Robots have been part of my life for nearly the whole time I’ve been alive.
Not real robots in my home (I so wish).
I mean the fictional robots of the big screen and the small screen sharing their stories with me ever since I was a young boy.
If saying I have a soft spot for robots makes me a geek, then, well, I suppose I am one.
Okay, okay. I’m a geek regardless of that. Not a tech-geek, however, but a sci-fi geek. Not to the degree where I’ve memorized entire episodes of Star Trek or Battlestar Gallactica verbatim. Nor to the extent that I know all the gadgets and gizmos in any one sci-fi flick (Terminator, Batman, Alien, Firefly) including what they do, who invented them and why, the way those true card-carrying sci-fi geeks probably can.
And, no, I haven’t been to Comic-Con (yet), though it is on the bucket list. Nor do I have a vast collection of action figures in my closet (though I did have several Planet of the Apes action figures way back when they were still called dolls).
Despite all those short-comings when it comes to true geek status, I still have to admit, I love science-fiction stories (in books, TV shows, and movies).
They’re some of the most imaginative works of fiction I’ve ever encountered and, as a writer, I am in awe of the ability those storytellers employ to blend scientific fact with speculation, to combine things we know, or are on the verge of knowing, with such infinite possibility.
One character found in many sci-fi stories – often a central character if not the protagonist or the antagonist – is the ROBOT.
The robot sometimes ends up being the unexpected villain or the unassuming hero.
In many ways, if not most, robots are misfits.
While they represent the best of human intellectual potential, they almost always seem to have flaws and faults (sometimes due to the limits or naivete or overzealous ambition of the humans who made them, sometimes due to the misguided or perhaps even selfish intentions of those humans, and sometimes due to some other unexpected variable).
But here’s the thing: Robots Are Cool.
The idea of machines acting like humans, to greater or lesser degrees, and occasionally even aspiring to be human, is a fascinating concept.
In many ways robots often remind me of Frankenstein’s Monster – made of up various parts and unable to work as perfectly as they had been envisioned to do.
By itself, the image of an automaton, a man-like creation, sparks so many images and stories in my head. The idea of bringing together the best aspects of technology and applying that to humanity (or vice versa) opens up the possibility for wonderful things to happen and for catastrophic things to happen.
But that’s the idea, I guess.
As humans, we are constantly striving to improve ourselves, to compensate for our limitations and frailties. We develop technology to do the menial tasks we don’t want to do, as well as to do the things we wish we could do, but we intend for that technology to do whatever the task is even better, faster, more efficiently than we could ever do.
Some movies I encountered in my younger years with ROBOTS as central characters:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- Star Wars Episode IV (1977)
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
- Alien (1979)
- The Terminator (1984)
- Short Circuit (1986)
- Batteries Not Included (1987)
And some early TV Shows:
- The Jetsons (1962)
- Lost in Space (1965-68)
- Battlestar Gallactica (1978)
There were others, but those are the ones that stuck with me the most.
Although a bit hokey, even stories like The Six-Million-Dollar Man and Bionic Woman hinted at robotics and of a merging of human and machine. And I watched every week, enamored by the thought of what it might be like to have that extra strength or speed or those heightened senses.
Technology seemed to offer mankind the possibility of being “superhuman” and that idea, regardless of how improbable, is powerful.
Heck, Tony Stark’s Ironman is a mechanical suit embodied by a human.
By the time I was fourteen-years-old, the year Star Wars came out, I had already developed a love for science-fiction and for fantasy that was every bit as strong as my love for westerns and for other action stories told on the big screen, the small screen, or in comic books. Though it would be another twelve years before I started reading novels with such stories.
Of course, long before I encountered R2-D2 and C-3PO, I had been watching “Robot” (Robot B-9) on the TV show Lost in Space. I remember enjoying the way Robot would get under the skin of Dr. Smith, thwarting any ill-conceived or often selfish acts and often saving the day. But Robot could also be a bit boring, especially his monotonous voice. He provided some levity and some irony, but Robot wasn’t as captivating as most of today’s robots, certainly not the way R2-D2 and C-3PO were – mechanical heroes who often stole the scene from their human counterparts.
But it was a start.
There was something almost human about Threepio – in his fallibility, in the way he took things personally, and also in his appearance – that made him identifiable and appealing. Not to mention the comic relief he provided.
