top of page

AI x Art: Paintbrushes and Algorithms

By: Tess Buckley

Art is a way in which we can express our inner thoughts, visualize our ideas and connect with our communities. Whenever I see a painting I also think of the painter behind the piece - what drove them to create this? What are they like? Why was this piece what they chose to share? Here are some art pieces I stumbled upon this weekend:

The ‘artists’ behind these works are, simply put, algorithms - how does that change your answer to the previous questions?

Let’s take a look at three projects: The Next Rembrandt, The Painting Fool, and AARON: Artificial intelligence x art cases.

The Next Rembrandt

The Next Rembrandt project used machine learning based AI that examined the entire collection of Rembrandt’s work. The project studied each pixel of Rembrandt’s portraiture work in high resolution 3D scans and digital files. The project then specified that the AI would create a portrait of a “Caucasian male with facial hair, between the ages of thirty and forty, wearing black clothes with a white collar and a hat, facing to the right” (The Next Rembrandt). The texture of Rembrandt’s paintings was then considered, and the brush strokes were analyzed to determine the exact angle and number of layers of ink that should be applied. The final piece was not a copy of Rembrandt’s work but rather a visualization of the data collected. The original or unique ways that an author expresses ideas, concepts, principles or processes is protected by copyright. The artwork is described as novel because its process is distinguishable and singular from the past, it is therefore a protectable expression of an idea. Although the content may be the same, the purpose and way of arriving at the final product differs. Although the AI was informed by Rembrandt’s past stylistic choices, it put them to practice in a new way. The piece that The Next Rembrandt created is said to be an original piece created by AI in the style of the Dutch master.

The Painting Fool and Simon Colton

In 2013, an art exhibit took place in Paris which received press coverage that featured works produced over several years. This show was a typical art exhibition except for the fact that the artist on display was a computer program known as The Painting Fool. This AI was created by Simon Colton who suggests that for programs to count as creative they must pass something different then the Turing test. Colton proposes instead that an AI artist would have to behave in ways that were skillful, appreciative, and imaginative. The Painting Fool has made progress on all three fronts. By appreciative, Colton means responsive to emotions. This can be seen in an earlier work, where the program scanned an article on the war in Afghanistan, extracted keywords and found images connected with them. These were then used to create a representational image that the program felt reflected the content and mood of the newspaper article. The ability to see 2D shapes as something else in the 3D world entails creativity. One aspect of human imagination is displayed here which is the ability to see one thing as something else.

AARON and Harold Cohen

Harold Cohen was a computer art pioneer and the developer of AARON. In 1973 this painter collaborated with a program called AARON which had the ability to make pictures autonomously for decades. Cohen referred to this partnership with AARON as quite autonomous and stated that near the end of their time together, AARON served Cohen by making drawings which he would then develop into paintings. Cohen was a talented engineer: His machine would compose images of people in rooms, then draw them, mix its own dyes and color the drawings. For nearly a decade many of AARON‘s paintings were representational images that Cohen “regarded as superior to his own” (Cohen, 2016). Many of the algorithms used were not like the artist's expertise, or style. Cohen stated that “AARON was a distinctly different kind of intelligence from his own and he puzzled over its surprising success” (Cohen, 2016). AARON is an example of a robot that can create artwork autonomously by using the teachings (code) of Cohen.

Tools for Creation: Paintbrushes and Algorithms

The role that artists play in the autonomous robot’s creations could be compared to that of the stakeholders over a piano, a paint brush, a computer, a printer, who do not hold rights over the rhythm, painting, or photo produced by the creative user. There is a difference between buying or creating artistic tools and putting those tools to a practice that invent something distinguishable and singular. Both paintbrushes and algorithms give rise to the creation of artwork when used by autonomous agents. A human uses the paintbrush to create while a robot uses an algorithm. The creator of the paintbrush does not hold ownership of the human’s artwork, yet the creator of the algorithm retains ownership of the robot’s artwork. The difference between a paintbrush and an algorithm must be considered.

An algorithm is a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations. A robot or computer is dependent on algorithms where humans are not dependent on paintbrushes and could just use their fingers to paint. This dependency makes it difficult to specify who should hold ownership of the creation, as algorithms are a necessary stepping stone to a robot’s creation, but not the full path to that creation. Algorithms restrict the creator’s ability to a certain framework. On the other hand, a paintbrush helps with creations, however, there are no inherent constraints or rules that come with the practice of using a paintbrush in creating art. Perhaps the mass production of paint brushes compared to the labor and skills it takes to create an algorithm is a main reason for this distinction.

Some further questions we might ask: what value would AI gain from copyright laws? Art is seen as an emotional outlet for many, a way of bringing our subconscious to the forefront; therefore, could we potentially learn more about the way AI “thinks and perceives” from AI’s creations? If we do not grant copyright to AI are we restricting expression and ability to potentially gather a deeper understanding of the rationale in autonomous robots’ decisions?

Learn More

95 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page