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Saturday, December 31, 2022

AI and the Painter, Part 2: A Path Forward

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"Cottonwood Days" / 12x16 Oil
Based on AI-generated image

In my previous post on AI (Artificial Intelligence), I wrote about what AI image generation is and how it works.  In this post, I'll share an idea of how AI may be useful to what I call the "get your hands dirty" painter.

First, let me say that, for me, AI can never replace what I do as an artist.  Making art is all about touch—holding a brush or pastel stick, stirring a pile of paint with a knife, drawing an expressive line with a lump of charcoal.   You get none of this tactile satisfaction when you feed prompts to an AI.

Yet I have a curious mind, and recently I wanted to see if the technology could help an artist like me.  In the studio, I use reference material gathered in the field—photographs, pencil sketches, color studies—to create a work that is more "considered" and finished than a painting I can do en plein air.  Would it be possible to use an AI-generated image as another reference for painting?

I proposed a process:  Submit a few field references to the AI along with a text prompt describing the scene, and then use the generated image to paint from.

On Midjourney, the AI platform I'm experimenting with, there's a large community of artists.  Most of them, it seems, work purely digitally and using text prompts only.  (A text prompt might go something like:  "Dragon and mountain from Tolkien, intricate details, Frank Frazetta style." See below for the result.)  Others feed the AI sketches along with text prompts and then fine-tune the result through image editing software like Topaz.  After an informal poll of users, I determined that few or none are doing what I wanted to do, which is to use the generated image as a reference for painting in traditional media.

Here's the grid of four images generated by the Midjourney AI from the dragon prompt.  Interestingly, there seems to be a signature on the top left image—a telling clue, letting us know that parts of the image may have been scraped from the Internet from another artist's work.  Or did the AI add it all on its own?

Prompting with an image is easy.  Prompting with text, not so much—especially if you want to send the AI down a certain path.  You can get all kinds of wacky, nightmarish results if you don't consider carefully your choice of words.  Although there's an abundance of documentation on using Midjourney, I will say that this platform is not for the novice computer user.  Even with many years as a systems analyst, programmer and all-round computer geek (yes, I had a life before art), I found the learning curve steeper than I had hoped.  I won't get into all the technical bits here, as that's not my goal.  But I do want to share with you the process and the results of two experiments.

Experiment 1:  Image Prompt (color study, pencil sketch) + Text Prompt

Here are the two images submitted, one a color study, the other a pencil sketch:



Here is my text prompt:
impressionist oil painting of a rocky cliff with faint candy stripes situated by a calm lake, clouds bathed by sunset light 
Here is the first result, a grid of four images:


I decided not to paint any of these, as they are too different from the actual scene, which is more accurately depicted in the color study.  I also thought the trees were a little strange, if not downright frightening.

Experiment 2:  Image Prompt (color study, photo) + Text Prompt

Here are the two images submitted, one a painting, the other a photo:




Here is my text prompt:
cottonwood trees, autumn, impressionist style oil painting
Here some results, grids of four images:







I decided to take these three: 





And referred to them in creating the following painting in oil:

"Cottonwood Days"
12x16 oil

I like the painting I made, and I think the experiment was successful.  But honestly, I might have been able to do pretty much the same by just looking at fine paintings of scenery on the web or in Southwest Magazine if I truly needed the inspiration—and I wouldn't have had to learn how to write a useful text prompt.  Will I use the AI in the future?  Probably not, but if this sort of thing interests you, go for it.  Let me know how it goes.




Monday, December 26, 2022

Imaging Your Paintings: Why Worry?

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Littlejohn process camera, used until the early 1990s
for creating printing plates from large line drawings.


Do you agonize over color-correcting the photos you've taken of your paintings?  Of course you do; we all do.  After all, as visual artists, the image is what we live for.  I, too, have spent many hours in Photoshop adjusting white balance, saturation and more in an often-futile effort to get the image to look exactly like the painting.  It's frustrating.

Now, look at any carefully-printed museum catalog.  The images look pretty good, don't they?  But take the catalog to the museum and compare the reproductions with the actual paintings.  I guarantee that the two will differ, sometimes by a great deal.  One would expect that the museum staff or hired photographers would know more about imaging artwork than you or me, right?

