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Degas, Photography, and AI

"Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good. Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack. At length he turned to the young man: “You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?” The young photographer said, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”

--Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

To what extent do the circumstance under which an artist makes a painting influence your evaluation of its quality?

For a long time, working from a photograph was considered by some artists to be "cheating" because it makes it easier to translate a scene onto the canvas. It was viewed as a shortcut and evidence of a lack of skill. As a result, many artists kept their use of photography a secret, lest the public (and the market) view them as lesser painters.

One such painter was Edgar Degas. Upon his death, it was discovered that he used photography to aid his painting and drawing. He owned a camera and was fascinated by the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering stop-action photographer known for his study of humans and horses in motion. Degas used photography to visualize compositions and to study movement or fleeting expressions.

The images above are a pastel painting that Degas made of three dancers alongside the ghostly photo he used as a reference. I imagine Degas likely had a general idea for the composition before posing the dancers by a window and making adjustments. Does it matter that this work came from a photo? I'm guessing that most people would say no. But what if Degas had based this pastel on an AI-generated reference photo? Prompt: “black and white photograph from the late 1800s of three ballet dancers, circular composition …” etc Like with the camera, he would have experimented with image variations, adjusting poses and lighting until one of the iterations aligned with his vision. Would this change your opinion of the finished piece?

It is likely that one day we will come across a painting that moves us, that is poetic, even visionary. We will share it with everyone on our social media. Later we will come to find out it was created partially or wholly, directly or indirectly, by AI. How will you respond?

Personally, I'm not currently interested in using AI for painting. Most of my painting is done from life, but only because I prefer direct experience and not because of an adherence to some orthodoxy (I work from photos from time to time.) My immediate surroundings are interesting enough to me and, frankly, the less time I spend staring at a screen the better. Also, it seems to me that emulating paint with AI is like using horses to pull a Tesla. It just doesn't play to the unique characteristics and strengths of this new medium. But we are only at the beginning of the beginning of all of this and Apple is about to make a huge bet on VR. It would be ironic if all this technology led us to rediscover the wonders of direct experience:



May 10, 2023

LOVE that Actual Reality Video! what a great concept

and, WOW Degas created that incredible painting from the blurry almost incomprehensible photo? That's an amazing and beautiful thing


I agree with skcart. Degas very skillfully used the photo as a reference and not a blueprint. I think the thing that differentiates using your own photo vs using AI to interpret your vision is that with your own photo you are actually there, seeing and interacting with real people in a particular place. That experience can’t help but make the painting more alive, in my opinion.


Loving your articles Duane. Its interesting how Degas interpreted the photograph of the dancers. If he wasn't able to draw well, the whole thing would probably have fallen apart. He had to create space where there is nothing but blur, change the value structure quite a bit, create a color scheme and make all the figures work well in relation to one another in that space. Very well done! Definitely not photorealism. Its so bizarre to see someone putting something on their head to experience actual reality!

Duane Keiser
Duane Keiser
May 08, 2023
Replying to

Thank you. Yes, and it is even more extraordinary up close! As for the video, that is satire-- he is making fun of people who put VR goggles on and are amazed at "how real" the graphics are.

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