Experimenting with Digital Art: Text-to-Image software

The other week, I saw a fellow artist post a link on Twitter about a site called NightCafe Studio where you enter in a text prompt and it generates an image (which a lot of people mistakenly called “artificial intelligence”). Curiosity finally got the better of me, so I followed the link and began to play around with the software as an experiment. You can see the portfolio of my experimenting here on my profile at NightCafe. I’ve spent almost two weeks playing with it now, which is to say I am stepping into the concept of digital art, at least on the text-to-image side of it. (It’s so much faster than drawing or painting, and right now I feel as though I have a hundred different things going.)

The good, the bad, and the “What the ****?”

The profile/portfolio I link to over on NightCafe only includes the stuff that turned out good. I started off with a simple enough prompt, “pink flower on dark green leaves” or something very similar. If you scroll down far enough you will see the result at the very bottom. I fiddled around with a couple other phrases, and deleted those results as I did not like them. I am saving all the flower ones for their own post, but then moved on to see what kind of results I could get for some classic still life subjects.

Modern style still life of red and yellow bell peppers and one cherry tomato on white plates with a blue tablecloth
Tomatoes and Peppers, digital art

Here is one that turned out nicely. I deleted probably half a dozen or more in my attempts to get a nice still life arrangement of tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and an onion – salsa still needing assembly. I figured it would be perfect to hang up at my favorite Mexican restaurant in town, especially since my Summer Jalapeno painting is there. Let’s just say the program is not good at doing an onion and totally ignored the prompt about garlic. So instead of a still life I could name “Salsa, Some Assembly Required,” I got red and yellow bell peppers and a single cherry tomato. It does look nice, although I will need to draw/paint what I actually wanted. I uploaded the digital piece to my Pixels shop and my RedBubble shop for accessories, apparel, and prints.

Classic still life subject seem to give the art generator fits. I have some truly wild examples of a big weak spot in the code – but I will save a few of those for the floral post since I was trying for an old masters’ style of fruit and flowers still life composition. I will mention the text-to-image program has some issues with what shape apples are supposed to be. It also doesn’t seem to realize that apples and pumpkins are affected by gravity like everything else.

A smashing success for text-to-image

On a whim, I decided to try a text prompt that would describe my very first pastel piece I did at the age of just seven. I have no idea if it still exists, but it has stayed in my mind all these years. The first result is still the best: here is Sunset Palms, with the Neo-Impressionist style filter applied to it.

Sunset Palms, two palm trees silhouetted against a brilliant sunset sky with simulated impasto
Sunset Palms, digital art

The software even generated simulated impasto that looks like it was applied with a palette knife. I was a little surprised to see a swathe of green in the sky, but I think it works. I put this into Microsoft Jigsaw to play with it as a jigsaw puzzle, and the colors are just fun. Art prints are at my Pixels shop (along with puzzles) and apparel and accessories are at my RedBubble shop. I can definitely see myself painting variations of this image, either in acrylic or oil paint, once I finally get a cat-free art studio where it can dry without being walked on by my cats.

The struggle for black cats

I decided I wanted to see what kind of Halloween imagery the software could generate for me, and began to enter various prompts and try different style filters. I wanted an image of a black cat’s face filling the frame, with lovely green eyes providing a stark contrast to the black fur. Instead, the program spat out this – and I have seen hairballs that look prettier.

ugly software glitch
I just call it “fugly”

Well, at least it got the green eyes part right. No matter how I tilt my head and squint at it, it just does not look like a cat as I know them. This is emphatically NOT in the public portfolio, because that would just be embarrassing. Or maybe I am just not modern enough in my art sensibilities. I kept trying with the text prompts.

Black Cat sitting, digital artwork created using text-to-image software
Black Cat Sitting, digital art

The title Black Cat Sitting is the text prompt I used, and in this specific case, the image it gave me was very nice! I love the soft focus feel to the light, and the cat sure enough looks like a real cat. When I saw this one, I began to think perhaps there is some hope for text-to-image software after all. Yeah, famous last words. Here is what the software thinks a black kitten ought to look like.

another disasterpiece from a simple prompt
a five-eyed kitten? What the ****?