These people are experts in their field.  But the problem rarely lies with them.  The problem, as I'm sure you already know, is manifold:
  • The eye seems things differently from the camera or scanner
  • Not all imaging devices are calibrated properly to screen and printer
  • Paint pigments are different from ink pigments
  • A painting has a textured, three-dimensional surface, whereas a reproduction is two-dimensional (unless you're using a 3D printer)
  • The printing process usually involves printing a number of images on a single sheet, and printer adjustments made for one image likely will affect the other images negatively
  • And, finally, there's a lot of personal judgment involved with adjusting images for the screen or for print
Personally, I'd like to give up photographing my paintings altogether.  The struggle seems counterproductive for someone who just wants to paint.  But, "just paint" isn't all we do.  We photograph our work to enter competitions, to apply to residencies and exhibitions, and to upload it to a website for sales.  For the working artist, photographing art is a necessary skill—so either you must learn or prepare to hire it out.  (I'll refrain from teaching this here; others have covered this topic better than I can.)

So here's some advice:  Stop comparing the image on your computer screen to the painting.  Just make the image on the screen look as good as you can, even if it means the contrast, saturation and temperature are off.  You aren't trying to duplicate the painting.  You are trying to get a good-looking representation that you can use for competitions, residencies and websites.  I always tell people:  "The painting looks better in person."

I read a lot of magazines, and recently I came across an article that has nothing to do with painting but everything to do with trying to get an accurate representation—and although it concerns sound, we can apply the following to paint.  I'm quoting from "Corner Club Cathedral Cocoon:  Audiophilia and its Discontents" by Sasha Frere-Jones (Harper's, December 2022):
I’ve been making records since I was a teenager, and at no point have I been involved in making a record that re-produced an event from everyday life, just as your favorite novel is (with rare exceptions) not a transcript of a conversation. You shape the material you have to make it do what you need it to. [Italics mine.] The idea of anything being “natural” or “accurate” in the field of recorded music made no sense to me. I do know that the word “accuracy” in the context of audio means reproducing the master recording faithfully, but this always seemed like an imaginary pursuit. Who, other than the artist, would know how a master recording was supposed to sound? More to the point, as that artist, I’ve never been entirely sure that I know what a final release does or should sound like. 
I leave it to you to work out the details of this analogy.  In the meantime, don't worry.

Image generated by DALL-E / Open AI


By the way!  Don't forget my May workshop at Bluebird Studios in Santa Fe.  Santa Fe is an awesome place to hold a plein air painting workshop -- great scenery, but also lots of extracurricular activities like galleries and museums! 10% off the price till Dec 31 if you use the coupon code "BLUEBIRD10"  Details here.

Last but not least, my 50% Studio Sale on Southwest paintings continues through December 31st.  Check out the artwork here.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

AI and the Painter: Should I Worry? Part 1

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"A Day at the Beach"
Image generated by Midjourney AI
 & Michael Chesley Johnson


I can hear you asking:  "Hey, I'm a plein painter, so what does AI have to do with me?"  Although there's been a lot of buzz lately about how AI threatens to replace commercial artists, for the plein air painter, it can be yet another very useful tool in your paint box—especially if you like to return to the studio to create more finished work based on your outdoor sketches.

For some of you, "AI" may be nothing more than a set of letters that occasionally surfaces in your newsfeed.  But AI—or Artificial Intelligence, a simulation of human intelligence by a computer—is ubiquitous.  You've used it when calling your bank to check your account balance and when asking Alexa to spin up your play list.

But it's not just about speech recognition and responding to prompts.  AI's increasingly worming its way into the foundation of everything, from feeding you personalized ads on Instagram to writing copy for lazy bloggers and lots, lots more.  Every day, they're finding new uses for AI—including image generation.

So how does an AI create art?  First, some examples.  One of the more popular platforms for image generation is Midjourney.   Here's a sampling from its Community Showcase:


How does it work?  The user sends either a text prompt or an image (or a combination of the two) to the AI.  The AI, which is constantly analyzing and cataloging images from the Internet, looks to find images that best fit the parameters.   From them, it synthesizes a new image by copying-and-pasting bits and pieces.  Just how close this comes to the desired result depends on the dataset the AI uses, the sophistication of its language model, and how specific the user is in his description of what he wants.

By the way, besides the fear of being replaced by a computer, another concern of commercial artists is the way the AI gathers its dataset.  It takes pre-existing images—many of which were created by these artists and copyrighted—and uses them without payment or attribution.  The good news is, there are people working to address this.  (But is the image the AI generates truly "art"?  The jury is still out on that.)  

