Sunday, October 02, 2022

Artificial Intelligence and Art

 Over the past couple of months, I've seen a lot of artists on Twitter experimenting with AI and art.  This is a very fast-developing thing right now.  There have been multiple online software programs launched that do it in a similar fashion: you type in a few words or a phrase and the AI returns two or three images.  One AI image was given an award in the Digital Image category in a recent juried exhibition, which caused a stink among many artists.  So what's it all about?

The primary AI generators, at least the ones that I've seen images from most often, are DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, and MidJourney.  There are many many others.  Results can be stunning.  I see a lot that look like sci-fi landscapes or urbanscapes: impossible architecture, cities floating in the sky, barren horizons, Star Wars-like figures, or a single figure silhouetted against an ominous sky.  Others seem like Old Masters paintings that have been bumped up to 11.  Many are extremely realistic, others less so.  Here are a few examples: 

The Exorcist, by Lorenzo

Returnlessness, by Reimers

Busy, by Alex MJ

When I compared AI images to oil paintings, I thought that they had some really interesting aspects.  They made good use of composition.  See how the padre is highlighted by the arch, or how the single figure in Returnlessness is offset to one side and balanced by the light pole.  They can be highly detailed, far more than the typical oil painting is taken (Returnlessness again), or they can suggest details without actually portraying them (Busy).  All the AI images I've seen have been representational - that is, they show recognizable things: people, buildings, light poles, and so on.  None of it has been abstract, although they certainly make use of good abstract principles.  

I tried out a couple of programs, but got really awful results.  And I didn't like the process.  It felt like pulling the lever on a slot machine over and over, only instead of a money, you might get a nice image.  There was nothing of "me" in it.

It seemed to me (and still seems, come to think of it) that AI is good for a "Wow" effect, like great eye candy.  But what keeps bugging me is that it's machine made.  It can't have soul, but it can simulate it, sometimes well.  

Having said that, I have found one artist who is doing really good work with AI.  Francien Krieg, a Dutch artist, is the exception that proves the rule.  She has been doing a series of oil paintings using herself and old women as her subjects.  Earlier this year, she started playing with AI and she seems to have figured out how to get it to do images that are very similar to her oil paintings.  Here's an example:

Heat, by Francien Krieg

Francien is the only one I have seen who is able to give her AI images character, depth, and most importantly, heart.  You really should check out her website and compare her physical paintings to her AI work.  

As for me, I will stick with physical artworks.  But I like seeing what other artists are creating with AI.  Many of the NFTs that I've been collecting are AI-generated.  In fact. all of the ones in this post are NFTs that I've bought.  So, yeah, I think there's a place for AI art.  Just not in my studio.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Solo Exhibition!

My new solo exhibition opened Friday.  The show is titled "What May Be" and consists of twelve paintings that explore the theme of what might be in our future if we don't get our collective acts together.  Doesn't sound like a cheerful romp, does it?  Well, as is typical of my shows, it isn't.  (Previous such collections: "Old Times", about aging; "Bush League", a political satire series about the Bush administration; and "Meditation on War", about the effects of war on people and nations).  

Here's the artist statement: 

"News reports today can be frightening.  Wars rage across the globe.  The world’s population is exploding at the same time that climate change threatens our ability to produce food.  Social media and news sources stoke anger and violence on the local, national, and international scales.  At a time when cooperation is more in need than ever before, it is in very short supply. 

I was asked once whether I was an optimist or a pessimist.  My answer was that I am a short-term optimist and a long-term pessimist.  We have an amazing ability to muddle through in the short term, but the long-term trends are ominous.  That’s what underlies all these paintings.  However, I was surprised  at the hope that came out during the making of some of these paintings.  Maybe I’m more optimistic than I thought.

These paintings are arranged in a rough timeline.  At one end of the gallery is the present and at the other is some possible future.  The future may or may not happen as these creations suggest.  Nobody knows.  But one thing is certain: we all will have a hand in how it develops."

