Header image generated with AI, in a terrible low-res - sorry!
I have been giving a lot of thought recently to the stability of my future as a digital painter - and by extension the futures of all digital artists, and even all creatives.
If you’ve been paying attention to the conversations currently happening in digital artists circles, you’ll know that AI has recently taken over all discussion.
And for good reason - AI is slowly but surely going to cause a massive shake-up across multiple industries.
A lot of the conversations centre around claims that AI art lacks the soul and intrigue of human-made art; there are disputes over the legality of the way these models were trained and whether the outputs can be copyrighted, and a lot of concern over users deliberately imitating famous artists when generating images. The conversation even stretches as far as debating human rights.
But these aren’t really the things I want to discuss today; other people are tackling these issues much better than I’m able. I hope their efforts slow it down enough to give us time to properly prepare, and grant us legal protections when it does arrive.
I want to talk about the impact it will have on our careers. I want to figure out how the markets for digital art might change, and be prepared for it. I want to find solutions.
A massive shift is coming sooner or later, and I want us all to get through it fine.
What is this ‘AI art' stuff?
To many of you this will be obvious, but for those of you just learning about this: by AI I’m referring to image creation AI models such as Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and Dall-E, that are able to generate images based on text prompts.
The outputs are unpredictable and almost always require some sort of human post-processing, but the rate at which these AI models are being improved is so fast that it is highly likely that they will soon overcome their shortcomings. Already they can occasionally generate incredible images, sometimes even on-par with world-class digital artists.
How will these AI’s impact digital artists?
I’d be surprised if the supply of all digital media didn’t increase massively over the next few years, as both companies and individuals use AI to create all sorts of things.
Companies will need less employees to produce the same products, many people will use AI to shorten their journey to becoming competitive in the creative markets, and even more people will just use AI to create media for their own personal consumption.
The supply of digital content is simply going to go way, way up, and I don’t think demand will go up at anywhere near the same rate; we are already spoiled for choice. I don’t think it's silly to expect that the average value of art and other creative pursuits like writing is simply going to fall as AI saturates the markets.
In order to generate an income, I think digital artists are going to be forced through something of a paradigm shift in how they approach their careers.
How can digital artists prepare for these events?
In order to prepare myself for this, I’m trying to identify which markets will get stronger, and which will get weaker. I’m certainly not announcing the death of digital art or anything like that; I'm just trying to read the room and make sure I don't set myself up to fail, as a digital painter.
For the last couple of decades digital artists have been in greater and greater demand by the entertainment industry, and I think that particular pendulum is finally slowing down.
Freelancing as a digital painter won't disappear, but I do think it might get less lucrative, and will inevitably become a smaller portion of my income as I find other ways to create an income.
I should acknowledge that perhaps some sort of legislation around AI will appear, enforcing stricter regulations that will stop it from flooding the creative markets. Perhaps AI art will never be able to be copyrighted or will be found to infringe on the rights of all the artists it learned from, so companies will be too scared of the ramifications of using it.
But I really can’t see that happening - or, even if legislation does appear, it being successful - so I’m not willing to bet the future on it.
As far as I can see, there are a few different paths you could choose to go down. I put most of this into words to help myself figure out what direction I should be taking my own career. Bearing in mind that I could be completely incorrect about where the future of AI is going, these are the potential solutions I’ve thought out:
Solution 1: Utilise AI in your own art
This one is pretty obvious, and it’s undoubtedly what the entertainment industry will expect of its artists.
You stay a visual artist, but evolve your process as the technology evolves. Join with the AI, and use it in your workflow - feed it text descriptions, feed it your sketches, paint over its outputs, etc. Just like some did with incorporating photos and painting over 3D models in their digital paintings, this is simply the next step in the same path toward efficient image creation.
This sort of path suits those that just want a great end result, and are not too fussed about the process they use. I think the danger in this approach is that you risk becoming redundant if AI gets so good that it doesn't even need an artist to fix its mistakes anymore, but I’m not sure that’ll ever be a reality.
