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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.

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