A decade after Luke and Jan Solo and Leia and Chewy were off saving the universe, I came across the charming little alien space ships from Batteries Not Included which, for whatever reason, always made me think of robots. And a few years after Star Wars with its droids, the cult classic Blade Runner came out featuring “genetically engineered robots called replicants that are visually indistinguishable from humans, but physically superior and able to withstand pain.” Replicants, it turns out had a pre-set life-span and a few of them decided they wanted to live a bit longer.
The concepts of love, and of compassion, and of what is life are examined in many stories with robots. Blade Runner captivated my adolescent imagination as much for it’s dark, noir qualities as for the possibilities it presented.
Robots often represent the salvation of mankind or the destruction and stories about robots tend to examine the wonderful benefits as well as potential angers of technology. Robots, of course, as used to reinforce human values, the essential nature of things like love and compassion, traits robots aren’t capable of having. They also reveal paradoxes and ironies related to life and death, progress and authenticity.
It wasn’t until I was twenty-six that I discovered the remarkable robot characters to be found in books, like those by Isaac Asimov.
Asimov’s novels (The Foundation series, Caves of Steel, and the rest) introduced me to some wonderful robotic characters as well as raised some interesting questions, like what makes someone human. Can robots be murdered?
In addition to interesting stories, Asimov also came up with the “Three Laws of Robotics.”
Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These laws, of course, allowed for some interesting conflicts and complications while the characters in Asimov’s novels allowed for robots with interesting personalities. Some of those characters made their way onto the book covers which led me to the visual art of Michael Whelan (an artist who influenced much of my reading with his cover art – you can check out some of his incredible sci-fi and fantasy cover art here).
As a fan of visual art and of robots, I recently discovered several bots online that resonated with me, some of which appear on this page. There were others, as well, but I wasn’t able to contact the artists in time or failed to hear back from them prior to launching this post.
I’m drawn to the reflective nature expressed by some of the robots created by the artists below, the relationships they have with other creatures, the tenderness and strength, the limitations and possibilities they present. I hope you enjoy their work as much as I do.
“I remember in preschool,” writes Brian Despain, “I was around three or four years old and really into dinosaurs. It was a direct result of my best friend’s older brother having them painted on his bedroom walls. Something about that mural, either the dinosaurs themselves or the fact that he was cool enough to have painted on his bedroom walls, spoke to me on such a basic level that I immediately went home and begged my parents to let me do the same. They weren’t thrilled with the idea but as a consolation they allowed me to draw dinosaurs on paper, cut them out and tape them up. And boy did I ever. I must have had dozens of them up, all different sizes and shapes. Needless to say the dinosaur thing bled into other aspects of my life. I would make dinosaur models, play with plastic dinosaurs, and when a project came up at school where we were given a circular piece of paper on which to draw, and which would then be shipped off and turned into a plastic plate I picked for my future plate, you guessed it, a dinosaur.”
I’m especially drawn to the personalities in Brian’s work and the unexpected combinations he puts together (like “Mr. Bubbles” for example with his cake and his pet fish).
Once he started working as an illustrator, Brian’s personal art and his professional career diverged.
“Illustration for hire,” he states, “is a much different animal than creating your own visions. There’s just too much input to get anything truly pure. . . . Still, I would try to inject my story telling sensibilities. For instance when I was doing concept art work in the video game industry I used to write a paragraph or two about the various creatures I designed. I would outline their behaviors, their biology, any special ability they may have had. I felt it gave the creatures more than just the obligatory ‘it needs to look cool.’ As if an animator or production artist could take this picture and the accompanying story and get a better sense of what that creature was all about. However, despite that and all my other attempts to inject my all consuming sense of something greater into my professional illustration work I was never able to wholly scratch that itch and so I kept working on my own stuff whenever I had the chance.”
When asked if his life has influenced his art, Brian responded: “Art, I believe, is a physical manifestation of an artist to date. All an artist’s training, skills, and talent coupled with the aforementioned life experiences create a specific piece of art, or body or work. This can be consciously shifted – i.e. I really like artist X thus I’m going to paint more like artist X – but even given that conscious push an artist will never break the orbit of their life. They will only change the trajectory.”
