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Will AI Replace Digital Artists?

How digital art may be transformed by artificial intelligence

As an artist, this possibility (and now reality) concerns me. Artificial Intelligence can now create realistic images with prompts – usually just a string of words, as easy as a Google search! At first I only heard about this new technology from friends, and then I joined the Midjourney Discord server to try it for myself. It is still a bit clunky, but upon entering a prompt it began to generate images, making 4 images per prompt, so you could choose one version and keep generating more from that.

It seems like this technology might replace the need for concept artists and will allow anyone, even beginners with no art skills, to make “digital art”. Today, with the help of artificially intelligent image generator bots, every person can create unique images. All you need is the internet, a little imagination, a creative prompt, and some selective art direction. Just like how Instagram gave everyone the tools to be a photographer, AI will give everyone the opportunity to be a digital artist.

The history and evolution of digital art

Digital illustration of a robot dog
Winged Canvas digital art

Digital imaging software was first introduced as a way of touching up and enhancing photography and art. Then it quickly became a new art medium entirely that exploded in popularity. The future of digital art looks like a seamless collaboration between humans and our technology. Let me explain the evolution of digital art that I observed from an artist’s POV:

When I first began using digital as a medium with Photoshop 2 decades ago, it was mostly to enhance my traditionally-created art. I clone stamped out imperfections, pumped up the colours, tried different ways of cropping, and even added digital elements as collage. This blend of traditional and digital art was my process back in 2002.

A decade later as a professional artist, I mostly sketched traditionally then used digital tools to try variations and comps before I painted them on canvas. After painting, I would scan my artwork and use Photoshop for more digital improvements.

Nearly a decade after that, most creatives in the industry (including myself) are working digitally from start to finish. It’s an easier, faster, and cleaner way to produce illustrations and animations. Digital art will also evolve – from creating illustrations and concepts to something more emotional and abstract, a way of creating experiences.

Should I still learn digital art if it will be replaced by AI?

Cartoon style character expression drawings
Winged Canvas digital art

There will always be value in learning art foundations, not to mention how much fun it is! And this can be done in any medium, traditional or digital. But if you are a digital artist or an art student, this is a good question to ask yourself. Consider what the future of digital art will look like, and where you fit in:

  • What is your primary reason for creating art digitally?

  • What is the purpose of your digital artwork?

  • How will your artwork be different from AI-generated images?

  • What would your digital process look like?

What is your primary reason for creating art digitally?

Is it your favourite medium to sketch in? A way to capture ideas or design a character? Is it for work or purely for fun? Is it to make a statement, or a way to experiment and innovate? Will they be used for communication, or enjoyed as fine art? Is it to master the craft of realism or the practice of creating an illusion? An AI image generator would still need a human partner to provide the prompt (at least right now, but who knows in the future).

The “art” comes from the human, and the “digital” comes from the technology. It will be more of a partnership between human and bot than it is now. Human artists will be able to collaborate with the collective artificial intelligence, like creating a sketch and letting AI improve it, or suggesting a palette based on a mood prompt.

It is up to us to experiment with the digital medium to truly set it apart as original art. But just having fun may be the best reason to create!

How will artwork be different? Digital Art vs Digital Imaging

Digital Art is led and created by humans, although augmented with new technology that allows everyone to render realistic images. This includes 2D and 3D canvases, as interactive spaces with augmented and virtual reality. Digital imaging is created by computers, and AI imaging tools are currently still in BETA.

Google’s AI can now unblur photos, create memories, animations, and even dynamic moving images from your uploads. Digital imaging technology like this will also be able to generate new images from your albums, in addition to learning from the billions of photos on the internet. It will be up to humans to make something truly unique. Arguably, AI will also be able to generate abstract paintings, like it did with the Nutella packaging experiment. Although the designs are aesthetically pleasing, they lack emotion, which is the human element that will need to stand out most in our digital future.

What will your future digital art process look like in 10 years?

AI generated image of an attractive female face
AI generated image

In 2032, I will likely use AI as a tool to accelerate and boost my own creative vision, like millions of other people. Through a series of creative decisions, without ever picking up a pencil or a stylus, I’ll be able to generate an image that is original. It would be led by my thought process, guided by my emotions and instincts, then formed by my choices. I’ll be able to create a digital painting in minutes, collaborate with others, and even upload my own sketches and other image suggestions to be considered.

If you’re a digital artist today, consider how your process will evolve with these new tools, and with instant access to collective data powered by artificial intelligence. How will it help you innovate your process of creating instead of only replacing your rendering skills?

Will “original art” need to be redefined for the digital era?

Today, “original art” typically means a one of a kind handmade item, usually traditional art. Digital originals can now be minted into NFTs, or perhaps “original’ can be defined as the very first print of a signed (and limited) series. In the future, the term “original art” will need to broaden to include new types of creation processes, including those made with the help of AI.

Is AI stealing artists’ work?

AI generated images of different faces in different art styles
AI generated images

One of the largest concerns artists have about AI art is that it can create “art” using an artist’s style, without their permission. In The Guardian an Australian artist named Kim Leutwyler argued that she searched a database and found images of her own artwork. These images are used to train the system to learn new styles. Of course, she, and other artists whose art was inserted into the site, had not been credited or paid for their work.

As an artist, this concerns me, since the art we create, whether as a digital or traditional artist, is personal. It was created after learning a set of skills and developing a personal style. Though not technically illegal, to imagine that a database can do this for free without crediting artists doesn’t seem fair for the people who worked hard to create their own artistic identities.

Will traditional art make a comeback?

My gut (and history) says yes, traditional art isn’t going anywhere. In the digital era, where everyone can be an artist, there will always be something rare and special about handmade items.

Although technically AI robots can also craft “original” physical paintings, they will most certainly lack the human touch. The process may also be limited to generating the image digitally, and then printing or transferring it onto a surface. In contrast, physical artwork made by humans is created more organically. Usually the finished piece is unknown before the artist begins, and the process is a stream of consciousness.

AI may cause more artists to go back to traditional mediums because it is one way of creating something tangible and “truly original” in the human sense.

Related articles:

The Limitations of Digital Art

Digital vs. Traditional Art: The Pros and Cons

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