The Mountain XPress, the local Asheville paper, ran an article on it in this week's edition.  They got the general gist of it right even though some of the facts are a bit off.  You can read the article here.  If you want to see the paintings, they're on my website. 

The reception was Friday night and was lots of fun.  Many friends showed up, some of whom I hadn't seen in years.  Met some interesting people as well.  

The show will be up until September 25th.  If you're in Asheville, swing by Pink Dog Creative at 348 Depot Street, in the River Arts District, and go through the show.  And let me know what you think.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Gabe and Lynnea's Painting


I just completed a painting for a wonderful couple.  Gabe and Lynnea were married out near Santa Fe, New Mexico.  They chose a rather spectacular location in a state park.  They're both very laid-back and not at all concerned with traditional weddings, as you can probably tell from their outfits.  The ceremony was scheduled for 2 pm, but everybody was having a great time chatting and socializing, so they didn't get around to it until closer to 3.  Did I say they were laid back?  

This was a different process for me.  I didn't take any art supplies out to Santa Fe because I didn't set up and paint there.  I took my camera and worked with their photographer prior to and during the wedding to get several hundred shots.  Then I came home to North Carolina to create the artwork.  And I did something very different from my previous efforts.  Instead of painting the surrounding environment, or friends and family, or both, I stripped it down to just the two of them.  And I think it worked.  To me, it captures their love on that day, which is what it's all about.  No distractions, nothing else, just the two of them.

Congratulations to Gabe and Lynnea!

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Blockchains and Crypto and NFTs, Oh My!

I mentioned in my last post that I've been playing in the NFT world and learning lots of new stuff.  Thought I'd share some of what I've learned here.  It's an incredibly complex and ever-changing rabbit-warren of technology, community, written and unwritten rules, and potential.

We'll start with blockchains because that's what underlies all of this.  A blockchain is essentially a system that verifies that something else exists and belongs to somebody.  Think of it like a ledger.  You enter the information that you own some digital asset (a photo, a music file, some crypto currency, whatever).  It's recorded in an encrypted block of data.  If you transfer the digital asset to somebody else, the "ledger" creates another encrypted block of data that records who now has it, what date and time the transfer occurred, and some other information.  The first and second blocks of data are now "chained" together.  Their information is stored in the cloud on computers around the world.  Neither block can ever be altered except by adding additional blocks because altering them would require altering vast amounts of information on vast numbers of dispersed computers simultaneously.  So blockchains are incredibly secure.

The first workable blockchain was Bitcoin, created in 2009.  Since then, there have been something like 3,000 different blockchains created.  Some have taken off, like Ethereum, as they targeted specific niches, while most others haven't.  

One of the major concerns about blockchains is their environmental impact.  Bitcoin, Ethereum, and most others use the "proof of work" (POW) verification system.  I have no idea how that works, but this system requires huge amounts of energy to operate.  To create a single NFT (we'll get into that in a bit) can require as much energy as running a typical American household for over two weeks.  There are, literally, entire coal-fired power plants whose output is used exclusively for blockchain operations.  That sucks.  In response, a newer type of verification system, the "proof of stake" (POS) system, was created.  It uses an tiny fraction of the energy that POW systems do.  The Tezos blockchain uses the POS system and says it uses 1/200,000,000th the energy of Bitcoin.  All this energy has to be paid for by the users and can be expensive.  As a comparison, it can cost about $70 to create an NFT on the Ethereum chain.  It cost me about 15 cents on the Tezos chain.  That reflects a huge reduction in energy useage.

So blockchains give us a way to verify ownership.  Crypto currency gives us a medium of exchange.  Each blockchain has its own crypto currency.  Bitcoin, of course, is the oldest.  For traditional artists, the most common blockchains and crypto are the Ethereum chain (using Ether) and Tezos (using Tez).  They are not interoperable: you can't use Tezos on the Ethereum chain.  They're comparable to existing currencies: you go to Japan, you use yen; you go to France, you use euros, and you can't use euros in Japan.  You can exchange them, though, just like you do with national currencies.  

