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Exploring art through AI: what Victoria artists say about new trend

Digital artists are teaming up with Arts BC to put on “Exploring Canadian Art Through AI” public workshops in April

When Victoria-based digital artist Juan Ramirez delved into the world of graphic design in 2015, he soon became enthralled with artificial intelligence, known simply as AI.

An electronic engineer by trade, he was fascinated with the way he could use various AI programs like Midjourney to combine completely different styles, painters and graphic design concepts as an “inspiration machine.”

He now shares his graphic art and process on his Instagram and website, and is putting on AI-art public workshops in April - facilitated with the help of Arts BC - titled Exploring Canadian Art Through AI.

Together with his creative partner Laura-Beth McDonald, founder of Esquimalt Community Arts Hub, Ramirez will teach workshop attendees about MidJourney AI and prompt engineering, the process of how to talk to AI machines in order to get the result that you want.

This piece, Finlayson Arm, is one of a series of Vancouver Island-inspired graphics Juan Ramirez created with the help of AI.

“I love AI,” Ramirez said. “I think this is a really exciting time to be in any sort of creative field. The main problem is that AI is already here and it is only going to get better and it will be misused at some point. To ignore AI and to try to sweep it aside is, in my opinion, a big mistake.”

Not all artists are ecstatic about AI’s new powers, and the topic has been generating discussion in artist communities as people are figuring out how to navigate these new uncharted waters. Island Ilustrators Society had a meeting in March with one of the topics being AI scraping of artist’s images online. Marcia Semenoff, a Victoria-based impressionistic painter with 20 years of experience, attended the meeting.

“Most members were fairly alarmed at the information that was present and anxious to know what to do to prevent their artwork from being used,” said Semenoff.

The members are not alone. Artists’ concerns have led to the development of a new tool called Have I Been Trained from artist collective Spawning. The tool helps artists discover if their artworks were among the 5.8 billion images used to train Stable Diffusion and allows artists to opt in or out of appearing in future training sets.

Stable Diffusion is one of many new text-to-image apps in which the AI scours images scraped from the web and through a technology process called Stable Diffusion, regenerates images with similar aesthetics.

In January 2023, three artists - Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz - filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Stability AI, Midjourney and DeviantArt, claiming that these companies have infringed on the rights of millions of artists by training AI tools with images used without the consent of the original artists.

“Most artist members really just wanted to be asked, and compensated, by AI platforms, as, once again, artists are expected to provide their expertise for free,” said Semenoff.

While legal frameworks are being worked out in the courts, supporters of AI have argued that what’s being done through AI is no different than the process of art itself. Ramirez points to people on Etsy selling art they have made of other people’s pets in the style of Monet.

“What’s the difference there?” he asked. He points out that what AI does is a form of collaging. “I started thinking about using software as a brush. How can I use pictures to paint?”

Aside from worries about compensation, some artists fear that a trade that took years to build will be able to be commodified by anyone, and put an entire class of creatives at risk. Portrait of Edmond de Belamy (2018), the first-ever original work of art created using artificial intelligence, was sold for $350,000.

Ramirez does not see AI erasing humans from the process. In fact, he sees it as the opposite.

“The human part becomes even more important. Every time we see industralization, the craft person becomes more valuable,” he said. “I think it’s making me validate you even more because I need to use your name, the artist that I want to copy from, in my prompt. I need to put Picasso, I need to put whoever. I’m learning more about artists since I started using AI than before.

“AI will never be able to replicate the process of an artist and I think what we’re seeing on social media nowadays is people are really interested in how you make the painting versus the painting itself. The human qualities will be the thing that differentiates success going forward.”

Recently, Ramirez worked on a commissioned project from an engaged couple; he interviewed them, interpreted their memories and photos that they sent to him, then used AI to assist him in creating something visually pleasing and meaningful.

For him, AI brings to mind the famous Steve Jobs quote that said computers are a “bicycle of the mind.”

“I would say AI is just an electric bicycle for the mind. You still have to steer it, you may have to pedal once in a while, but it’s going to get you faster there, you’ll be able to see more things in a shorter amount of time,” said Ramirez.

Semenoff adds that AI won’t be the destroyer of the art world.

“Rather than causing the end of art, many artists feel that there is still a lot of tidying up that needs to be done to AI ‘art,’ by a real artist. So the AI platforms are not that sophisticated, yet. But it might curtail entry level work for artists.”

It’s clear that the discussion of AI is something that is going to be a hot topic in artist communities in the next few years, and there will be many different opinions on how it should be used.

Ramirez’s first workshop happens on April 3, with more information coming to

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Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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