Midjourney is just one of several image generation platforms out there, but I chose to focus on it for my research because it seems to generate higher-quality images and gives many options for tweaking how the images are generated. 

When I started playing with all this,  I was immediately impressed.  Here are some samples.

Image generated by Midjourney’s AI based
on my photograph below

Photo above image is based on

Image generated by Midjourney’s AI based on my
lighthouse photo below plus a text prompt I gave

Photograph of a plein air painting
I made of a lighthouse

For the boat, the AI created a series of variations, and I picked the one I liked best which I share here.  I like the color choices and even the odd way the water seems to lap right up to the road. (Where’d the road come from? It wasn’t in my original photo! This process is full of serendipity.)

For the lighthouse painting, I gave the following text prompt to the AI: “painting of lighthouse in style of Edward Hopper crashing waves rocks” plus my own painting of a lighthouse. Again, the AI gave me variations, and I picked my favorite. I like the drama of it, and even that little figure walking on the beach. (And it wasn’t in my painting, nor did I give that in my prompt.) 

So, how can all this be useful to the plein air painter? I'll share some ideas with you in a future post.  In the meantime, if you'd like to learn more about the issues surrounding AI image generation, here's a playlist I put together of relevant videos. If you'd like to learn more about how AI image generation works, here's another playlist.



By the way!  Just a reminder about my book.  Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air is the perfect gift for your beginning painter friends -- and the advanced painter will enjoy it, too.  And hey, it would also make a nice gift for yourself! You can get it at Amazon.  (While you're waiting for your copy to arrive, you might like to watch the video interviews I made with several of the artists.)

And don't forget my May workshop at Bluebird Studios in Santa Fe.  Santa Fe is an awesome place to hold a plein air painting workshop -- great scenery, but also lots of extracurricular activities like galleries and museums!  Details here.

Last but not least, my 50% Studio Sale on Southwest paintings continues through December 24th.  Check out the artwork here.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Retreat Report: Sedona, Arizona

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"Autumn Among the Rocks" 9x12 Pastel / Available
Painted on Multimedia Artboard

(I know I'm a bit late with this report, since the plein air painting retreat in Sedona was a few weeks ago in early November.)

Just prior to the retreat, I gave a well-received demonstration to Arizona Plein Air Painters in Phoenix.  Because we don't get to that city much, we rented a place for a couple of nights so we could refresh our memory of the area, in Scottsdale.  Scottsdale has a small-town feel with galleries and shops, and you would not know you were in a metropolitan area of five million people except for the blazing 300 Mbps internet speed at the house.  (I'm lucky if I can get 10 Mbps here in rural New Mexico—even so, I don't dream of moving to the city!)

Demonstrating for Arizona Plein Air Painters

After the demonstration, we wandered up the interstate to Sedona, where we stayed with our good friends, the Colemans. I've mentioned M.L. Coleman before, as we are "painter pals" and have taken several painting trips in his LazyDays RV. We spent the weekend hiking and locating some new, exciting painting spots for the retreat attendees. I even got in a quick bold-brush sketch at one of my favorite locations.


Getting in a quick one before the retreat

30-minute "bold brush" sketch

The retreat began Monday morning.  On the very first day, I always like to show painters who are new to the area the most spectacular spots.  These places tend to be very popular, so parking can be a problem.  But we were early, so we found plenty of spaces at Courthouse Vista.  This offers "in-your-face" views of Bell Rock and Courthouse Rock.  Later, we ended up down by Oak Creek to paint the evening sun on Cathedral Rock.  This location is popular with photographers who aim to shoot award-winning photos at the "golden hour"—and I will say that the evening light there takes my breath away, every time.  Overall, it was a spectacular day of sunshine and pleasant weather.

"Near Courthouse" 9x12 oil / SOLD

Painting down by Oak Creek

I knew later in the week we were to expect rain.  So, on Tuesday, I thought it would be good to show everyone how I gather reference material in preparation for studio painting.  We headed up to Schnebly Hill—another popular hiking area—where I demonstrated my way of collecting photos, pencil drawings and color sketches.  Later in the day, the wind got up with a lot of dust, a sure sign a storm was coming.  I like to do critiques in the field where the lighting is good, but we were able to get critiques out of the way before the wind came.

