Michael Whelan and The AI Of Doom

/ August 11, 2023/ AI (Artifical Intelligence), artists, Artists you should know, tradtional art/ 0 comments

This is another installment in a series on my blog called “Artists You Should Know.”

Self portrait of the artist Michael Whelan
Michael Whelan

Michael Whelan inspired me personally, as an artist, when I started reading Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories, specifically the book “Robots of Dawn.” The cover mesmerized me, it’s depiction of a robot, usually seen as stiff and inorganic, posed as a model, made me want to read this huge book. The robot looked human, but kept its look as artificial, it was an interesting dichotomy. I never forgot that cover, and in recent times I had the great fortune through Facebook to actually tell Mr Whelan how much it inspired me. He was more than gracious in his response, thanking me and wishing me well. Which is why it’s disheartening to learn in recent times that through the advent of AI art, something I myself have embraced with gusto, that a user on the site civitai.ai, has created a LoRA basically copying his style and giving the ability for Stable Diffusion to in essence copy wholesale his works. In light of this I have decided to write a little bit about the man and his work, with an attempt to delve into the question “Does AI art steal work?” The answer is not simple.

“Giskard” by Michael Whelan

With a career spanning several decades, Michael Whelan has left an indelible mark on the genre. His unparalleled talent for bringing fantastical visions to life has solidified his position as a true luminary in the world of cover art. In this blog we will delve into some of his work, but also discuss his style, for it is the style that is being used to generate either wholesale copies of his work or original pieces that look like his work.

Who is Michael Whelan?

Michael Whelan was born on June 29, 1950, in Culver City, California1 to William and Nancy Sloet Whelan. His father worked in the aerospace industry, which led to a nomadic existence for the family as they moved nearly every other year2.

Whelan attended San Jose State University where he earned a BA in Painting and was a President’s Scholar1. He went on to attend the Art Center College of Design in California but dropped out to accept his first book cover assignment1. For over 40 years Whelan has been doing the work and receiving the praise from his peers. His accomplishments, including winning fifteen Hugo’s plus a score of other best of shows awards, are too numerous to mention. His work described by a publisher as “unadvertisable” meaning there is no one thing that can be attributed to his work that one can say “this is Michael Whelan”. That is, until recently.

Dragon flight by Michael Whelan

The Artistic Odyssey Begins

Michael Whelan’s journey as an artist commenced in the early 1970s, and it didn’t take long for his unique style to capture the attention of both fans and critics alike. His early works exhibited a remarkable ability to convey intricate details, as well as an uncanny knack for crafting awe-inspiring landscapes that seemed to spring from the pages of the novels they adorned.

Distant Stars by Michael Whelan

Captivating Creatures and Otherworldly Beings

One of Whelan’s notable strengths lies in his depiction of fantastical creatures and beings. His meticulous attention to anatomical details and textures breathes life into these entities, making them tangible to the viewer. In his iconic cover for Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonsong,” Whelan brings the majestic dragon to life with vibrant hues and intricate scales, creating a sense of wonder that resonates deeply with fantasy enthusiasts.

Descent 2 by Michael Whelan

Epic Landscapes and Ethereal Settings

Whelan’s proficiency isn’t limited to characters alone; his skill in crafting epic landscapes and ethereal settings is equally extraordinary. His cover for Tad Williams’ “To Green Angel Tower” is a testament to this. The grandeur of the towering structure against a surreal backdrop conveys a sense of both mystery and awe, inviting readers to venture into uncharted territories.

Rhythm of War by Michael Whelan

A Symphony of Colors and Light

The interplay of colors and light in Whelan’s artwork is nothing short of breathtaking. His masterful use of color palettes adds depth and emotion to his creations. In his cover for Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation’s Edge,” the radiant hues of the cosmos evoke a sense of wonder and the unknown, serving as a visual gateway to the novel’s exploration of the universe.

