Letters from Somnolescent September 24, 2022

Protecting and Surviving Against the AI Art Menace

by mariteaux

It’s a controversial topic. AI-generated art, “this does not exist” sites, and the possibility that robots with the ability to “draw” will make artists obsolete, or at least, ruin the market for gigging artists who need that attention to live and pay bills.

AI-generated buildings

Thankfully, I see it more optimistically than most. It is a menace, and you should take action if it affects you–but don’t let it discourage you. If you’re browsing around DeviantART or suchlike, here’s how to spot it and how to combat it.

Since I’m mostly involved in character design and character art, that’s what I’ll be focusing on. Apply to your medium of landscapes or photography or suchlike as applicable.

What is AI-Generated Art?

AI art generators are a hot, new thing online. Generally, you give the computer a prompt, and it generates a selection of pieces based on that prompt.

How does it do this? In short terms, it stitches together existing art that the AI has been “trained” with. By feeding it tons of pictures, the AI will attempt to imitate it all, to varying degrees of success.

AI doesn’t stop at art. A small subgenre of websites collectively known as “this [x] does not exist” sites do much the same thing with pictures of people, fursonas, cats, even song lyrics. This is a deep rabbit hole, and it’s a great example of how technology is warping what we do as humans so badly, we’re finding ourselves having to compete with it.

AI-generated cat
Sometimes the results are more convincing than others.

Why AI Art Sucks So Bad

You’ve probably already picked up on one of the issues with AI art. It’s using existing art, from real people, to generate new pieces, almost always without permission. If you want to argue the semantics, you can either say that AI art is stitched together from existing art, or it’s simply trained to imitate existing art. Either way, it’s generating new works off someone else’s effort.

AI-generated fantasy rat
This is the image that actually motivated me to write this post in the first place. Notice all the very wrong things here!

AI art can have its uses. You can use it as a base for experimenting with designs or getting a very different perspective on an idea or a concept. Getting a visual design out of a textual prompt is genuinely revolutionary stuff. No doubt someone will find a niche for enhancing their legitimately drawn and practiced works with it. It’s technology. Technology can either enhance what we do as humans or it can be a crutch, a sad replacement for our talents.

I see a lot of people posting AI art as if it’s their own work though, and that’s a sad replacement indeed. For one thing, AI art is often muddy, warped, wonky. There’s no care and love put into it, because a computer made it. It trivializes the struggle of visual art, having to redraw something numerous times, having to build up the fine muscles in your hand and wrist over months and years, having to struggle with your visual style and identity as an artist until you feel comfortable in your own skin. AI art takes none of that.

The internet art world is an attention economy. Someone can only see so many images a day, and AI art takes one of those opportunities away from a real, legitimate artist. A very good case can be made for AI art eventually being able to generate new pieces in a specific artist’s style, enabling art theft on a scale well beyond simple reuploading. It’s also an issue of honesty. AI art posted online is rarely labeled as such, leading less attentive users to give those “drawings” attention when they do not deserve it under any circumstances.

AI-generated llama
It’s even on Tumblr! (Thanks dcb.)

To be clear, the people who post AI art are not artists. Artists pick up pencils and pens and brushes and they draw things. Artists do not type sentences and get a computer to bake them a drawing. If you’re like me and you define art less as a medium and more as a vision that’s been highly refined by its creator’s skills and effort, then AI art doesn’t even count as art. There is no attempt to refine it through one person’s vision and skills, meager as though they might be.

It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s ugly, and it’s a menace.

How to Spot AI Art and its Posters

AI art looks competent, even good, from a distance! And it’ll only get better. Thing is, a computer will never have a human’s eye and it doesn’t generate an image anything like a human would. If you’re around on DeviantART and places, here’s some surefire signs you’re staring at something from a prompt:

  • Malformed anatomy and background details. The AI is usually trained to generate good looking faces, since that’s what most character art focuses on. Watch for hands and watch for other extremities of the character. If they disappear into a dark mush, or you see hands without fingers or other errors that someone at that skill level absolutely would not make, it’s most likely AI art.
  • Smooth, robotic textures. Where a human would painstakingly paint fur, pores, or other very grainy textures to make a character more visually interesting, or at least simulate canvas texture, an AI usually just barrels across with a gradient, especially if it’s trying to simulate a more painterly style. If it looks way too clean, you know it’s AI.
  • A lack of context in the description or tags. I’ve noticed AI art (on DeviantART mainly) tends to come from very new accounts and their submissions tend to either have no description or a very terse description that doesn’t really sound like a human wrote it. Humans usually talk about their process, how they like the end result, or even just a simple “commission for such and such” to explain why the piece exists. AI art takes no effort, and therefore the poster can’t talk about these things.
  • Odd behavior from someone supposedly of a high skill level. A human artist likes to promote cross-platform, usually. If you’re putting enough effort into your art to want to post it regularly, you probably want to link out your socials, your Ko-Fi, your commission info, and so on. People who post AI art often link to no other profile, they just spring up and start uploading unnaturally-detailed art, the kinda art that’d usually come from an experienced artist with a portfolio and a brand to build.
  • No true art style in the poster’s gallery. Human artists always have a comfort zone, or at least, a recognizable, brandable art style. They have their brushes they like to use, they have their details they like to add, and they have specific things they really enjoy drawing (trees, interiors, big snoots, dresses, cottagecore, etc). If you look through a poster’s gallery and the subject matter veers between very rendered animals, highly detailed humans, and stylized weirdness, that’s someone using an AI.
Someone's DeviantART gallery full of AI-generated art
Does anyone seriously believe they’re fooling anyone with a gallery like this? This isn’t a shortcut to being considered a great, cool artist, lads.