Wednesday, the rain arrived as predicted.  Fortunately, I was able to rent studio space at the last minute, thanks to my friends at the Sedona Arts Center.  Although they don't normally rent space on the fly, I have taught workshops there and have participated for many years in their annual plein air festival, so they made an exception.  Good thing, too, because the rain came down hard most of the day.  The studio had everything we needed, including a coffeemaker.  I demonstrated the next phase of my "outdoor-study-to-studio" method, using the materials I'd gathered the day before.

Painting in the Studio

9x12 Color Study for Studio Painting

"View of the Mittens" 8x16 oil / Available
Studio painting based on above reference plus photos and drawings

Our last day was Thursday.  We ended on a high note with a beautiful weather day, the rain being long gone. To get away from Sedona traffic, we headed east of town, toward Beaver Creek and the Bell trail.  Unlike the area right around Sedona, this is what I would call a "calmer" landscape, with rolling hills and fields; not an intimidating rock face was to be seen.  We had some good fall color, too, especially along the creek, which the Bell trail follows.  We didn't have to hike far to get a good view.  Later, after critiques and lunch, some of us went back to Oak Creek to paint more of the scenery.  With the water, cottonwoods, rock ledges and mountain views, I would call that location a "rich" location—countless paintings are possible.

If you've been following my blog, you'll know I schedule only a couple of painting retreats each year, always in a special place.  I don't have a spring one scheduled yet, but I do have one for fall:  Pagosa Springs, Colorado.  Check out my workshop page on my website for details.

"Season in the Canyon" 9x12 Pastel / Available
Painted along the Bell Trail on Multimedia Artboard



By the way!  Just a reminder about my book.  Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air is the perfect gift for your beginning painter friends -- and the advanced painter will enjoy it, too.  And hey, it would also make a nice gift for yourself! You can get it at Amazon.  (While you're waiting for your copy to arrive, you might like to watch the video interviews I made with several of the artists.)

And don't forget my May workshop at Bluebird Studios in Santa Fe.  Santa Fe is an awesome place to hold a plein air painting workshop -- great scenery, but also lots of extracurricular activities like galleries and museums!  Details here.

Last but not least, my 50% Studio Sale on Southwest paintings continues through December 24th.  Check out the artwork here.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

What I've Learned After 20+ Years of Teaching Plein Air Painting Workshops

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Me, teaching in York, Maine, many years ago.

You often hear teachers say:  "I learn as much as my students do!"  And it's true.  Students always bring something new to my plein air painting workshops.  It might be a piece of gear I'm not aware of, a hack that I find useful, or a technique that's new to me.  But over the years, I've learned two things that far exceed the importance of any of these.

First, I've learned respect.  My students are incredibly motivated, overcoming any handicaps they may have.  When I was younger and just beginning to teach and had a high percentage of seniors in my workshops, I used to ask myself:  "What's wrong with some of them, that they can't hike a few hundred yards and struggle with carrying their gear?"  (I was always kind, though, and helped as much as I could.)  But over the years, seeing these students deal with everything—and without complaint—has opened my eyes.  For them, the call to be in a place of great beauty where they can experience and respond to the landscape in a satisfyingly personal way is a powerful one.

Second, I've learned patience.  I get students of all abilities, and the ones with the least always seem to try the hardest.  Some come with the most rudimentary of painting skills; and many simply can't draw.  Despite their lack of skill and experience, they are, like my seniors, incredibly motivated, and they want to do it right.  So, although I know time is passing and the shadows are moving, I stand by their side and show them how it's done.  (I remember very well what it was like when I was new at this.) For these beginners, they are eager to learn so they, too, can experience and respond in a satisfying, personal way.

So, thank you, students, for teaching me respect and patience. These are more valuable than anything else I've learned.




By the way! Just a reminder about my book. Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors: Mastering Plein Air is the perfect gift for your beginning painter friends -- and the advanced painter will enjoy it, too. And hey, it would also make a nice gift for yourself! You can get it at Amazon. (While you're waiting for your copy to arrive, you might like to watch the video interviews I made with several of the artists.)

And don't forget my May workshop at Bluebird Studios in Santa Fe. Santa Fe is an awesome place to hold a plein air painting workshop -- great scenery, but also lots of extracurricular activities like galleries and museums! Details here.

Last but not least, my 50% Studio Sale on Southwest paintings continues through December 24th. Check out the artwork here.