Full confession- There’s smarter folk than me to write about AI art, and wiser practical experience behind it to discuss its pro and cons. I was offered to try Midjourney AI and ended up not bothering with it. Just zero interest in playing with that particular tool, not out of some grandiose ethic, but for the same reason I don’t use an intuos device, or drawing on my iPad: I just don’t dig MAKING digital art. At all. For me it lacks the haptic responsiveness with the material I find I adore, doesn’t let me import some other wild idea in material or substance that it doesn’ already have in its digital toolbox. It always feels to me like experiencing the world like John Travolta did when he was that little bubble boy, or watching a game instead of playing in it. I also find it limiting within its sphere as to what can be done with it in order to support my ongoing effort to make more unique work. I use photoshop copiously to edit and manage my work, to color it as well. I take no issue with blurred lines, but there’s a different thing to crafting art digitally and making it practically I can’t step past. But because I don’t like coffee ice cream does not mean you shouldn’t either. Some friends and colleagues like Tommy Arnold, Cynthia Shepherd and Karla Ortiz make some of the most blow-your-hair-back art I’ve seen and they do it digitally. *(NOTE no art here presented was created using AI in case you were wondering)
At first it caught me by surprise as I first behold it on my tiny phone screen… but then at work on my desktop computer I saw it as the blurry unresolved fuzz that it actually is. And then the internet was flooded with AI art, and all of it looked exactly as empty and similar as you’d expect when an artist surrenders their needed work so an AI could draw for them. It’s gotten better and smarter… I saw some pieces over a few days hanging out with some art friends and we bandied about the idea of AI from our various camps- I was certainly the more had-pass person in the room, but I learned a lot about why that might not be a tenable position from some brilliant quarters.
Secondly there’s a whole host of other considerations around copyright, and other matters I won’t touch on here.
AI IS JUST A TOOL
And not a great one at that, at least right now. But wait, it’s getting smarter by the day.
I’m not super old but old enough to remember the advent of photoshop ringing the death bell for photography and illustration as an art form. I remember that 8-tracks were going to kill the LP, cassette tapes killing them, CDs and then MP3s…. I remember reading victorian era articles proclaiming the death of painting at the hands of this new camera device, raging against this dark of published books and a terrible future in the home where whole rooms of people sit silently reading. I recall how stock photography would destroy all the illustration jobs in books, movie and other media. This surprise/shock/terror/winking/acceptance cycle goes round and round, and we’re on the early days of it for AI. Which means we’re getting most of it wrong, and we don’t really know where it’s going… but like the promise of the internet in the 90’s to the shopping mall it’s actually become, AI likely won’t destroy everything, but is also probably a tool that’s here to stay.
There’s arguments that it’s a tool like any other, and those that say it’s a LOT more and I think I’m in the middle on that one. And like any hammer or iPhone, it’s a thing that can be used for good or evil I suppose- but in the end the bit that’s going to effect us as artists, is how it’s desired and received by the public, and how much our editors, ADs and clients want to get behind it.
AI THREATENS YOUR WEAKNESS NOT YOUR STRENGTHS
First of all definitionally, Art is an enterprise solely in the purview of humans. Lighting striking a tree in a beautiful way, or a sideshow elephant making a painting, a thousand monkeys on typewriters… none of this is or ever can be, art. Computer cannot make art either- people using them cam of course, but despite the argument that a prompt is the same as an active hand- I don’t think it is. SO it’s already operating at a steep deficit. But what it does attack as any automated shortcut tool in art does, is lazy art-making. If your work, your approach and style is truly under threat by this Midjourney thing, rather than gnashing your teeth agains the unjust world we live in, find a mirror and ask yourself WHY it threatens you, and change, get better and grow out from those pitfalls. I promise you, the AI cannot follow you in this.
Lazy editors, publishers and art directors at publishing houses who see we artists as tolerable pains in the ass will love this. I mean the ones who for them this is as much a job as pumping gas or filling our quarterly action reports. These folk will love not paying some artist who could threaten their deadlines, get their feelings hurt or talk back against a bad idea. It also won;t pollute their day with new approaches they may not have considered, unique perspectives and work that the process alone fosters, or surprise anyone. AI art will make the budget folk super happy, and probably a general public audience that doesn’t really regard book covers, posters, music art or any kind of professional level illustration as much to think about in the first place. For them the work you’re doing when you’re making real work is a lot of tsuris, pricey and a pain in their keister. And if their audience doesn’t;t care also then it’s a win/win for them so expect to see a lot of this happening at that level of publishing.