Chessmen of Mars by Michael Whelan

From Science Fiction to Fantasy: Seamless Transitions

Whelan’s versatility as an artist is evident in his ability to seamlessly transition between science fiction and fantasy genres. His art defies categorization, encompassing a wide range of themes and concepts. Take, for instance, his cover for Michael Moorcock’s “The Bane of the Black Sword.” This piece effortlessly merges elements of science fiction and fantasy, portraying a scene of cosmic battles and mythical creatures locked in an eternal struggle.

Evolution of a Legend

As the years rolled on, Michael Whelan’s art continued to evolve. His later works exhibit a refined sense of composition and a mastery of technique that can only be honed through years of dedication. While his early works are celebrated for their intricate details, his more recent pieces demonstrate a nuanced approach that conveys emotion and narrative with remarkable efficiency.

Legacy and Influence

Michael Whelan’s influence extends beyond his artwork itself. His collaboration with esteemed authors and his ability to encapsulate the essence of their stories within a single image have redefined the role of cover art in the literary world. His work has inspired countless artists to push the boundaries of their creativity and to aspire to capture the imagination of audiences in the same way.

Michael Whelan and the scourge of AI Art

Ultimate Enemy by Michael Whelan

It came to my attention recently on Michael’s Instagram Page that his work was being used as a LoRA. A LoRA is an AI model created by a user using images and keywords to teach the AI what something should look like. In this case it was fed all his past work and with a simple prompt you can have your own “original Whelan”. Suffice to say that I tried it. You can see the results here:

Michael Whelan is not the only one to come out against this new tech. I have written about Greg Rutkowski in a previous blog. Even prompting Greg Rutkowski is not enough, we now have LoRA’s being made of all the major artists: Hajime Soroyama, Jim Lee (marvel/dc), Studio Ghibli (most used of all), Joe Jusko, Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, Gerald Brom and the list goes on. If it hasn’t been turned into a style or LoRA, it probably will be. This is not the fault of Stable Diffusion or any of the other systems that facilitate AI art creation, but it is a failing of repositories such as Civitai to allow this kind of content to be hosted. The community in the ai art world created these sets, which can be seen as copyright infringement.

Can you copyright a style? Michael Whelan and Greg Rutkowski both say yes. But in reality many people, for example, have been trying to paint like Bob Ross, even trying to be as calm and soothing while doing it. Difference is Bob Ross is dead, and as far as I know no one has made issue with using his style in an AI model. The technique of painting is a tool to achieve a goal. In the case of a Bob Ross “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Ross#Influences” art historians say there is evidence showing his painting technique is not new and existed in Roman times. But the point is the AI can paint a close simulacrum of Bob’s style which may look very close to an original, whereas painters painting using the same technique and style, still inadvertently add in their own unique spin on the original work. Things to ponder.

If you use the technology to make a close facsimile of someone else’s work, then you are engaged in theft. Let’s be clear, AI doesn’t create art, it’s a tool used by a human to create what they think is art. The AI cannot spontaneously and on its own produce a Hugo winning book cover, but with input from someone with imagination, it can produce it for you. If the intention is to closely replicate an artist’s piece using prompts and techniques like controlNet to make a replica, you are not being creative and the artists are very correct in securing their rights to their imagery.

As of writing this, Civitai has not responded to Michael’s complaint. It’s obvious from the terms of service that the site is saying one thing but doing another. Again there is a gray area, but as discussed above and in this long, but highly insightful video by Hello Future Me on YouTube, there is a good chance that Civitai model creators as well as Civitai itself could be in breach of copyright. Even though I have not been able to replicate an exact copy of Michael’s work, it’s still possible. We shall have to wait and see what happens next.

