Artificial Intelligence & the Artist’s Hand

Last week I took on a special commission but there was little time to create the images. The subject was John Carlos who was the bronze-medal winner in the 200 meters at the 1968 Summer Olympics, where he displayed the Black Power fist salute on the podium with Tommie Smith. I was a little kid when I first saw the images of Carlos, Smith and Norman on the podium. The bravery of their protest stayed with me. The client sent me a pre-recorded Zoom interview with Carlos and I learned new information about the event.

Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers in the US and wore a necklace of beads which he described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the Middle Passage.” — wikipedia

When thinking about a direction to go in for the images, the logo for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, specifically with green laurels, gave me an idea. Carlos, Smith and Norman all wore OPHR buttons on the podium. The laurel is a symbol of victory and, while listening to John Carlos speak via Zoom, I heard words such as honor, respect, integrity, and value. I chose to use Damask fabric and gold filigree such as what you see in a coat of arms.

Damask tapestry fabric is intricately woven from thick fibers many times by hand to give the fabric a rich color and unique design. You can also clearly see laurels in many of the designs. The challenge was to get the machine to apply this design as an image style. Image style transfer involves algorithms that manipulate digital images in order to adopt the appearance or visual style of another image. I’ve been using this process to create images for over four years, so it made since to use it for the Carlos commission.

Much of what Deep Dream Generator produces is what I consider to be raw material. I started running the deep style algorithm using different images (as styles), then I composited (layered) and cleaned them up using Photoshop. I keep the details I like and erase away the rest. Also, I decided to bring in the gold texture and the filigree designs to amplify the main images. This is the result for the first one:

I had to create the lower fourth of the first image that was cut off by the podium in most of the photos I found. This includes the cuffed pants, black socks, and the Puma sneaker (from the podium). I was told that these things were very important. Next, I used another image style for the second project, which is a portrait of the elder John Carlos. This style is custom made by combining two or more images in one. I added a similar gold filigree pattern that’s in the first project. This is the result:

I wanted the last project to feature John Carlos sprinting on the track. I also wanted to be more abstract and painterly. This final image is a composite of several machine outputs plus the filigree pattern from the first image. I needed to maintain visual coherency and establish / form visual connections across the three images. And it began with the OPHR logo and laurels, as well as Carlos’ actual testimony. Here is the last image:

Image resolution was very important: the higher the resolution the better the machine output. From experience, I have set parameters for the portraits but I gave myself room for experimentation, especially with the last image I created. In many ways, it’s a true collaboration with the AI because I can anticipate or predict how the deep style algorithm will process certain images (sometimes it surprises me though). This influences what styles I choose.

And when the machine output isn’t exactly what I envision I let my ‘artist hand’ take over the process.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.