And as a colleague and friend who I think is right about a lot of things said, she worries it will gut the low budget entry level illustration assignments that we all rise up to and from when we’re just starting out. That’s valid to be worried about. A lot of publishers simply don’t have the budgets to hire legitimate artists nominal rates of pay to work for them- Midjourney might be a lovely solve for those places at the expense of being opportunities for new artists to get their teeth cut in the real world.
But simply put, if a robot is threatening your job, your job was already in a weakened state to begin with and it was just a matter of time. The fight against this is as old as this work: get better, find your voice, bring a unique vision and ability to your work. Essentially make yourself indispensable. There is no better shield against hack work like a Midjourney can produce. Remember you can think of things that it cannot, solve things in ways impossible to it, import experiences ideas and basic tweaks in the editing process it can never achieve.
The mechanism literally builds from the online-available work of others. It doesn’t create, it copies. And while we assure students that copying work is a healthy process towards decoding how something was done to build from in creating something new in your own work, this is not that.
To date the kind of work it seems to visually threaten the most is High Fantasy and Sci-Fi art in terms of style. And let’s face it there’s a LOT of derivative stylistically overused tropes and tricks already at use in these areas of our work. These genres suffer a bit from an agreed upon limited style of approach that leaves them more vulnerable to being bot-replaced than others, but its a vulnerability created by that choice. There are scores of brilliant artists working in fantasy and sci-fi who push beyond those limited arenas- be one of them yourself, because AI won;t get you there. If this AI thing takes over that stuff and pushes its genre artists to greater heights… despite the immediate hurt it may cause, I don’t think it’s going to do everything but force others towards better work in the future. We all win from that enterprise.
WHAT AI CAN AND LIKELY THREATEN
The biggest immediate and perhaps long term threats are to jobs that are already weird for not being automatic. I lean a lot on the analogy of the poor cop who went all the way through training at the police academy that is now standing at a roadside construction project flipping a stop/go sign back and forth for cars- essentially being a traffic light. Think Ice Merchants of the 1800’s, or comic book letterers, concept artists for film or a dozen other jobs… Offhand if your work is largely fulfilling a technical duty, like a storyboard artist might, then this could be coming for your job. Not today but in a few years, very possibly.
The question you should ask yourself is whether or not the work your making NEEDS to be excellent by its own merits and seen as such by your clients and audience, or whether that group is perfectly fine with “good enough”. If it’s the latter, “good enough” is what AI art does best and you need to think about how to make what you do more valuable or start branching into areas of work where its regarded and needed in a more valuable way. This is also not new and a basic tenant of the functioning, stable freelancing table: the more legs of the table the safer you are against collapse. If ALL your eggs are in a concept design basket, or even say in Children’s Picture books alone, you’re at risk to the tidal ebbs and flows of that market. You’re a hardcore dragons fantasy person, there’s going to be periods where that work is hotly desired and others where it’s cooly shrugged at. You can branch out into other areas to stabilize your table, or make something new and utterly valuable to the genre your steeped in so that its impossible to dismiss. These principles apply as well to how you navigate the coming AI landscape.
I largely work in a more insulated bubble where the things I do work for a lot these days, film posters, key art packaging for films and soundtracks, are literally ABOUT the art and an esthetic-based experience. A field literally as a polar response to the kind of work AI art is. Is the rise of LPs as a response to the flat sounding non value mp3s are to music listeners? Of course it is. I myself at any point in my life to now would have never expected to be doing so much work in a thriving and growing LP industry, but here we are… and we have digital music and streaming to thank for it. So while your today job might be under threat from AI art, your tomorrow work may well be even more interesting in being a part of a counter response to it.
WHAT AI CAN’T DO
It can’t really be responsive the way you as a human artist can with your editor or art director. It can’t truly invent, because it’s core ability relies upon it standing on the shoulders of other human artists’ work. It can’t instigate change and growth in you as an artist the the process of working through work. It prevents discovery and truly incapable of the necessary accidents real and actual art making grows from. It cannot bring any sense of joy the PROCESS of making art gives. Dave McKean recently called it poorly for being “all final and no process”. I’m not interested in that as a value either. The finish is always weaker without the process behind it. Just look at anyone who simply traced another artist’s work as an exercise or used photoshop to swipe another artist’s work for whatever purpose they’re after. It can’t teach you how to make good work, only to direct the AI to crib the work of others. It can’t impart a sense of naturalized character and humanity to the artwork it creates. That empty flat feeling you get when you look at it? That’s the same part of your brain that vurps at the Uncanny Valley of something like The Polar Express movie, or weirdo Japanese robots with lipstick serving you coffee. It’s not people, and so can’t do one of the most important things people do to distinguish themselves from the surround flora and fauna: it cannot make art. (Key proof in the fact it literally can do nothing unless you prompt it to do anything).