Overall the “Anti-ai art” movement has valid concerns, but the genie is already out of the bottle. There are ways the artists can take back some control over the unauthorized creation of their work, but it requires willingness to be actioned by larger corporations and businesses, like Huggingface and Civitai. Only the hosts of such technology that enables one to steal others’ work can police this, it’s also in their best interests to do so. If the AI has nothing to learn from it cannot generate the style, it’s a double edged sword, the artists get replaced by the AI, who cannot come up with anything new, the art becomes stale and repetitive and so the industry dies. This is a larger deeper philosophical discussion that can’t be explored in this article, but it is worth keeping in mind. You don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

In conclusion

Michael Whelan’s work has been an inspiration to many artists, including myself. His ability to bring fantastical visions to life has solidified his position as a true luminary in the world of cover art. However, with the advent of AI art, there is a question that needs to be addressed: Does AI art steal work? The answer is not simple. In this article we have delved into some of Michael Whelan’s work and discussed his style, for it is the style that is being used to generate either wholesale copies of his work or original pieces that look like his work. It is important to recognize the value of originality and creativity in art and to respect the work of artists like Michael Whelan who have contributed so much to the genre.

Ian is an avid fan of art, but has no money to buy nice art. He’s hoping this website will give him capital to buy good art. You, also, should buy good art. You should also contact him to build websites and graphics. Let him help you with your online presence and business. Get in contact here

  • Digital Design and Marketing, welcome to the new era

    Digital Design and Strategy is what I’m talking about today but before I get into that I would like to start at the beginning: At the end of August I left my job of over 18 years at McCann Port of Spain. It wasn’t an easy decision. In fact it was prodded along by a general shift in the industry. A shift from traditional advertising to this “new” digital focus. Everyone wants to be on digital but many don’t know where to begin, how to start and where to go. What is clear though that most, if not all businesses, believe they can do it themselves. This is the new era and it’s scary to those who sat in the comfort of an agency, surrounded by bureaucracy and hidden behind layers of paperwork.

    No longer are clients happy to sit and open a newspaper and see their ad and think “Yes I am getting a ton of sales today.” Now they open up their phone and begin whatsapping their digital strategist complaining that they when they were Facebooking they didn’t see the ad for their product. In the near future they will be sending a “snapchat-esq” video to the marketing team demanding to know why sales for the product are down last quarter and where are the “online conversion reports.” I envision in less than five years the owner of businesses will be continually be updated with real time reports generated by the system and not by a human. In other words no one will need to send any messages, video or otherwise, because the computer will have the result as a morning notification.

    Where is the map for the digital design and strategic landscape?

    If you are a marketing professional, you know what your targets are. You know, simply, that you need to make x to turn a profit of y. This cannot be achieved by sitting at home and reading blogs about “conversions” and “ROI.” You, the marketing professional need to strategise the next month’s plan to get out there and sell your product. This is where ReidDesigns comes in. I have the expertise and the experience to help you come up with that strategy. I can also help execute it by pulling together a team of writers, visual creators and analysts to see you make your sales targets under budget and on time.

    That sounded like a sales pitch. But its the truth. I believe strongly in being with the client on a one on one basis to keep the plan going. When it comes to an online strategy everyday is a new insight, a learning experience and an “ah-ha” moment. If you feel overwhelmed by “CTR, IMPRESSIONS, CRTs” and the rest of the alphabet soup, dont worry. Worry about who your market is and where is there are logical avenues for growth. Let me worry about how we’re doing online.

    But you’re a graphic artist, what does this have to do with digital design and strategy?

    The answer to that is “nothing”, and “everything”. My background as a designer gives me a leg up on the competition as a strategic content creator. For example, I designed my logo to represent a simple idea: thinking out of the box. We all need to think creatively and we all need to understand that what we project ourselves as online must represent who we are as a company. Marketing still needs a creative thought, a creative way of doing what someone else hasn’t done. You still need to differentiate yourself from the competition. You still need communication, a visual theme, and most definitely kick-ass branding. All under budget and within cost of course. The logo depicts the name coming out of a blue box.

    What are you hoping to achieve by this blog?

