Areas of Science Robotics
Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability This robotics engineering project requires you to purchase VEX® robotics materials. See the Materials and Equipment list for details. With a little problem-solving, you may be able to substitute another robotics platform.
Cost Very High (over $150)
Safety Use caution with tools when assembling the robot. Minor injury is possible.


Are you artistic? Do you enjoy creating art? Some may think that art is something only humans can make, but what about robots: can they be artistic? They can if you build them that way. In this robotics engineering project, you will build a robot that creates art. And who knows? Someday your robot art may be worth millions!


Build a robot from VEX® parts and a colored marker that creates art.

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Michelle Maranowski, PhD, Science Buddies

  • Vangobot is a registered trademark of Luke Kelly and Doug Marx.
  • VEX and VEX Robotics are registered trademarks of Innovation First International, Inc.
  • LEGO and MINDSTORMs are registered trademarks of The LEGO Group.

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Science Buddies Staff. "Robot Picasso: Building a Robot That Creates Art." Science Buddies, 20 Nov. 2020, Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

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Last edit date: 2020-11-20


Are you an artist? What kind of art do you create? Perhaps you draw with charcoal, or paint with watercolors, scribble doodles, or sketch anime. Whatever you do, you are expressing yourself creatively and making art, much like the most famous artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso. Many of his "scribbles" are now worth millions!

Do only humans create art? Can art be made by something that is not alive, like a robot? To answer these questions, we need to know first of all what a robot is. A robot is a mechanical device capable of performing tasks either automatically or under human guidance. Robots can be programmed (given a list of instructions) and "taught" to do all kinds of things, like deliver medications to hospital patients or put together a car on an assembly line. Robots are also used for entertainment purposes, such as those at Disneyland® and Disney World®. These robots inspire joy and amazement in audiences. In the accompanying video, you can learn about a robot that creates art, although the inspiration still comes from a human.

Video screenshot of Vangobot
Watch this video to discover more about the Vangobot. This robot can paint a picture using a painting that a human makes on a computer as a guide. It can also paint a picture from a photograph based on a couple of different painting styles.
Watch this video to discover more about the Vangobot. This robot can paint a picture using a painting that a human makes on a computer as a guide. It can also paint a picture from a photograph based on a couple of different painting styles.

What is interesting about the Vangobot™ is that it is not a copy machine; it actually paints pictures with brushes and paint, and in a distinct, unique style— just like a human artist. The Vangobot can change its brush length, brush stroke, and can vary the intensity of color it uses. But it is different from a human artist in a couple of important ways. First, Vangobot requires a computer program to tell it what to paint and to give it a road map of how to paint something. It depends on mathematics to figure out how to hold the brush for the next brush stroke, but once it knows this, it can add texture to its stroke. Second, unlike a human artist, Vangobot has a single eye. The inventors of Vangobot feel that with their robot's vision system, they are exploring the boundary of human vision.

In this engineering project, you will build a drawing robot — but not one as complex as the Vangobot! You will build your art robot so that you can guide it with a joystick to make an artistic picture. As with a remote-control car, you will "drive" your robot on your canvas to create your own art. Your picture can be realistic, with shapes and easily recognizable objects, or it can be abstract, representing how you feel that day. It is up to you whether you use just one color of marker, or several different colors. You could use any number of robotics systems or platforms to make a drawing robot; however, the Experimental Procedure below shows you how to get started building your robot using the VEX robotics design system. The VEX system has a lot of expandability and will enable you to easily build a basic drawing robot, but then continue on to make more elaborate versions if you like. If you prefer, you can use a different robotics platform, but you will have to problem-solve on your own and adapt the instructions in the procedure.

Because this is an engineering project and you are the lead engineer, you will determine the structure of your robot, keeping in mind that a robot has several key parts. Just like a human, a robot needs a brain. This robotic brain is called a microcontroller. A microcontroller is an electronic device; it is a computer on an integrated circuit that controls the robot's actions. A robot also needs a structure, or body. The body can have several parts. Among the essential parts are motors that enable the robot to move. A robot's structure, or body, can be made from a wide range of materials including plastic and stainless steel. The body is essentially either a case to house the other parts inside, or a platform to attach the other parts to. Some other parts of a robot include sensors, nuts and bolts, gears, and batteries or a connection to power.

Robots can be complicated or simple; they can be made from different robotics platforms such as VEX robotics design system or LEGO MINDSTORMS®, but they are all made from basic parts. Your robot has to be sturdy enough to hold a microcontroller, a battery pack, wheels, and markers. Have fun creating works of art. You can give your artworks away as gifts or even sell them!

