Rob and Nick Carter are a husband and wife artistic duo who have been collaborating for over 20 years in London, England. Their work is housed on public and private collections around the world; including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Foundation Custodia in Paris.
The Carters’ work examines the boundaries between the analogue and the digital using mediums including camera-less photography, painting, installation, neon, sculpture, and time-based media. The artists overarching goal is to harness new technology and reference historical processes that wouldn’t have been traditionally possible to previous artists.
Rob and Nick Carter resolved their curiosity using one profound tool: a robotic arm that they named Heidi. With AI and robotics, the artists taught Heidi, a six-axis Kuka Robot, to paint with exact precision. Heidi has since produced numerous series that mimic the works of old masters and artistic icons, as well as portraiture.
Similar to the earliest of humans using ochre and charcoal to complete their rock paintings, or impressionist painters using pigments and brushes en plein air to produce works on canvas, Rob and Nick Carter use the programmed robotic arm to bring their works to life. In the words of the duo, “Artists have always used tools at their disposal. We have always embraced cutting edge technology whilst looking back at the past.”
A look at the Carters’ works render this statement true. Their Sunflowers Robot Paintings, after van Gogh, for example, mimic the famed artist’s painterly style and appear to be a close replica to his Sunflowers works painted in Arles in 1888 and 1889. They have, similarly, programmed Heidi to create works after old masters and even Andy Warhol. “We like to think if Warhol were alive he’d be using robots too,” they argue.
The Carters’ use of AI and robotics analyzes the fine line between the future of art and the digital which questions the concept of art in general, they believe that AI and Machine Learning will have a significant impact on art in the future. Their largest robot painting series thus far, Dark Factory Portraits, began with the notion of whether a machine can become an artist.
The title of the series, itself, is taken from the term “Lights-out manufacturing”, an approach that factories use to continue to function in the dark because robotic systems have no need to ‘see’ the work that they are doing. The artists have programmed Heidi in advance to produce a series of late and living artists’ portraits with the same concept in mind.
Rob and Nick’s Robot Masterpiece Paintings apply classical master’s painting concepts with modern technology. Using a robotic arm and paintbrush, they create precise paintings measured down to the exact stroke. The artists explain that the process is much more complex than programming a robot and handing it a paint brush.Their series, Dark Factory Portraits, for example, is a product of three years of advanced research and emphasis on teaching the robot to paint in their desired style. While it may appear that the end result is due largely to the work of the robotic arm, the brunt of the labor is done by the meticulous research and calculations of the artists. Thus, the works are very much a product of themselves. In the words of the duo; “Our Dark Factory Portraits exist because we tell the robot the exact style, the exact brushstrokes to paint. They are very much our work but we are using the robot as a tool.”
Watch the Robotic Arm in action as it paints Warhol’s Birth of Venus, after Botticelli, below:
During the height of the pandemic, the Carters’ were able to further explore their use of AI and robotics with their Dark Factory Portraits, which showed at the Ben Brown Fine Arts Gallery in London in 2020. They continued to exhibit their robotic works, showing their Sunflowers paintings at Van Gogh Alive in Kensington Gardens the following year. Those would be the first colored robot painting that they would produce. Their latest Robot Paintings are exhibited in De Buck’s Saint-Paul de Vence Gallery after a tour of the beautiful French coast in the Summer of 2022.
Rob and Nick Carter have exhibited worldwide in prestigious institutions such as the Royal Academy, Kensington Gardens, the Museum of Neon Art (Los Angeles), the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Frick Collection, the National Museum in Stockholm, and the Ateneum in Helsinki. Their works are housed in public and private collections at the Frans Hals Museum in Netherlands, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Fondation Custodia in Paris, and in Sir Elton John’s private residence in Berkshire.