    I’m talking design predominantly. I’m going to talk about font usage, keyword research, the right image for the right wording, what is aesthetics and how it applies to user experience. I will be talking a lot about what I know, agency life and teaching people how to become Graphic Artists. I will also be talking about the state of the industry. How things are changing and why you shouldn’t be scared, overwhelmed and embrace the change. We are in a recession, people are not spending, things are looking bleak, but there is no reason to throw in the towel and say, “game over man” we have to keep moving, we have to push forward and we have to try.

    Who’s with me?

     Please leave a comment below. Ask me a question, but don’t spam thanks.

  • Why online posts need to be proofed before posting and some solutions.
    Tl:DR: An error in your online posts looks bad, you look bad, people laugh at you, you suffer, your employees suffer and everyone is sad.
    “Oh” you say “So what’s wrong with a little error? I’ll just fix it later, I mean it’s not like I’ve just spent thousands of dollars putting up a post on Facebook, it’s not a press ad after all!” I’m going to be blunt: “No.” Please. No. Please proof read everything. Get into the habit from now. I’m going to give you the three top reasons why it’s important to proof your posts before publishing. After i will give you some techniques I have learned over the years to minimize the appearances of “printer’s devils.”

    Once your post is out there, it’s out there

    You could argue that if you made a mistake in your post you can easily change it and that will be that. Unfortunately there is a little matter of screenshots. You may think you’ve removed every compromising photo of yourself from the internet, but unfortunately download apps and simple screenshotting can keep those memories lasting forever. When your post has errors even tiny ones, your competition can then use that as content to push their own engagement. Don’t give them an excuse.
    screenshot of a Facebook post asking people to choose yes or no to someone charging for using his car.

    NP has since fixed this post. But can you find the error?

    For example, NP just today sponsored a post on Facebook and while it’s a well done post that invokes engagement the message is lost as result of one misspelled word. NP subsequently changed it, but I had already screen shot it for the purpose of this exercise. You may make mistakes, you are only human, but minimizing mistakes is the key.

    Extra, Extra EXTRA, read all about it, media houses’ glaring errors in headline!

    screenshot of colm imbert announcing the budget speech from the CNC3 facebook page.

    I didn’t have to really go far to find this one.

    If you are a media house, you are especially guilty of making glaring errors in your posts. We get it, you are trying to get the scoop over the other channels. We also get that you have to contend with a pesky thing called “fact checking” but the older heads of organisations know, that you must employ less haste and more speed. There is no excuse for typos. Create a system where your post is read by at least ONE more person before its published. It doesn’t matter what the post is, even the image itself if it contains copy, must be proofed before publishing. Editors need to take a more active role in what the editorial departments are doing online. This also goes for the ticker tape on the TV (the spelling errors there are myriad!) and even errors in the headlines of the traditional newspapers. Come on guys! Quality control! Try harder!

    Commenting in the conversation requires a once over

    Lastly engaging with users online is a cornerstone of a good social media strategy. However don’t press the enter, click the post button or send the response without reading it over. Too often social media managers, myself included, respond as if in real life, off the cuff, and without thinking. The best piece of advice I was ever given was from my friend and financial advisor, who said
    “I type my response and then delete it. Then I type it again without the emotion and read it aloud. Then, and only then do I send it.”
    Check the “teh” and the “ot” and the “tis” and especially know when to use the apostrophes. There are a ton of spell checkers and online dictionaries that you can use to check everything. Use it. Don’t just type rubbish and click send. That’s going to hurt you more in the online world online than help. Yes it will cause “conversation” but it might just cause you to look foolish. You are trying to keep advocates, not alienate them and it’s hard for someone to defend you if you don’t really care how you look.
    Proofreading comic.

