Why I only use human-made photography for artistic references – not AI

Over the last year or so, I’ve seen some of my traditional artist fellows using AI-generated art as references for their traditional artwork – something without knowing it, other times crediting them as outputs of Midjourney or similar. Here is my stance. I will never knowingly use AI-generated art for references. Here’s why.

Why I don’t use AI

It’s wrong (unethical)

Artificial intelligence art generators are inherently unethical to use because they are built on stolen artwork. They’re remixing bits and pieces of artists’ work without credit or permission. Use of these tools enriches pillagers at the expense of the people whose work they stole. If it strikes you as wrong to copy another artist’s work without permission, then it should strike you as wrong to copy AI images.

I also find it unethical to make Midjourney requests or otherwise increase the demand for AI art because AI is so resource-intensive that, as an industry, it’s horrible for the environment.

It’s wrong (inaccurate)

AI-generated “photos” aren’t an accurate reflection of the real world. They take bits and pieces of other art and photos and mishmash them together. There is no underlying model of physics or nature. At a very basic level, important details can be wrong: people can have the wrong number of fingers or teeth, bodies can be put together incoherently, shadows can show light coming from the wrong direction, etc. An artist I follow faithfully painted an AI image showing a covered bridge oriented the wrong way, covering the water instead of a path across the water. It was pretty but made absolutely no sense.

While AI-generated images are getting better at fooling human eyes into thinking they are real, that only makes them more insidious, I think, because it’s harder to tell that they’re wrong or what’s wrong. The wrongness is still there, it’s just more stealth.

(You might argue that photos are also not entirely accurate. That’s true, photos get some things wrong such as details of color accuracy and three-dimensionality. This is why many artists advocate painting from life where possible. But photos can be really good records for shape, form, and detail – and color too, if corrected. Of course, the photographer or photo editor has to be trying to represent life faithfully. Certainly, I have the same problem with heavily doctored, deceptive photos, such as composite photos of the moon.)

So what’s the big deal? Who cares if it’s accurate? Well, I do, because I paint in large part as a way to learn about the natural world. You can’t learn anything from AI. Or at least, you can never be sure if you’re learning something true or false.

There may be some artists who don’t care about this as much if their motivation for painting natural scenes is to evoke a feeling instead of learning details. If you get the same serene feeling from an AI-generated “nature scene” as a photo, what does it matter? I’d argue that it matters if you care about other people’s response to your image. AI gets thing invariably wrong and anyone who has enough knowledge of nature to identify what is wrong – or even to identify that something is wrong, without knowing what – is going to get a creepy uncanny valley feeling. Probably not what you intend. Certainly AI might be a good reference if you want to evoke that creepy feeling (although because of the ethnical concerns above I would still advocate making it up yourself.)

How I avoid AI images

There’s always the possibility that an AI-generated image will slip by me, especially as they become more common and sophisticated. If you see that I have one up, let me know, and I will take it down. In the meantime, here are the steps I take to avoid them.

  1. I don’t use random images where I don’t know where they came from (e.g. just by googling.) To be honest, I have done this in the past, but in addition to opening me up to AI mishaps, it also puts me on shaky ethical ground similar to AI, since I would be remixing images without permission.
  2. When using royalty-free photo libraries like Unsplash or Pixabay, I look at the metadata. AI images are becoming more common in these libraries, but they usually lack photo metadata such as the type of camera, focal length, shutter speed, etc.
  3. Gold standard: I use photos I took myself, then I know exactly where they came from – and I definitely have permission!

I’d also like to reiterate to the artists here that photos I have taken and shared on this site or on my Unsplash are available for you to paint from, too! Permission officially granted. Just please credit me if you post online, and if you’re comfortable, let me see what you made!

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