Over on Facebook the other day, Tony Dowler, an artist whose work I admire (particularly his maps), posted this:

Yesterday, I asked AI to produce some cover art for my games. The results were pretty astounding. I immediately thought that these were probably better covers than I could have created myself. It left me with a huge dilemma.
I come across art that’s vastly better than mine every day. When I see an artist who exceeds my capability, I strive to learn what I can and then to make art that’s entirely different. I don’t want to aim for a goal that I will always fall short of, but I also want to get everything I can to improve my own art.
I’ve got a response for when other artists are better than me. Every artist has to have that. It’s a survival mechanism. But when the better artist is an AI, I don’t know how to respond. I don’t whose technique I’m learning from, which makes it feel like I really am stealing. I can’t take comfort in the fact that some other artist can make the thing I can never make, because it’s not another artist doing it.
Is it time to go back to analog art, and making things that are as messy and analog as I can make them? Should I accept that AI is my source of reference art and inspiration now and that human artists are out of the loop?

I've heard at least one of these points raised by artists over the last few months, and I asked Tony if I could use his post as a jumping-off point to talk about the miasma of issues around art, artists, and AI imagery.

AI Supremacy (aka The Oh Shit Moment)

I'll address this point first and most briefly because I've covered it before. In the intervening time since I researched what AI was capable of in terms of "creativity" - very little has changed. If anything, I'm less impressed now than I was a year ago with the capabilities of generative AI.

While the resolution of AI generated images has gone up, the range of images that AI is capable of generating seems to have fallen into very specific niches: concept art renderings, stock photography, product photography (for things that don't exist), and Pixar-esque characters. I'm not going to go in-depth into any of these buckets, but suffice it to say that if you write a prompt that touches on any of these areas, a generative AI like Midjourney will likely knock your socks off.

As I've said before, however, a large amount of the wow factor of generative AI is in our very human ability to bend our expectations to what's generated instead of the generated images reaching our expectations. Go through the gallery page of any generative AI engine, and while you may be flabbergasted by what's been generated, if you take some time to read the actual prompts, you realize that almost none of them meet the original request.

Here's an example I selected pretty much at random:

Taken from Leonardo.ai featured page, no attribution, not public domain.

I mean, super cute, right? If I was an artist and asked an AI to generate a cartoon fox, and I got this, it'd hit pretty hard. But let's look for a moment at the actual prompt:

A red fox sitting in a a grassy field, surrounded by a vast expanse of greenery and flowers. The sky is blue. The fox is wearing a monocle with a chain hanging from it on her right eye. Her fur is gently swaying in the breeze, and the sun is shining down on her, casting a warm glow, delicate skin, beautiful hair, large eyes, three dimensional effect, enhanced beauty, feeling like Albert Anker, feeling like Kyoto Animation

My first real issue with any generative AI is the ability to input an artist's name. For what it's worth, I think artists' names should be off-limits. But this image has no monocle on a chain, which seems like it's the main thing this person was going for, apart from delicate skin – which, to be honest, on a fox, I'm not sure what that looks like.

But let's look at something else:

This is the first page of the Google image search for Albert Anker. Our image here pops up on the first page at the 'AI Art Shop,' but if you look at the other images (which actually are Anker's work), you notice that Albert's style is nothing like that image.

I try to get this across to artists who feel blindsided by generative AI: It can't do a whole hell of a lot, and even the things it can do can't be done consistently. Oftentimes, when someone is taken aback by what AI has generated, there's a healthy dollop of 'good enough' thrown in, or they're working with a blank canvas idea, and whatever comes up is acceptable because there are no real criteria. Give generative AI any criteria or any list of requirements, and it falls short consistently.

What Can Artists Learn from Generative AI?

This is a much more personal question and one that I don't feel qualified to discuss much because while I dabble in art and design, I wouldn't label myself An Artist. Having said that, I've spent a fair amount of time delving into the generative AI abyss, and I can offer a few observations on what I see as AI's weak spots.

  1. Cultivate a Distinctive Style

Part of what made Tony's message interesting to me is that I consider his work very distinctive. It's very organic, with excellent ink work and a real sense of Tony's hand (his very real, physical hand) creating it.

Cover to Tony Dowler's Isotope, by Tony Dowler. Taken from Instagram.

While it is true that artist names have been rolled into AI models (which I think needs to be blocked from being accepted in prompts), as we've seen, that style is rarely accurate, and the more distinctive the style, the less accurate generative AI is in the final product.

Move Away from 'Stock' Images

This applies more to photographers than to other visual artists, but moving away from stock photography and spot art is a solid move. Generative AI is extremely good at images with an isolated, central subject since it requires the least nuance to incorporate into an overall image. It's not as good with interactions between subjects, complex backgrounds, or complex subjects. I know there's always been a market for the character portrait artist - but generative AI can eat that market for breakfast.

Again, not being a serious visual artist myself, my understanding of the challenges that generative AI throws at you is second-hand. Like any technology, though, it has its limitations and increasingly can be spotted by the general public for what it is. Understanding those limitations and exploiting, for lack of a better word, your messy humanity will keep you ahead of the rising tide.