Either way, I expect these jobs to still be about as competitive as becoming an in-house artist in the entertainment industry is today; companies won't need as many artists on-staff when they can use AI for 90% of the workload, but there will also be 10 times as many companies popping up looking for an artist to work with their AI outputs.
Solution 2: Supplement your art with other AI mediums
AI is great at doing a single task very efficiently so, unfortunately, specialists are the ones who get automated - if you perform like a robot, you’ll get replaced by one - and digital painters are no different.
So perhaps instead of specialising in digital art, you use AI to diversify your creative mediums. AI isn't only going to make digital art easier to make, it'll also make writing, music, video and code easier to make, among a bunch more things.
You could build much larger projects than just individual pieces of visual art, if you learn how to use AI to create supplementary media and learn how to polish it all into a finished product. Animations, comic books, card games and illustrated novels all become much easier with AI assistants to help you. Partnered with AI, individuals might even be able to create feature-length films and massive videogames completely independently.
With AI the manpower needed to make big entertainment products goes down, so small indie teams and maybe even solo creators will have as much creative potential as giant studios.
Solution 3: Broaden your skillset beyond the visual art market, and build your own niche.
If you don't particularly want to use AI to create, it isn't just AI that will be improving our potential as creatives - other software, digital tools and platforms are becoming much easier to use year-on-year, and will allow a single person to achieve much more by themselves than ever before.
If you can combine your digital art skills with other complementary skills, you may be able to create projects that make you stand out from the pack, without even having to utilise AI at all, and without having to compete with those that do.
Find a way to combine your digital art with other skills to produce something new, something that other people simply aren’t doing.
Nowadays, between YouTube and blogs, you can teach yourself nearly any skill for free.
You can learn to make a professional website for yourself really easily with something like Squarespace or Wix, whereas not long ago you would have needed a web developer to make anything that looked good and worked well.
You can use social media tools to post on multiple platforms efficiently and analyse the performance of each post, when not long ago you would have needed a social media team for that level of automation and data.
Just for the art market, you can film, edit and sell video courses, schedule and host online mentoring, and sell merchandise via white-label print-on-demand companies, on a myriad of different platforms and services, all by yourself. New tools show up weekly, and present opportunities to create unique businesses.
Many of these services are free to get started with, and have become so streamlined that each only takes a weekend to figure out.
For a couple of examples outside of the art market, you could combine your art with web design to create unique, bespoke websites for clients, or with writing to sell your own storybooks.
The options are quite broad and will only get broader; if you are prepared to widen up your skillset to learn some complementary skills, and combine your skill of digital painting with an unusual skillset to create a rare combination, you'll build yourself a niche where you barely have to compete with anyone, let alone AI.
Solution 4: Lean into your humanity, and traditional methods
One method to survive the coming technological disruption would be to deliberately do things with your art that an AI cannot do and, quite the opposite of embracing AI, choose to lean away from AI.
AI will probably always struggle to imitate the true humanity beneath the surface of a piece of art, so deliberately accentuate and show plenty of evidence that your art is made by a real person.
People who value human-made art will seek digital artists whose hand shows through in their work, who show their process, who speak about their work and share their insights and motivations. They may even want proof that your work wasn’t made by AI.
Video content will probably be the best way to achieve a lot of this, and I’m pretty sure that even more so than it is today, it'll be very, very important to artists who paint and draw all of their work.
Record your painting process to accompany your finished pieces, and create YouTube videos to share your perspective as an artist. Make sure that when someone finds your art online, they can easily tell it was painted by a person, not an algorithm.
I'm sure AI will eventually be able to imitate a painting process video, but until then it'll be a key way to differentiate human-made digital art from AI-made art.
You can also hand embellish all the prints that you sell, make a move towards painting in traditional media like acrylics over digital painting, and try selling your work face-to-face in local markets instead of global digital ones. Importantly, build deeper, more personal relationships with the people that buy your art.