Yikes. That is not public anywhere else but here on the blog. Seriously – does this have five or six eyes, and why would a supposed “artificial intelligence” think kittens look like that? I mean, I know Halloween is supposed to be all about scary imagery, but this is just so many levels of wrong. And that is about as polite as I can stand for this one. I could post a few jack o’lantern mishaps, but I think y’all get the general idea of just how spectacularly wrong the algorithm can be on some of these.

Text-to-image digital art of – ME!

One day last week, I had an “Ah-ha!” moment and decided to see what kind of software-generated digital image I could get from the text prompt describing me. Hold your laughter now. I started off with the text prompt “middle-aged woman with short blonde hair,” and ended up with this:

ugly image from what ought to be a straightforward text prompt
how I feel first thing in the morning

OK, now y’all can have a good laugh. Apparently, punctuation is important, and that hyphen in middle-aged must have messed the algorithm up good and proper. Granted, there are definitely mornings when I might feel like this, but I don’t usually look quite this rough (or so my husband says). So I tried “mature woman with short blond hair,” and the second time I got an image I am now using as my “face” here on the internet.

the internet me, from text-to-image digital art program

Now, she doesn’t look like she’s about to celebrate her 50th birthday like I am, but most of the female figures the software spits out look to be no older than 25, and most look like they could be movie stars, so an image that brings to mind Florence Henderson from The Brady Bunch probably fits the program’s parameters for mature. I like the simulated brushstrokes for it as well. Her eyes are the wrong color and she isn’t wearing glasses “thick enough to see into the future,” but she’ll be my face for the internet for now.

While the text-to-image programs used to generate digital art are far from perfect, every once in a while you get a good result. I can’t see it replacing us traditional artists any time soon, but for now it is an amusing novelty. I may just use it as a way to test composition ideas or to get inspiration. Mostly, I am just playing with it because it amuses me.

Sunset Over the Hayfield landscape in oil pastel

Y’all can probably tell from the title that this isn’t the third candle picture. Don’t worry – I can explain … that’s why I have a blog! So yesterday after posting in here in the morning, I picked up my 11 by 14 inch sketchbook, turned to a new page, and then gridded and sketched out my third candle picture. I had to at the very least mark off the boundaries to make it 10 by 14 inches, because that is the size of my watercolor block I plan to use and also because I had cropped the reference photo to a 5:7 aspect ratio because Microsoft’s photo editor does not have an 11 by 14 aspect ratio as an option. (Or, if it does, I have not yet found it.)

So, sketch completed (I am scanning it as I type right now) I picked up my 11 x 14 in oil and acrylic paper pad and opened to the top page … and stopped, because there was a sketch already on it. I immediately recognized it, and remembered exactly which ref photo I used to sketch it, though I didn’t remember which medium I had originally planned to use to turn sketch into painting. Had I meant to use my oil paint? Acrylic paint? Or oil pastels? Whichever I intended back when I sketched it, I was in a definite oil pastel mood again yesterday, and I can point to Judith at Artistcoveries for that because she has been blogging her progress with the oilies as she clambers up the somewhat steep learning curve with an enthusiasm that reminds me of my decision to learn how to use these. (See her Zinnias post for a good example of the progress she is making.)

So I pulled out my oil pastel sets (yes, plural) and set up my painting tray once I determined the cats were napping and started in on it, because this is a piece I am still enthusiastic about making – as the post and artwork title suggest, it is a landscape featuring a sunset over a hayfield. I would probably have to do a whole series of meditations and journaling to figure out why I just love hayfields as an art subject, but right now my main concern is making them and analyzing later. Y’all may recall I painted a hayfield back in December in watercolor which also featured the large round bales. My mom’s comment was I had too much sky in it, but honestly there are definitely sunny cloudless days here in the flatlands of Florida where the sky feels huge, and that feeling was in my painting.

The good news is I remembered to snap a couple photos for some in-progress pictures. The even better news is they turned out pretty good for me and my cheap old digicam! The main problem I had was positioning myself to avoid casting a shadow on it. This is after the first layer, using my big Mungyo Gallery (standard) set which is just above the the sketchpad on my old-fashioned TV tray I use for painting at my computer desk.

first layer of Mungyo Gallery standard oil pastel
in-progress picture of Sunset Over the Hayfield and my big set of oil pastels I like to use for the first layer

After blending in the first layer using cheap cotton swabs, it was time to switch to the softer oil pastel sets, the Mungyo Gallery Artists’ series and the Erengi Art Aspirer, which has colors Mungyo doesn’t. These aren’t as soft as the Sennelier brand, which isn’t exactly a bad thing down here in Florida. I have a small set of six Sennelier, and am hestitant to try to take them outdoors during the summer for fear of them just straight-up melting like ice cream. (For the record, spellcheck hates all of these brand names.) After a while of making marks, blending, and then layering over, it was time to lay the first layer of ModPodge, which I did right before joining hubby outside to feed and put up our various critters. When I came back in, the ModPodge still wasn’t fully dry, which is normal on a day with better than 20% chance of rain.