Lots of attention is being paid to the volatility of crypto currencies, and with good reason.  Just recently, the values of almost all crypto currencies collapsed.  Bitcoin dropped by about 70%, for example.  Why?  Lots of reasons, but primarily it's due to the state of the world economy and the fact that crypto currencies are naturally more susceptible to mood changes.  I think that a lot of people bought crypto as an "investment", like stocks, especially over the last couple of years when everything was going up up up.  Well, they can go down down down, too.  Volatility doesn't necessarily mean the chains are bad, just that it's a new technology and people are still figuring them out.

Okay, now that we have blockchains and crypto currencies, what about NFTs?  NFTs are basically some kind of digital file that is attached to the blockchain.  It can be anything: a jpeg, mpeg, PDF, whatever you want.  You take the file, "mint" it by creating a record of it and attaching it to the blockchain, and now you have an NFT.  You can trade it or sell it as you wish.  If you have some crypto, you can buy somebody else's NFT.  I have taken several of my artworks and made NFTs of them.  The first was Natalie #5.  I took my best-quality digital photo, went on the site, minted 15 copies of it, and listed them on my page on the website.  Since then, I've minted other artworks, sold some, and bought some.  There's some really good NFT art out there.

So why would you pay good crypto for something that is essentially a jpeg image that you could copy/paste for free?  Because you can be sure that it came directly from the artist and is exactly the way they wanted it to look.  And it has the bonus of being "signed" by the artist.  You can pick up a New York Yankees ballcap for $5, but a Yankees ballcap signed by Derick Jeter may set you back $50.  It's a collectible, which is pretty much the same concept.

Going forward, I think NFTs will be a big part of business operations, but it won't happen for a while.  Right now, there are artists playing around with the concept, and some businesses are buying and selling using crypto currencies, but there's nothing large scale.  A big reason is that the whole system is so difficult to learn, and convoluted, that relatively few people want to spend the time and effort to learn it.  But eventually, the tech geeks will figure out ways to make it as easy and simple as using a credit card.  And when that happens, you'll see NFTs everywhere.  Car titles, concert tickets, receipts for new refrigerators, your Amazon orders, all that and much much more could eventually be done with NFTs.  In the meantime, I'll play around with NFTs of artworks and watch how it all develops.

Thursday, June 02, 2022


 So it's been a bit over 3 months since I posted anything.  My legions of fans (all 1 of you) have requested that I get my butt in gear and spill the beans on what's been going on.  It's been very busy, of course (isn't it always??) and my excuse is ... I'm lazy.

Okay.  Quick rundown:

In March, we went down to Florida to visit some friends.  We liked it so much we decided to move there, especially since a house in our neighborhood had just sold for a ridiculous amount of money.  So we contacted a realtor here to sell and another there to buy, started some fix-up, and really got into it.  When we were finally able to put some reliable numbers down, we didn't like what we saw.  Down there was nice, but it wasn't nice enough to double or triple our mortgage payment.  So we decided we like it right here just fine, thank you very much.  Actually, I was really happy with that decision, since there was absolutely NO art scene down there.

Right after that, we went up to DC.  Our grandson was going there on a school trip.  Since he lives in California, we don't see them very much, so we jumped on the opportunity to see him, even if it was just for short periods in between his museum visits.  When we were two hours out of DC, we got a call from his dad, saying he couldn't go on the trip because they didn't get his covid vaccination done in time.  Well, whose fault was that?  So we continued to DC, saw some friends, visited the National Museum of Art, and had a great time.  It reinforced our intention to never, ever, EVER live in a big city again.

As usual, our allergies kicked in high gear this spring.  Nose running, feeling crappy, must be covid, right?  Well, covid doesn't last THAT long.  Things have settled down now for a while.