In my opinion, with this direction it would be best to focus on creating quality over quantity, as AI will be able to pump out quantity much easier than any human could. Focus on creating the very best work you can, present it the most human way you can, and sell it in the most personal way you can.
Solution 5: Move toward teaching
Since AI will probably flood the commercial market with low cost art and a lot of newly entering artists utilising AI in their workflow, freelancing as a digital artist might become even less lucrative than it currently is today.
But things like the iPad and Procreate are putting digital art tools in more people's hands year on year, so plenty of people will still want to learn how to paint for fun.
These people will need to learn how to paint from someone.
Many people will start to use AI to try to create their dream game, film or business, and instead of hiring an artist, will want to learn the basics of digital painting so they can fix up their AI outputs and make them more consistent and appealing.
These people will also need to learn to paint from someone.
And they won't just want to learn the basics of digital painting, but also of writing, coding, web design, UI design, social media - everything that someone running a one-person-business that is being scaled through AI might want to learn.
People won't want to hire a professional to do these tasks for them when they could just use an AI for much cheaper and faster results, but they might be prepared to pay someone for a few hours of education to help them improve upon their AI’s outputs.
As an artist, you might already have some experience with a bunch of these skills, and be in a decent position to teach them to the flood of AI-utilising creatives that are about to be appearing.
This is probably pretty safe as a direction to take a digital painting career in, as people will always need teachers and I expect demand to increase as the internet grows. Teaching online can also be quite lucrative, and there are many platforms designed to help make the process easier.
What is my plan?
Perhaps hearing my personal plan will help some people make better sense of the above ideas. I think most people will adopt a unique mix of all of the different solutions, and I am no different.
I love digital painting, and have resisted integrating photos and 3D models into my workflow simply because I find joy in the process of painting; knowing what I know about myself, I cannot really see myself changing for AI, so I doubt I’ll be integrating much AI into my art.
However, while I cant see myself using AI in my art, I'm not completely against using other AI tools to help build larger projects.
In early 2021 I was already messing about with AI tools for writing, and I’m in blogging groups in which some members have made websites and YouTube channels with 100% AI written content. I don't think going 100% AI is quite my style, but I can see myself using it to help me create non-art content.
Diversifying my skillset outside of just art is luckily something I've already been working on, for similar reasons to AI. A few years ago I could see that as more artists from the developing world join the global marketplace and work for lower rates than me, I would probably get priced out of the freelance market. I began broadening my skillset, from just digital art into writing and web design.
My current strategy will be to combine my digital painting with my newer skills of writing and web design, to make unique websites that are hopefully educational, entertaining and inspiring.
This is the direction I have been heading, and plan to continue going in, broadening my skillset and trying to create a combination of skills that are very unique, allowing me to make things that other people just aren't making.
I’ll also show more of my humanity like solution 4 suggests, by displaying process videos alongside my artwork, writing more articles like this one, and making more video content to share my personality and opinions.
I’ve always known I should be putting out videos, and it was on my agenda to handle ‘someday’. Now with AI appearing I’m going to have to make it a priority, and I think other digital artists would be smart to do something similar.
I’ll make sure the digital things I’m making today can also work in a physical format, like prints and books, to help create that human-to-human connection that some will seek.
Lastly, teaching is also something I've been exploring a little in the last couple of years, and I actively plan to make it a bigger proportion of my income going forward. I'm even open to widening up what I teach past just digital painting, to some of the other skills that I'm learning.
Each of us is going to have to find their own way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help each other
I originally wrote this article to give myself some clarity over what might be coming and how I could deal with it in my own life. I decided to share it in the hope that it helps others out there that have been having similar thoughts, and perhaps jump-start those that might have been putting off thinking about these tricky subjects.
I’ll write more articles in the future with this theme of future-proofing your digital art career, as I think there is going to be a lot to learn going forward, and nearly as much to say.
Whatever happens, we are about to be living through historic times, and we should do our best to prepare our communities.
Images generated with Midjourney and Stable Diffusion