Brian stats that he builds his images “to evoke baser emotions. I throw in curve balls to evoke curiosity and wonder. I beg of the viewer through line, color and subject to shake off the trappings of passive observer and step boldly into the role of active participant. . . . I am a storyteller, but by hook or crook so are all of you.”
And I imagine that’s another thing about his art that speaks to me so strongly, not so much the stories his images convey for him, as the ones he gets me to see.
Technique: Brian typically works in oil paint on primed wood panel. The images here are examples of that technique.
Check out more awesome art by Brian at his gallery here.
Jon Foster has won several awards for his art. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, his work has appeared in publications such as “National Geographic, Universal Orlando, Dark Horse Comics, DC Comics, Tor Books, Simon and Schuster, Harry S. Abrams Books, Boston Globe, Underwood Books, Knopf, Delacorte, Del Rey Books, Scholastic, Fox Atomic, Little Brown, Nightshade Books, Subterranean Press.”
I’m especially drawn to the fantasy element of Jon’s work which at times reminds me of those book covers I discovered back in the late 80’s and created by early 90’s by Michael Whelan thanks to books by Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and other writers.
To explore more wonderful work by Jon visit his gallery here.
Matt Dixon, an illustrator and concept artist from the UK, has been interested in art his entire life for the sheer pleasure of creating. He’s so interested in the process of creating that he’s too eager to get started on the next piece to linger very long contemplating a finished painting.
Matt finds fantasy settings particularly appealing for they keep his imagination engaged and one look at his website an you’ll notice that his mind has been engaged a lot. When it comes to the use of color, Matt enjoys “how different colours get along on the canvas,” he says, “It’s the relationship between colours, rather than the individual hues that is most exciting and evocative to me.”
That relationship between colors is one of the things that resonates with me when it comes to the work of all the artists on this page, even the images that don’t have broad ranges of colors, as the artists find a way to use color to express so many things.
For example, Matt’s “Silent Oracle” speaks to me so strongly, in part because of the way those colors work together to convey setting and mood and irony. We have the remains of a robot – a head that has been abandoned for some time it would seem given the plant growth – and the colorful life fluttering from its eyes suggests so much.
Whether there’s a specific story attached to this head, it inspires a variety of possible scenarios (both of the events that led to this moment and, perhaps, of what’s to come).
In some ways Matt echoes something Brian said about the way his audience’s interpretations of his work being completely off the mark and spot on at the same time. Neither artist, it seems, focuses on providing some “great secret, meaning, or idea behind his work,” as Matt suggests. He, for one, “ is happy to humbly present my work and just let folks interact with it how they wish. It’s fascinating to see how people react face to face when presented with my images.”
When asked about any dream projects he might want to work on, Matt replied: “I’ve been lucky enough to work on some of the dream projects of my youth, illustrating for Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft, but I’ve come to realize that time for personal work is the most precious thing. I’d love to have the time to develop another book of robot artwork. It’s already in the works, but the first took several years to realize and this one is likely to take even longer . . .”
I for one hope he gets that free time to work on a new robot book. In the meantime, though, I’ll keep an eye out for whatever projects he does have in the works like his second collection of robot art, Transmissions 2, which is likely to be out in late 2015
Technique: Matt has been a digital artist for the past fifteen years and he works using Adobe Photoshop and a Wacom Cintiq.
For more of Matt’s art, visit his website here or his Facebook page here.
Japanese artist, Shingo Matsunma is part of the creative duo known as Shichigoro-Shingo. Shingo works with digital media such as Photoshop and Clip Studio Paint. He has only been publishing his art online since 2010 and works as a freelance illustrator. Shingo graduated from Tama Art University (Department of Painting, Oil Painting Course) in Tokyo.
I am especially drawn to the interesting shapes and anatomical dimensions in Shingo’s work that create characters who are quite fantastical. I am also drawn to the use of colors (which are muted and earthy and subdued).
I’ll be exploring more of Shingo’s work in a future Featured piece, but you can find three images in the gallery below (the first three images) and many more here.
Maral is an illustrator living and working in Paris (though she divides her time between France and California). She was “educated at UCLA (BA in art/design and graduate studies in animation), L’Ecole du Louvre, and the University of London (Paris campus, previously the British Institute).”
She has attended “the art & print-making workshops of Sàrmede, where she studied with Svjetlan Junakovich and Linda Wolfsgruber (both of whom are Andersen Prize nominees and fantastic teachers).”