I was asked to do a live painting for the Asheville Art Museum fundraising gala.  This was a no-brainer: get in front of the high-rolling art supporters in Asheville and show what I can do.  I brought in Maya White, another live wedding artist, to be my model and focal point for the painting.  We had a great time, talked with a lot of people, gave out some cards, and created a very loose and lively painting to be auctioned off at the end of the night.  All was good until the auction started.  Since this was an art museum, they were auctioning off a lot of stunningly good works that had been donated by top regional art galleries.  It started with a classical portrait that would knock your socks off, continued through beautifully done abstracts, glass sculpture that belonged on display in a museum, rare lithographs by big-name artists, and much more.  I kept looking at those works, then back at my painting, which looked by comparison to be sloppy, unfocused, and unresolved.  I wanted to just crawl under a rock.  However, it was well received and sold for more than I thought it would to a couple that was ecstatic to have it.  Would I do it again?  Yes, but I'd pick a simpler composition that I could bring to a much higher level of finish.

I just finished a wedding painting for a wonderful couple.  Unfortunately, it was pouring on their Big Day and it was supposed to be an outdoor wedding.  But they rolled with the punch, the venue did a great job with Plan B, and the painting shows them on a bright sunny day, like it should have been.  When the bride bursts out in tears every time she comes by the easel to check on progress, you know you're on the right track.

Looking forward, I have a solo show coming up in August at the Pink Dog Collective in Asheville.  I'm really excited about this.  It will have some older paintings, but a lot that have never been shown outside my studio, including two that aren't done yet.  

And I've been looking into NFTs and crypto currency lately.  Lots to say there, so I'll save it for another post.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

End of a Local Era

 My barber has closed his shop.  It's the end of a 63-year era here in my little town.  It's an example of what's happening everywhere.

I've been going to Tim's shop for about 20 years.  He ran a one-man barbershop that his father established 63 years ago.  It was very much a Norman Rockwell place.  It was a small storefront in a 100-year-old string of buildings on Main Street in Mars Hill.  There was a barber pole out front, of course, and the "Mars Hill Barbershop" was hand-painted on the front window.  Inside, there were two barber chairs, although one of them hadn't been used in all the time I went there, and looked like it hadn't been used for a few decades prior to that.  His German Shepherd was the welcoming committee and receptionist.  If you got on the dog's good side, you were good forever, and everybody got on the dog's good side as long as you liked dogs.  

Tim knew everybody in a 10-mile radius.  He'd grown up in Mars Hill and worked alongside his father in the shop until the older man retired.  Tim took it over and made no changes whatsoever.  Well, except that might have been when it went from a 2-chair operation to a 1-chair.  Tim is very funny and very personable.  If you want to know what's going on in the neighborhood, you went to get a haircut at Tim's.  You'd sit in the ancient waiting chairs, along with however many other guys were there, and joined in the conversation.  Everybody pitched in.  It might be about the mystery construction project down by the interstate, or Jimmy Smith's herd of cows needing haybales, or Frank's parents in the local nursing home (an X-rated and hilarious discussion if there ever was one).  There was no sitting there and reading magazines, even though there were plenty, all from ten years ago.  

But the number of people going to Tim's has been slowly dropping for years.  Older guys died off and fewer younger ones came.  Almost all the college boys went to styling salons down in Weaverville or Asheville.  Tim got a part-time job at a big-box store to help pay the bills.  As the barber business slowed, he increased his hours at the big-box.  And this year, when the rent went up significantly, he threw in the towel and retired.  And 63 years of barbering in Mars Hill came to an end.

I knew it was coming, but last week I went in to get a haircut and the store wasn't there anymore.  Everything inside was gone, along with the barber pole and bench outside.  A sign on the window announced the closure.  It was so sad to see.  So I made an appointment at a place down in Weaverville.  It's a franchise operation, brightly lit, lots of chairs and ladies cutting hair.  Everybody waiting was staring at their phones and nobody was talking.  Well, I was, anyway, once I got in the chair, and the lady cutting my hair seemed to be glad to have somebody to talk to.  And, of course, it was a decent haircut at a decent price.

