A Drawing Machine Whose Pen Strokes Become Pixels [Video]

Sandy Noble uses a primitive robot and a plotting system designed for Arctic maps to sketch out beautiful prints.

We love drawing machines that fuse atavistic science with modern technology. Our latest find comes courtesy of Sandy Noble, an artist/hacker who created a primitive robot that sketches out pixilated images in long, arcing motions based on a polar coordinate system. He calls these works, appropriately, “polargraphs.”


The polar coordinate system gives Noble’s artwork a unique look that’s robotically geometric but messily organic at the same time. “A Cartesian system is what most maps use — four cardinal directions, two perpendicular to the other two,” Noble tells Co.Design. (X and Y values are also Cartesian.) “But if you imagine a map of the Arctic, then you’ll see that ‘north’ doesn’t really mean anything: All the top ends of the lines of longitude are collapsed into one point.”

Noble uses the top two edges of his canvas as “poles,” with “pixels” radiating out in an overlapping pattern of arcs. “The angle of the lines and the fact it’s all made up of subtle curves gives the impression of hand-drawn-ness,” he says. “Close up the lines are rather beautiful too, precise and even, and always on this subtle curve. It really clearly is machine-made, but it doesn’t seem to have the square-edged monotony that might be expected. When there is a bit of movement in the pen tip too, then new effects appear, the quality of the hatching pattern degrades, usually in an attractive way and it evokes stitching or embroidery.”

The machine is programmed to parse a bitmapped image into polar coordinates, which the robot mechanism executes. But Noble set it up purposely so that he’d never know quite how each drawing will turn out. “The software gives me a crude preview of how the image has been converted into blobs of density,” he says. “So I get a rough idea of what details will be visible, and what details won’t, but calibrating the pen thickness adds another dimension of unpredictability, so until it starts drawing I really don’t know how dark the darkest bits will be, or how smooth the gradients will be. Or how long the pen will last!”

Noble has already exhibited his polargraphs in a gallery, and has “a couple of commissions lined up.” If you like these, you might want to hit Noble up for one before he makes the transformation from agreeable engineer to art-world diva. (Don’t ever change, Sandy!)

[Read more about Polargraphs]


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.