    via inkygirl.com

    What to do to help fix your Social Media presence

    How do you solve your problem? You could hire a person with writing experience, a senior copywriter or supervise your editorial staff closer. But one of the things that has worked well for me in the past is the buddy system. Before you send that post, send it to a friend to “throw an eye” over it. If you don’t have anyone you feel you can trust to do this, or do it in time, save the file and close it. Walk away for five minutes. Come back and open up the post. Read it again. Then make adjustments. Close the file one more time. Open it again and glance at it, you will see any errors. There is a trick the mind pulls on you. The mind tries to find breaks in patterns and sometimes not seeing the pattern can actually see where the words don’t look right or even things that are missing. Its probably a good idea to invest in a social media manager like Hootsuite or Buffer and if you have access to a team have them all have roles and responsibilities. No post should be pushed out without approval from a senior person tasked with approving posts for content. Its called a virtual signoff, if two users on the system have read and made adjustments the post can be pushed out.*

    If you’ve made the mistake and it’s already out there.

    Then don’t panic. Acknowledge that an error was made in a polite way and remove the offending post. Reschedule for another day or repost with the correction. This time don’t send it with an error. If you have a good monitoring system, again Hootsuite has one, you can use that to monitor conversations and gently push people to the revised content. This requires a Social Media manager and a good team to help monitor and curate content everyday. Digital content isn’t like an unguided missile, there is no “fire and forget button”. You need to check it like a growing thing and nurture it. You need to guide it to its ultimate goal, to gain more followers, advocates and conversions. Do you have any examples of posts “gone bad?” Let me know in the comments. If you see any errors, please let me know in the comments. 
    *I can help advise, set up and manage a hootsuite deployment. Get in contact and see how I can help you with this.
  • So you left the job at that big Ad Agency. What’s Next?
    Lost your job? Thinking this is the end? Its not so bad as you think.

    Recently the question was put  to me “You lost your job, are you starting your own business?”

    I thought about it for a while and the only answer I can come up with is yes, maybe. I am in the business of being creative and assisting folks in that endeavour. All the other things associated with “starting a business” is not a priority. I think what I want has never changed. At McCann I spent most of my life doing what I loved. What I loved, changed over the years but the core aspect of “being creative” hasn’t. I am at a stage in my life where maybe starting my own business, is the right thing to do the alternative is to stagnate. Stagnation has led me here. The unwillingness to sit down quietly and just do what’s comfortable. We all reach a stage in our life where we have stopped growing, so possible a job loss isn’t a loss at all but the universe pushing you to grow in another place. Growing requires some pain, some strife and possibly many days of frustration, but everyday is a learning experience. If I do that in a new job or on my own, or just as a consultant to someone willing to listen to some advice, I am ok with that. This to me is growing. Growing out of just doing graphic art and creating things, to doing something more, achieving a bigger purpose. In reality it’s never the right time to lose your job. But somewhere down the line it may have been the best thing to happen to you. I know its not easy and there will be rough times ahead but it won’t last forever.

    Be supportive in everything you do

    I am part of a little group of former McCann-ites who have also left and we created a little support group on Whatsapp, by sharing positive things and encouraging each other, we also share job opportunities. It’s important as professionals to share knowledge and help each other. Not only is it the right thing to do, it helps you grow as a person and everything to do with business is relationships. Alos keeping your contacts close means you are not doing this “unemployment thing” alone. I feel one of the things working for a big agency or any other kind of large organisation is the loss those interpersonal relationships that business thrives on. Not just the networking part of business, but the ability to tap into a core of like minded individuals for help and growth.  I will miss the coworkers I had but I definitely won’t miss the office cliques.

    So to come back to the question: Am I starting my own business?

    Yes I am. I am not just starting. I am going to be in the business of doing what I enjoy and evolving into something else. One day I hope to look back on this time and say “it was a terrible time” but it was necessary. Honestly at the time of this posting, I am still figuring it out. But let’s not be mistaken. I still need to get paid, but I am reasonable in my payment plan offerings. So contact me today and see how I can help market your product online. Even if you just “need a logo” or even a “flyer” I can do it.
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