I’ve no doubt you can find human examples that feature some of these traits, and I’m not encouraging witch hunts. The thing to look for is a sense of underlying wrongness. AI art nearly always tries to simulate very highly detailed art, but the “artist” posting them will never display the traits of an actual experienced artist, having that comfort zone, promoting their work across multiple sites, having a portfolio or a trail of work behind them, and so on.

What to Do About AI Art

Okay, so you can see where it comes from now, and you see why it’s an issue. What can you do? People will post it anyway, right? Will we always know if it isn’t labeled? Are we doomed?

Not in the short term nor the long term, friends. Here’s what I tend to do if I see AI art on my front page.

  • Firstly, don’t favorite or like it, obviously. Don’t follow the person posting this stuff, don’t give them any positive attention. Views are neutral attention, not positive attention, so don’t worry about just looking at it.
  • If it’s unlabeled, call it out. Don’t be rude, but point it out in the comments or as a reply that this is AI art being passed off as a real piece someone put real time and effort into. Stand firm; you are in the right here.
  • Let people know what AI art is and what to watch for. The best defense is a good offense. If we ostracize people who pass off generated art as their own works, they’re much less likely to do it. Point out the telltale signs of AI art to people. Train them to see how the AI’s been trained.
  • Petition art hosting sites to ban AI art, labeled or not. Again, be polite but firm. If AI art is a reportable offense, it makes it that much easier to keep out of circulation. If a site like DeviantART claims to care about protecting your art, they should also help make computer knockoffs of it unacceptable.

…And Why You Shouldn’t Worry Too Much Long Term

AI art does have the potential to radically change the online (and offline) art worlds, but I’m not gonna doom and gloom about it. I think, like NFTs, this is a fad that will die, or at least peter out, with enough time and mockery.

People correctly point out that these AIs will only improve and get more and more refined as time goes on, and this is true! But human art, at all skill levels, has a spark and charm to it that even human artists fail to achieve sometimes, let alone AIs. If you do art, look at a piece you did on a down day, or a day when you weren’t exactly feeling it. Does it inspire you like your best work does? If not, I wouldn’t worry about AI art ever having the ability to manage it.

AI-generated ferret
Seriously, give this a good, long look over. Does this inspire you? Does this make you want to do art? Or is it just a thing that exists? That’s what AIs can’t replicate.

That, really, is why we like art, in all mediums. It’s not just about being able to draw detailed cat people. It’s about ideas, excitement, that charm, that spark, being able to feel just how much love and passion the creator puts into their work. With all due respect, you can tell when even extremely skilled artists are on autopilot; that’s that spark being missing. How can you have that spark when there’s not even a human involved?

If you think I’m being overly sentimental or rosy in my outlook, consider it in more businessy terms. When you hire a freelancer, you do it with the idea that their tastes and style will suit your project. If you need characters designed and they make the noses too small on all of them, or they use a color palette you don’t think meshes with the tone of the world, you can ask for that tweaked, and hopefully, it’ll be tweaked.

You can’t do that with an AI. It’s a dumb algorithm, for all the talk of it being “artificially intelligent”. All you can do is feed it a different dataset. If most of the image is absolutely perfect, but the sword is too big or the background perspective is incorrect, you still have to get an artist to tweak that–thus, you might as well have just gotten an artist on board in the first place.

I’m not saying to not take AI art seriously. What I am saying, though, is that it’s a fad that won’t replace real artistry, love, care, passion, or even reliability. It has no ability to. It can do a neat magic trick with some people’s existing drawings and nothing more. Drive it from the kingdom, but don’t worry about it replacing us as artists. That’s giving it way too much credit.

Tags: art, technology,

About mariteaux

Top asshole at Somnolescent, cosmic hippie sperg badger boy, writer, musician, and obsessive about Cabys. I actually do like long walks on the beach, thank you.

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