Watch: A Drawing Machine That Only Draws Other Drawing Machines

Pablo Garcia turns his passion for drawing machines into a history-rich project.

A modern CNC machine programmed to illustrate historical drawing machines? The concept alone seems custom-made to intrigue and delight meta-loving Internet denizens, but MachineDrawing DrawingMachines isn’t some fly-by-night experimentation; Pablo Garcia, the man behind the project, has been researching drawing machines for years.


“My interest has always been in how the machines actually work, and how a contemporary user would have seen the world differently through a mechanical aid to drawing,” he tells Co.Design. His current collection of over 150 artifacts includes “reproductions of drawing treatises, scientific equipment catalogs, patents, and other places inventors described their improvements to drawing,” while the 12 illustrated for this particular project “connect the dots from the Renaissance to today with a representative from every generation up until the mid-twentieth century.”

Garcia is a modern day Renaissance man himself–artist, designer, former architect for Diller Scofido + Renfro–and he hopes to turn his work into a book, an interactive site, or an iPad app, in addition to the massive database for drawing machines that he’s creating. In the meantime, he talked with Co.Design about the origins of the project, why an old machine isn’t necessarily an outdated machine, and how a series of standard Uni-Ball pens made the whole thing possible.

How did you come up with the idea?

Garcia: After looking at all these machines, I asked myself one day: “If I could teach a contemporary machine about its own history, what would I teach it and how would I do it?” I then started to experiment with using a CNC machine to draw, hoping it would “learn” about its ancestry by drawing other drawing machines.

What’s the connection between these historical machines depicted in the series and the modern machine that’s illustrating them?

Having spent a good amount of contact time with historical and contemporary mechanical aids, I have found a real kinship between them all–not as “then and now,” in a binary opposition, but in a historical continuum. To wit: People have sought mechanical aids to drawing for millennia–in particular since the early Renaissance, 1420’s and beyond–and with the growing sophistication of human knowledge and ability, the machines evolved with us into more and more precise and versatile machines. The CNC is just the latest device in a long lineage to expand our opportunities for mechanically aided drawing and fabrication. If I have a primary message, it has to do with exploring that surprisingly close relationship between old and new machines.


Are the historical machines dinosaurs, or can we still learn from the way they depict the world?

I don’t think the historical machines are completely obsolete; their basic technology is a physical and mechanical manifestation of simple mathematical principles like geometry or perspective. In that way, they are more like ancestors of contemporary computation, only that the computer is insanely faster at plotting points, calculating curves, or outputting results. In fact, some of the devices use the same mechanics, like X-Y-Z actuated travel, as the CNC, but the old machines are human-controlled instead of by computer code.

The illustrations are drawn onto standard Stonehenge artist’s paper. What kind of pen did you use?

I tested a wide range–over two dozen different pens, pencils, brushes, and other “stylus” instruments. In the end, I needed something that would consistently mark the page without fading, or needing frequent sharpening or replacement. I thought it would be some old rapidograph or other mechanical ink pen, but the best results actually came from a Uni-Ball Vision Needle Micro pen (black ink); it provided a good stroke with a strong steel tip to withstand the abuse of drawing for hours on end. I went through about 15 of them, replacing each after a few hours of drawing to ensure fresh ink on each pass. The drawings vary in time, from the shorter ones–Frontispiece, Perspective device by Lanci–at 20 to 30 minutes to the longest ones–Dürer, Hooke, Leupold–at around 2.5 hours. It all depended on total number of strokes; the more lines to draw, the longer it took. With the latter, the time got longer since there were so many little hatches to draw, with lots of pen-down-pen-up in rapid succession, which slowed the process down.

(H/T: The Creators Project)