AI Art Generators & Photoshop For Concept Art

I’m a visual thinker, big time. If you’re explaining something to me, I’m probably picturing what you’re talking about so I can follow what you’re saying and make something useful of it. If the picture starts to fade on me, then you may as well be speaking jibberish. That’s why rapid prototyping concept art is such a gamechanger for me, at least, in storytelling and game design. And it can do much more than prototype, as long as you’re not afraid to spit and polish.

In the last few months, AI art generators have taken off like a rocket and are rapidly improving in functionality, customization, and capabilities. Stable Diffusion, Codeway’s Wonder, and Artbreeder are my favorites right now, depending on the functionality I’m looking for. Midjourney and Dall-E have stolen all the oxygen out of the room as far as the media running with this narrative, but for fantasy / speculative fiction concept art they don’t offer the styles and datasets I need.

At Grailrunner, we’ve recently incorporated AI-aided art into our workflow for marketing images, for the website graphics, and to some extent in our products. I’m sorry if you’re an artist who feels threatened by this marketplace shift, but it really is a technology that is unlikely to go away or accept a lot of regulation. At this point, with millions of images generated per day across multiple apps, it feels more like an unstoppable tsunami you should probably figure out how to surf.

We just added another Lore Card to the Story Arcade here on the site and thought it would be fun to show a behind-the-scenes on the work, mainly to show how we’re using this fantastic new tool in what we do here.

What’s photobashing?

Photobashing is a technique where artists merge & blend photographs or 3D assets together while painting and compositing them into one finished piece. This is used by concept artists to speed up their workflow and achieve a realistic style.Concept Art Empire

Stephen Gibson, Art Director and designer of Grimslingers makes an interesting comment about this: “My current style for Grimslingers is photo/3D bashing. I collect images to splice together and keep painting over it, splicing in new images to fill out the character until I can’t stand to look at it anymore.” -Interview, Nov 2022 ImagineFX

Funny, huh? Anyway, photobashing is a big part of my concept art journey. I started off trying to paint everything myself and realized that’s not where my talent lies. Things accelerate and honestly look a lot better if I pull together stock images or 3d assets from places like Turbosquid, Shutterstock, Archive3d.net, Free3d.com, Nasa (nasa3d.arc.nasa.gov/models), Sketchfab and Daz Studio into Blender and work out compositions there. A lot of museums are starting to upload their collections as 3d models as well, typically for free!

Pulling assets together

Blender is still my go-to tool for compositing 3d assets into something useful because you can manage the placement and lighting and mess around with textures in Substance Painter. Incredible flexibility, but it’s time consuming. It’s also a place to build up assets that are unique to a world I’m creating (and so won’t be available anywhere. Then Photoshop. Always Photoshop. Nothing is done till it’s been through Photoshop. It’s a thing.

This is an example of what I’m talking about. The ball lightning carbine is a distinctive weapon, strapped to the arm of practically any adventurer in Grailrunner’s Salt Mystic universe. I made this thing in Blender with some parts from various models (a motorcycle, crutch, and I forget what all). The frame of it and the leather straps were just cylinders that I squashed and pulled into place, then added textures. Now I’ve got this thing in a hundred styles and orientations.

1. For our new Lore Card, it started with an idea: a dramatic aerial view of a carbine gunslinger on a mountaintop with a wide valley below him. Sometimes the story comes first, but in this case only the mental image. I’d write the story behind that guy after I saw him.

2. With Stable Diffusion, I experimented with a series of prompts suggesting the aerial view, the mountain top and valley, and the “fantasy gunslinger”. It took patience, not going to lie about that. And I cycled through several artists incorporated in the prompts to try different styles as well (you can mix artists too!).

3. Once I got something that looked like it would work for me, it needed some basic touch-up painting and color & tone adjustments in Photoshop. There was also an annoying misshapen character standing there (instead of my gunslinger that I asked for!) that had to be just erased. Photoshop has vastly improved capabilities now for easily removing stuff.

4. I still needed that gunslinger though, and went back into the cycle loop trying various iterations and prompts to get a guy in the right posture and wearing the long, gunslinger coat I was looking for.

This is the character I eventually went with. They can turn out with three arms and nightmarish faces, the fingers often run together and look like tendrils. Seriously, the output isn’t always mind-blowing, but here at least I saw the outline I wanted and general textures.

A bonus was the weird almost rectangular thing he had on his left arm, which if I squinted looked to me like our carbine without any extra editing.

5. I cut him out of his background and placed him on the mountaintop, gave him a little shadow, and darkened him to almost a silhouette. I was close, but it was bugging me that he was up on the high plateau without a clear story of how he got there.

6. I already had an asset for an airship from a previous work that I repurposed here. There’s a fantastic feature in Photoshop for automatically adjusting color grading and tone to match another image, so much of the hard work was done for me with that option. I just needed to trim it up a bit and place it in context.

You can read the accompanying story here on the new Lore Card. Here’s the final piece:

Let me know what you think, and if you have your own art journey going on. I hope you liked the peek behind the scenes.

Till next time,

Harlan Ellison Needs You: October 21, 2022

If you’ve been with us more than a few times here at Grailrunner, you know we have the highest respect and admiration for the works of speculative fiction writer, Harlan Ellison. If you feel the same way, or if you just appreciate when someone out there is trying very hard to do the right thing and facing mighty headwinds in doing so, then read on please.