Terms and Concepts

  • Robot
  • Computer program
  • Microcontroller
  • Integrated circuit
  • Motor
  • Sensor
  • Gear
  • VEX® robotics design system
  • Chassis


  • What is a robot? What are some ways robots are used to help humans other than the applications you read about above?
  • What is the difference between a DC motor and a servo motor?
  • What role does a microcontroller play in creating a robot?
  • You can make a wheel turn using a motor. But how can you use one motor and gears to make two wheels turn?
  • What examples can you give of art robots other people have built? How are they similar to each other? How are they different?


AARON is a software program and robot created by Harold Cohen that makes original art. The following article by Harold Cohen discusses how he started on his path to making AARON and some of the problems he has had to solve:

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Materials and Equipment

  • VEX® dual control robot starter kit (VEX part number 276-2700), available from VEX Robotics
  • Markers (minimum of 1, more if you would like additional colors)
  • Canvas. Your canvas can be simply a large piece of paper, several smaller pieces of paper taped together, or a stretched linen canvas. You will need two to three canvases for practicing with the robot.
  • Lab notebook
  • Optional: Computer with an Internet connection

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Experimental Procedure

Note: This engineering project is best described by the engineering design process, as opposed to the scientific method. You might want to ask your teacher whether it's acceptable to follow the engineering design process for your project before you begin. You can learn more about the engineering design process in the Science Buddies Engineering Design Process Guide.

The procedure below will give you instructions on building a simple robot (using VEX parts from the dual control starter kit) that draws simple pictures with an attached marker and joystick. This robot is great introduction to robotics and to VEX. If you would like to challenge yourself, you can continue by trying the Variations in the Make It Your Own tab. The Variations include suggestions for adding specialized motors, called servo motors, to help lift and set down the marker on different sections of the paper as well as switch between different colored markers.

Designing the Robot

  1. The goal of this robotics engineering project is to build a human-guided robot that can create drawings. If you are new to building robots, or new to the VEX system, we strongly recommend that you build the VEX clawbot first, following the instructions provided with the kit. This will give you a sense of how the pieces can be attached to each other. It will also give you a starting point for designing your drawing robot.
  2. Keeping the goal in mind, start by writing down the requirements that the robot must have in order to accomplish the goal. These are called the design requirements. The following is a list of possible design requirements. Feel free to change these suggestions and to add more requirements for your design. Record your design requirements in your lab notebook.
    1. The robot's structure must be stable and sturdy enough to hold the other components, like the microcontroller and its battery pack.
    2. The robot will draw on a canvas on the ground.
    3. The robot must be mobile, so it will need wheels, motors to power those wheels, and a power supply.
    4. The robot must be light, so that its wheels do not make impressions on the canvas.
    5. The robot must have a marker or markers attached. Choose whether you want the robot to draw with one marker at a time or more. If you chose more, specify a number.
  3. Now use your design requirements to guide the design of the robot. Gather your thoughts and draw out your ideas in your lab notebook.
    1. Look at the VEX clawbot design and pick components from that design to use in your drawing robot.
      1. Do you want the claw part or not? Remember, there is no "right" answer, just choices. Figure 1 below shows a simple robot, based on the clawbot chassis (body) with a single marker attached to the front.
      A simple robot that makes drawings
      Figure 1. This is a simple robot that makes drawings. Made using two DC motors, it can move forward and backward and can turn. Notice that the robot is stable because it moves on four wheels.

    2. How will you connect wheels to your robot? Figures 2 and 3 below show an example of how to connect wheels. This idea is taken from the VEX clawbot design.
      Side view of a robot's wheels
      Figure 2. Side view of one set of the robot's wheels. Notice how the motor is connected to the central gear. Can you see how the companion gears move with the central gear?

      Top view of a robot's wheels
      Figure 3. Top view of one set of the robot's wheels. In this image you can clearly see how the gears fit together.

    3. Where will you place the marker(s)? Think about the shapes that you wish to make and plan the position of the marker(s) accordingly.
    4. How will you attach the marker(s)? One possibility is to use zip ties, as shown in Figure 1 above, but there are plenty of other solutions.
    5. Will you attach more than one marker to the robot simultaneously, or will you manually switch markers in and out?
    6. Once you have developed a few ideas, pick the ideas that you believe will work best and put them together into one design.

Building the Robot

  1. This procedure gives you instructions for building the robot shown in Figures 1, 2, and 3 above. However, you can use the tips given in this section and build your own robot. You should feel free to modify any of the instructions to build a robot that is unique and completely your own.
  2. Build the robot based on your design and the design requirements from the previous sections. Here are a few tips and suggestions:
    1. Look through the kit and familiarize yourself with all of the parts prior to starting. Kits come with metal rails and metal angles of different sizes, stainless steel screws and nuts. Figure 4 below shows examples of these items.
      Picture of VEX hardware

      Pictured top left is a metal angle, top right is a metal rail, bottom left is a shaft, bottom right is a collar. Different sizes of metal angle, metal rail, shaft, and collar can be found in the dual control robot starter kit.