So another old neighborly business is gone, replaced by an anonymous franchise operation.  Progress?  No.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Car Stuff

 Now for something completely different ...

Last September, while driving on the interstate, we ran over a piece of metal.  It banged up the passenger door pretty badly and ripped several pieces of trim off the side.  Fortunately, there was no structural damage and we could continue to drive the car with no problems.  Unfortunately, parts and shipping availability meant that it was five months before the shop had everything they needed to do the repairs.  We dropped the car off last week and picked up a rental. I thought we got lucky: they had a Mini Cooper on the lot.  Very cool!  I'd never driven one before.  I signed the papers and off I went.

I hated it.

As it turns out, Minis have the most unintuitive and annoying controls you can imagine.  Things you'd expect to be manual are electrical, and things you'd expect to be electrical are manual.  The shift lever doesn't operate the way any other shift lever does.  The infotainment system requires multiple button punches just to get beyond the "don't operate this while you're driving" alerts.  Brakes are grabby.  The engine shuts down when the car is stopped, then starts up again as soon as you put your foot on the gas, meaning there's a slight delay between your foot and actual movement, which could be critical in squeezing into traffic.  The "fasten your seatbelt" alarm is particularly annoying.  The door has a tinny sound when it's pulled closed.  

This was a Mini Cooper Countryman, which meant it was like a Mini that ballooned in size.  It's way bigger than a Mini should be.  It's much taller than my Mazda 3 and is more like a mid-sized Subaru.  It's a Massive Mini.  It even feels top-heavy in corners.  It just feels ... wrong.  It's not mini at all.

The good points?  It handles like a go kart and is a gas miser.  

I might have liked a real Mini, especially one with a stick shift, and one that didn't shut off the engine at stoplights.  I might've been able to put up with all the other annoyances.  But all together, no.  My Mazda is an infinitely better car.  And the next time I need a rental, I'll go for anything else.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

First Wedding Painting of 2022


My new year started off with a bang, studio-wise.  I had my first wedding of the year on New Year's Day.  This was an older couple who got married at the Diana venue on the Biltmore Estate.  They're quite a lovely couple.  He is very distinguished and she reminds me of Dolly Parton, in a very good way: small, voluptuous, big blonde hair, and a very definite (and very positive) personality.  They're quite a lot of fun to be around.  

New Year's Day around here is pretty iffy, but we lucked out with temperatures in the upper 60's, of all things.  The bride, though, liked the idea of snow on the ground, and since this is a painting and not a photograph, that's no problem at all.  The most important thing that they wanted me to capture was the connection between them.  And I think I did.  It's hard to see on the small image here, but if you click on it, it will show you a larger version.

One thing that I did NOT do this time was paint at the reception.  There wasn't a "reception" per se, rather a dinner for about 20 people in the Private Dining Room at the Inn on Biltmore.  With the omicron covid variant spreading like wildfire, I did not feel comfortable being in a small room with a lot of unmasked people.  Instead, I offered a small price reduction to the couple since they and their guests wouldn't be able to see the painting get started, to which they readily agreed. 

And it was a good thing, too.  This painting had a couple of false starts.  Getting the sizes and proportions right was, for some reason, difficult.  My first block-in had the couple too small, so I had to rework them the next day.  Then there were a lot of little technical issues, the kind that most people would never see but would bug the hell out of me.  They're fixed now.  Actually, I'm very happy with the way this one turned out.  The couple will be back in town soon to retrieve it personally.

Now I'm working on a large and complicated painting for my upcoming solo exhibition.  I think the painting is pretty well started.  Now I have to go over every square inch and bring it up to a high level of finish.  That'll take a while and will be the subject of my next post.