masterpiece takes about 10 hours or precisely 10,000 strokes. But more important than the strokes are the calculations that have to be made for nearly each one. How many do you imagine his “brain” makes per artwork? 20,000? 50,000?

When you sit down to paint or draw or write a story or just create, how many calculations are you making along each step of the way?

What if you made more?

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