AI simply lacks voice and personal vision, which is more and more the essential coin of our thing as a value. It’ll speed date you right to a seemingly solid near finish you think you can complete and give value to to wrap the piece up. You can get close, but never all the way simply due to the another old adage of tech- garbage in/garbage out. The problem with AI taking the reins of the work, despite your participation in prompts is that it removes that essential process from your road to finish, that Dave McKean was bemoaning. Its the process where you find your way, discovers new ways and hear your artistic and stylistic voice. Without it, that part of you doesn’t develop. You become a wrangler of limited enterprises, not a creator of worlds. Zeus serving waffles at IHOP as a value.
AI is a tool, and perhaps an dubious tool because it’s overly seductive. Like any quick drug that makes you feel better for a little bit… it’s not really a thing of good news if the good news fails when the high passes. It’s just distraction. YES, it might be useful and valid as say, a sketching tool on the way to a finish. I suppose it could be utilized well as say building up a reference piece you might otherwise make like the cityscape models our friend Dan Dos Santos makes with cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls and tape that he then transmogrifies into his spectacular landscapes and fantasyscapes.
Use Midjourney and whatever else that will assuredly come as a prompt (pun intended) to get you OUT of your safety zone and IN to your better stronger unique voice to make good and better work. Work that cannot be, by any legitimate professional who would hire you, or the audience the work is intended to inspire towards grabbing that book, playing that record or seeing that movie. This is just Monkey vs Sabertooth Tiger all over again: the monkey can’t win on speed and brutal strength, but our Monkey is smarter and can outthink, out invent, and as a result, outmaneuver the Tiger. If you use this AI stuff for anything at all, use it to shore up your weak areas, and bring you to a place like any other negative force, that you can be better in. We often define ourselves by Hegel’s determinate negation principle: “I am defined by what I am not”. It’s in there you as an artist can experience first hand why art is a distinct and exclusively human enterprise, no matter how fancy the copy machine you use to short cut your way to work.
You’re bigger than any potential AI to make good work- it requires you to forget this in order to be a thing. Don’t let it. I recognize my age and type of career position do not really put me in a vulnerable path of AI Art’s rolling out, but I also think the time in seeing these digital revolutions rise and then inevitably fall into a more settled niche, grants some measured perspective to the current freaking out. Again it’s only a tool, and like a hammer can be used to build or kill- the real agency of it is going to be in how it’s abused, how it’s used, and who does what with it. But here speaking to you, my fellow art-folk, I would suggest you ignore it and get back to doing what makes your work actually better. Practice, process, work and time. When cd’s came out in the 80’s I never imagined that 40 years later I’d fill a year with copious LP projects. ( I suspect this return is a direct response to techy replacements). Survive whatever storm this brings, and grow your work in the human way and you can be around when the pendulum inevitably swings back. If making AI art makes you a better artist I’d be the first to cheer for it, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t see how it does.
The hard way is the better way for a reason, and a Big Mac will never be a Wagyu steak. If your work is replaceable, it’s already running at a deficit and AI art is just the latest predator chasing down your lagging leap with the herd fleeing doom. But the predator gives a gift for the doom it brings to some by forcing the survivors to evolve to be faster, more clever and harder to catch. The act of predation is also a process of growth, for the survivors of an attack. It’s not now a case of surviving the bear by only having to run faster than the guy next to you, but making sure if it’s just you and the bear, you alone can survive or even counter an attack with victory. Grow forward, use it as a goad to change the way you work, to make your work more valuable. Keep a weather eye out for the counter responses to this kind off turn and be ready to surf the advantage it can bring. It’s a big complex world, but freaking out over new tech as world eating forgets this. Tech wants everything to be reducible to simple binary choices by its design, don’t fall for that brand of limited thinking. Really if you lean on tech too hard for your work, your work is going to be vulnerable. If you can still do your thing with a pencil and paper you’ll be able to weather tech’s evolution, if not, you’ll be anchoring yourself to tech’s ongoing cycle of obsolescence. Recognize you have the potential to be superior to that trap, do the hard work and you’ll be fine.
AI art is at its most basic, fast-food art. Don’t be the Big Mac.
(None of the above work was created using AI btw. )
Greg Ruth has been working in comics since 1993 and has published work for The New York Times, DC Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Dark Horse Comics, Harper Collins, Hyperion, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster amongst many others.
He has shown his paintings in New York, Houston, and Baltimore, and exhibited a series of murals at New York's Grand Central Terminal.
He has also helped craft music videos for Rob Thomas, and Prince, and has illustrated children's pictures books including; Our Enduring Spirit (with President Barack Obama), A Pirate's Guide to First Grade (with James Preller) and Red Kite, Blue Kite (with Ji Li Jiang), as well as many illustrated novels.
Greg currently lives and works in Western Massachusetts.