      Figure 4. VEX metal hardware: (a) metal angle, (b) metal rail, (c) shafts, and (d) collar.

    2. Put together two metal rails and a metal angle by inserting a stainless steel screw through a hole and then attaching a nut to the end of the screw.
    3. Building your drawing robot with Keps nuts and nylock nuts allows for maximum flexibility. Keps nuts are reusable, so you can modify your robot easily, while the white nylon layer in the nylock nut allows for one use only. The nylock nut makes a better connection because you are sinking the end of the screw into the nylon layer. Consider using a nylock nut when you want a more permanent connection. Figure 5 below shows front views of a Keps nut and a nylock nut.
      Front view of keps nut and a nylock nut

      Picture A is a keps nut and picture B is a nylock nut. Different sizes of nuts can also be found in the kit.

      Figure 5. This image shows a front view of (a) a Keps nut and (b) a nylock nut.

    4. You can make a simple chassis or robot body by screwing together four metal rails and two metal angles. However, to improve the stability of this simple chassis, screw two metal rails across the chassis.
    5. The chassis shown in Figures 2 and 3 above is a good one because the top metal angle (the long side of the rectangle chassis) is just wide enough so that the microcontroller can be easily connected to the chassis. In addition, the second rails (the short sides of the rectangle) not only provide stability to the chassis but also hold the motors that drive the wheels.
    6. There are many ways to connect wheels to the chassis. If you have four motors, you can assign a wheel to each motor. If you have two motors, you will need to use gears and attach two wheels to a motor. The following figures will show you how to do this.
      1. The first step is to build the frame of the chassis. The frame is built using two metal rails and a metal angle. The metal rails are modified as shown in Figure 6 below. Figure 6 shows that you will use three plastic (Delrin) bearing flats and six two-piece pop rivets for each metal rail. Once you finish connecting the bearing flats to the rails, set both metal rails aside.

        A metal rail being attached to bearing flats
        Figure 6. An example of a metal rail with three attached bearing flats. Slip the plastic screw through a plastic sleeve (pop rivet) and then push this through an opening in the bearing until you hear a click. Repeat with the second metal rail.

      2. Now connect a motor to a metal rail. Figure 7 below shows all the parts that you will need to do so. This design requires three plastic (Delrin) bearing flats and plastic, two-piece pop rivets. Repeat with another metal rail and plastic parts. These rails will stabilize the robot's chassis. Set aside.
        A motor is connected to the metal rail
        Figure 7. The motor is connected to the metal rail with plastic bearing pop rivets, and three bearing flats. Make two of these assemblies to attach to opposite sides of the chassis. These parts will act to stabilize the metal chassis.

      3. Now connect the metal rails from step f(i) and a metal angle together as shown in Figure 8 below. Make sure that the bearing flats on both rails line up. Use stainless steel screws and nuts, and allen wrenches to attach the rails and angle together.

        Metal rails and angle pieces being connected
        Figure 8. This photograph demonstrates how to put together the metal rails and angle pieces for the chassis.

      4. Attach the stabilizing metal rails with the motors from step f(ii) to the chassis as shown in Figure 9 below. As in the previous step, use stainless steel screws to attach the rails to the metal angle.

        Attaching stabilizing rails with motors to the robot's chassis
        Figure 9. This photograph shows the parts that you use to attach the stabilizing rails with the motors to the robot's chassis. Remember to repeat this sequence on the other side of the chassis.

      5. The robot design in Figures 2 and 3 above uses gears to divide the rotation from the motor between two wheels. Figure 10 below shows the parts that you need to attach the first gear to the motor; you will use a stainless steel shaft, gear, and two collars. Use the included allen wrench to tighten the collar to the shaft. This firmly attaches the gear to the motor. Repeat on the other side of the chassis.

        Shaft and two collars to attach the gear to the motor and chassis
        Figure 10. You will need a shaft and two collars to attach the gear to the motor and chassis.

      6. Push the shaft through the openings in the chassis and stabilizing bar, through the openings in the bearing flats, into a collar and then completely into the motor. Then slip the gear over the shaft followed by the second collar. Tighten the collars with the included allen wrench. Repeat on the other side of the chassis. Figure 11 below shows a completed attached gear.

        Gear attached to the motor with a shaft
        Figure 11. Gear attached to the motor with a shaft.