This morning while working on my second mug of coffee, I scanned the finished and dried oil pastel painting, then laid down a second coat to make sure I didn’t miss any spots or have too-thin areas where I built up my layers of oil pastel. Here it is, in all its very colorful glory:

Sunset Over the Hayfield, 11 x 14 inch landscape in oil pastel
Sunset Over the Hayfield, 11 by 14 inch oil pastel on primed paper, sealed, original available $140 USD

I’ve uploaded the original for sale at Daily PaintWorks, and of course if you are local to me you can buy it in person (just contact me and we can make arrangements) while if you are out of the area there is a shipping option on DPW. Prints and puzzles are available at my Pixels store. Finally, I have uploaded it to RedBubble so you can get it printed on all kinds of accessories and swag – they have even added pet mats and blankets.

So, about that third candle painting? Since I still have not decided if I want to paint it in watercolor or oil pastels, I think I will do both. I’ll also try to remember to take more in-progress snapshots, and will group the sketch scan with the finished pieces. If I can maintain this level of motivation, I may even have it done in a day or two! Wish me luck.

Make Hay While the Sun Shines: watercolor landscape

I sat down this afternoon determined to at least play with my watercolor paints. I’ve tried to do some painting the past few days, but my cats have been determined to get all of my attention. When I finally get one off my lap, the other hops up. They can be needy as well as kneady. Today, the coast was clear for at least a quick watercolor sketch. The only question was: what should I paint?

I started out just playing with the paints and water, as I tried to decide on a subject to sketch, thinking to myself, “I need to make hay while the sun shines.” As soon as that thought popped into my head, I remembered I noticed fresh round bales in a hayfield on the way into town. I had remarked to hubby it would make a nice painting as we drove past, with the sun shining down on the new hay bales.

watercolor landscape painting Make Hay While the Sun Shines
Make Hay While the Sun Shines, 12 by 9 inch watercolor on paper, $100 USD plus shipping

It is honestly a simple sketch in paint, but I think it worked. My husband says the sky came out quite nicely. I quipped, “I am pleased with how it turned out, and maybe after I paint a thousand more then perhaps I’ll be consistent!” It felt good to be able to upload a new painting again.

Original painting and art prints available

Now, for the grubby details – the original is available through Daily PaintWorks, while prints are at my Pixels store, and apparel and accessories (including hats now) are at RedBubble. I will be doing more hay fields, using other media like oil pastel or acrylic. I have reference photos, all I need is a handful of hours without a cat either on my lap or on my desk.

Sunrise at the Beach watercolor painting

After six flamingo paintings, I guess I got restless and on a whim I painted this lovely little beachscape, which is my term for a landscape that features a beach (rather obvious). It also has elements of a seascape and a cloudscape, but the sand and some shore grass tip it firmly into the beachscape classification in my opinion. It’s the sunrise part that makes the clouds so interesting to me.

The original is on paper that was sold as ten inches by ten inches, but a careful measure shows one dimension to be about an eighth of an inch short. This was the first time I had noticed this deficiency on the block (glued pad of pre-stretched watercolor paper that buckles much less than taping a sheet down myself) even though I have already done a previous painting (will post that soon!). While I can fix that on the scan, the original is not quite square. I am not at all versed in the intricacies of framing art, so I don’t know if that will have an effect.

Sunrise at the Beach watercolor landscape
Sunrise at the Beach, 10 x 10 inch watercolor, original available $100 USD plus shipping

Overall, I think this is my best landscape so far. Then again, this is only my fourth landscape I’ve done this year, so not a whole lot of competition there! I am asking $100 for the original, and do ship. Prints are available at my Pixels page, and apparel and accessories are at my RedBubble page for those who like to wear their art.

I do still have a pile of paintings and pastel works to post, so stay tuned!