Ladue grad invents Van Gogh painting robot and we’re kvelling


Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

Is it every kid’s dream to build a robot?  You bet. Robots are cool, but very few of us get to realize that childhood dream. That cannot be said for Joel Willick, a third-year mechanical engineering student at Northeastern University and a 2019 Ladue Horton Watkins High School graduate.

“I started working with robots from a young age. I was on a First Lego League team when I was in middle school and I was on my high school’s First Robotics Challenge team,” said Willick, who grew up attending Bais Abraham Congregation. “In college, I am a mechanical engineering major with a minor in computer science.”

Right now, Willick is participating in “Co-op,” a six-month full-time internship that takes the place of classes for the semester.  His work is paying off.

Willick has successfully programmed a robotic arm to create drawings and paintings based on others’ works of art. His first artist? The master himself, Vincent Van Gogh.

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“I am starting with Van Gogh because I like his style and composition. His pieces have great texture with clear foregrounds and backgrounds which make them good practice. I am working on having it create art from photograph inputs,” said Willick.

To build the robot, Willick used an off-the-shelf Kinova robotic arm and reprogrammed it so it would take those raw photograph inputs, processes them, and use them to determine how to place pen strokes or paint strokes onto the canvas.

“This project was meant to be a passion project to help me to learn on my own,” said Willick. “The technology that it is using is very important to the field of robotics, namely computer vision, image processing, and motion planning.”

Meet Bob ROS

The robot is named Bob ROS, in honor of the late artist and host of the PBS show “The Joy of Painting,” and for the fact that the operating system Willick used was called ROS.

“I think Bob Ross is a good influence on the robot’s design philosophy because the mistakes that the robot makes are a part of the art it creates, said Willick. “I like the organic-ness of the drawing. Its drawn lines, they don’t look like they were placed on a grid. They look like organic smooth lines like a human would draw.”

For paintings, Bob ROS takes an image and chooses eight colors, slices the image up into just those colors, layer by layer, and paints each layer one at a time, allowing itself to paint over areas it knows it’s going to paint again. The end result is a nice texture layered painting, like a real painter would make.

Willick has made two large paintings. One is “Starry Night” and the other, a self-portrait of Van Gogh.

“The fact that the robot put paint on paper is a success in itself. I think looking at the paintings, they look good. I’m happy with them. I would gladly place them on my wall, just as art in its own right.”

What’s Next

Bob ROS is just one of Willick’s current projects at what is called the”RIVeR Lab.”

“I am also working on PARIS, which is a foam installation robot to be used to retrofit old homes, a clothing sorting robot, and I worked on ACE which is an automatic face mask testing robotic system.”

Willick’s Co-op at RIVeR lab will be finishing in a couple of weeks. After that, he will go back to classes for a semester before doing another six-month Co-op at another company.

“I will begin my next co-op search in the spring of 2022, I hope to find work in the industry working on robotics. I also hope to work in robotics when I graduate in 2023.