      7. Now build the system that will split the motion between two wheels. When the motor turns, the primary gear attached to the shaft will turn as well. Having secondary gears connected to the primary gears allows the motion of the motor to be split because the teeth on the primary gear will catch the teeth on the secondary gears and cause them to rotate in conjunction with the primary gear. Figure 12 below shows how to attach the secondary gears. Be sure to repeat this on the other side of the chassis.

        One motor rotates two wheels
        Figure 12. The VEX parts required to have the motor rotate two wheels. Remember to repeat this configuration on the other side of the chassis.

      8. You will use four metal collars, two shafts, two gears, two plastic spacers, and two wheels. Insert a shaft into the openings of the metal rails, through the bearing flats. Tighten a collar onto one end of the shaft and slide the gear on the end so that the teeth of the secondary and primary gear mesh together. Slide a plastic spacer onto the shaft, a wheel, then the metal collar. Tighten both collars with an allen wrench. Repeat with another secondary gear so that you have two wheels per side. Figure 13 below shows the final assembly.

        Wheel assembly of a robot
        Figure 13. Final wheels assembly. This is repeated on the other side of the chassis.

      9. Now attach a metal angle across the width of the chassis as shown in Figures 1 and 3 above to form and strengthen the robot's structure. The distance between the two metal angles should be equal to the length of the Cortex microcontroller.
    7. Use screws and Keps nuts and install the Cortex microcontroller to the robot chassis. The microcontroller is the robot's "brains." It functions to control the robot and communicate with it. Follow the instructions that come with the VEX system to initialize the microcontroller and connect it to the joystick. You can also find instructions on initializing and connecting the microcontroller and joystick on this VEX robotics page: Cortex Microcontroller and VEXnet Joystick User Guide.
      1. You can run the robot with the joystick physically connected to the Cortex microcontroller with cables, but it is best to continue with the instructions and have the joystick connect wirelessly to the Cortex microcontroller.
      2. 'Attach the microcontroller battery beneath the microcontroller and to the chassis as shown in Figure 3.
    8. Attach the markers to the robot's chassis with zip ties. Make sure that the markers don't hamper the mobility of the robot. Attach the markers firmly so that the robot's motion doesn't affect the positions of the markers.

Testing the Robot

  1. Find a location free from obstacles where you can set up the canvas.
  2. Test the basic functionality of the robot:
    1. Place the robot on the canvas and turn it on. Uncap your marker(s).
    2. Do the marker(s) stay in contact with the canvas when you want them to? If not, you may have to simply adjust the marker positions for the robot to function as you expect. If the robot still doesn't accomplish the goal, then you will have to redesign the robot.
      1. Look back at your observations and think about the changes that you need to make.
      2. Review the design requirements before redesigning the robot.
      3. You may need to redesign and retest several times in order for the robot to accomplish the project goal.
  3. Once your drawing robot has passed the basic functionality test, test the limits of your robot.
    1. Figure 14 below shows two pictures that you should try to make with your robot: a sun and a house.
      1. Use the joystick to drive the robot around on the canvas. You should practice doing this before you uncap the markers to make the images.
      2. Compared to the image, how accurately can your robot draw a sun? Can it draw the sun without you physically picking up the marker or robot?
      3. Compared to the image, how accurately can your robot draw the house? Can it draw the house without physically picking up the marker or robot?
      4. If you used more than one marker simultaneously in your robot, how accurate did each picture turn out?
      5. Record your observations in your lab notebook.
    2. Try creating several original pieces of art with your drawing robot. Can you make what you want to? If not, what is holding you back? Record your observations in your lab notebook.
Drawing of a sun next to a house
Figure 14. This image shows two test images, a sun and a house.

Note: If you are finished with the project, then skip forward to the "Presenting Your Robot and Project" section. If you would like to attempt a more complex robot, then read the intermediate and advanced robot design Abbreviated Project Ideas described in the Variations.

Presenting Your Robot and Project

  1. Once you have finished the robot, show your friends and family the robot and have them create their own art.
  2. When presenting your robot's artwork at a science fair, try to bring in the robot, too. If you are not able to do so, show pictures of the robot, video of the robot in action, and/or bring in the pictures that you drew with the robot.
  3. You should include the following items in your presentation:
    1. A list of the project requirements that guided your building of the robot.
    2. The rough sketches of your design.
    3. An explanation of what you learned from your research and from building the robot.

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  • Instead of using markers, attach paintbrush pens or a combination of markers and paintbrushes to the robot to add variety to the artwork.
  • Artists can express themselves creatively using different colors in their artwork. For an advanced challenge, investigate the Abbreviated Project Idea, Drawing Dali-bot: Designing an Art Robot That Switches Colors. In this Abbreviated Project Idea use a servo motor (or more than one) and RobotC to design your robot to rotate in and out different colored markers at a certain time or based on instructions from the artist.

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