You might have heard of J. Michael Straczynski. I came across him during his run on Amazing Spider Man, which was fantastic. It was only later I came to realize he was also the engine behind and the showrunner for Babylon 5. Apart from his own world-shaking contributions, he was also a dear friend of Ellison, dating back to a trembling phone call Straczynski made as a young writer when he was struggling to sell his own work (“Stop writing crap!” was Harlan’s advice, by the way).

It saddens me terribly that Ellison’s home, called The Lost Aztec Temple Of Mars and nestled high in the hills above Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles sits withering and aging with its vast treasures and wonders molding away in drawers and cabinets unseen. Ellison did a series of Youtube videos years ago where he’d occasionally walk through is home and show off his collections, introducing SyFy movies or whatever he was doing. I’d have loved to walk with him through there and hear the ridiculous adventures he had gathering those things.

A museum! Please!

So J. Michael Straczynski agrees and has been (thankfully!) tasked (by Harlan, who passed away in 2018) with converting the house into a museum open to the public. It’s more effort than you’d think, and I wanted to draw your attention to an auction that’s been made necessary to push the work along.

Heritage’s Harlan Ellison Auction, Original Art From Some of the Author’s Most Famous Works and the World’s Most (In)famous ‘Star Trek’ Photo

Proceeds from the all-star October event will help turn the writer’s Los Angeles home into a ‘memorial library’

Follow this link to the auction press release. Any work of art sold in this auction will be replaced with an exact replica, according to Straczynski. And the house needs work to make the conversion. This sadly needs to happen, and they need help making it so.

Recently on Facebook, buried in some comments somewhere, I came across Straczynski explaining himself when some troll accused him of squandering Ellison’s treasures for money. I’m going to reproduce his response in full below, so hopefully we can all understand how important it is that he get help doing this to preserve Ellison’s legacy.

Excerpted from a response on ‘Hang With JMS’, the words of J. Michael Straczynski:

“When I approached the folks at Heritage Auctions (who were friends of Harlan) about doing this auction (about which more in a moment), my requirement was that any auctioned art that was visible to the eye in any room had to be replaced with a high-quality, high-resolution replica indistinguishable from the original, in the same original frame. Everything had to look exactly the same after the auction as it did before. This is being done. No matter how familiar you may be with the house, you will not notice any difference.

As to the auction itself: the goal, again, is to transform the house into the Harlan and Susan Ellison Memorial Library. Doing that means (and meant) taking steps to ensure that the house is safe and in proper shape. But there were/are significant problems with the house, which H&S had kind of let slide over the years. Leaks in Harlan’s and Susan’s offices. The heating and aircon systems had to be replaced (a necessity for later tours and academic work, and Sharon continues to work there in the present). Brand new security systems had to be installed because the prior systems had simply been ripped out to make way for work. Since the house is empty most of the time, window and door frames had to be discreetly reinforced and made intruder-proof without doing anything noticeable from inside. The outside perimeter wall was collapsing, and the ground beneath it had to be reinforced to prevent it all from sliding down the hillside.

All of that takes money, and I covered all of it out of pocket with some help from the Ellison tier on Patreon, while we fought the banks for access to the Ellison accounts, which in the end came to only about 200K.

Still ahead of us: making the house safe for visitors (discreet hand-rails on the stairs up to Harlan’s office, for instance, where he and other guests often tripped and fell), landscaping to create an outdoor space for lectures and other events, fixing the exterior of the roof which does not have a to-code surface, just the black tarry like top and flat boards to walk on to keep from going through the roof; it has already started to go soft in places and could eventually collapse (especially given the weight of the Keep, which also needs some repairs).

Restoring the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars just by itself will cost at least $100K, and that figure could double depending on what damage we find on the other side, between the outer and inner walls. Then there are a ton of other maintenance repairs that need to be done.

And all that’s just for the house itself so it can pass muster with the state and local codes for a library like this, and we can’t go for a historic/cultural preservation certificate until we can show them what the final version will look like so they know what they’re preserving. It doesn’t include any of the subsequent steps we will be taking down the road.

Such as: hiring an archivist (we may be able to get one a bit less expensive by going through a university) to catalog and digitize all of Harlan’s papers and correspondence for easy reference both on-premises and online (the manuscripts are already pretty much all done). Replacing the living room carpet and storing the furniture so we can turn it into a display room for Harlan’s manuscripts, art pieces for rotating themed viewings, rare books and other material, and a display for the urns containing Harlan and Susan’s ashes.

I want to wake up the house by installing very small, discreet wireless speakers in various rooms that will, in one room, have him reading his work; in another, speaking at a convention or a party, so the house feels alive; and from upstairs, the sound of typing. Videos (without audio, projected from tiny, invisibly placed projectors rather than installing monitors that would change the look of the room) showing Harlan and Susan will play in the bedroom and the wall leading up to the living room. You will feel his presence, his art and his work on a visceral level, as if he’s just stepped into the other room for a moment.

Finally, there are plans to create scholarships in Harlan and Susan’s name for up-and-coming writers graduating high school.

All of this takes money. Even without all the repair issues mentioned above, those we’ve consulted with who have turned the estates of other writers, artists or politicians into libraries have insisted that you need at least $1M in hand to start the process; double that would be better.

(And please don’t throw Kickstarter at me, I’ve investigated and it’s not viable because nobody can get anything in return, and it wouldn’t provide even a fraction of what’s needed. Everybody always says “Oh, go Kickstarter” which is another way of saying “let somebody else do this” without understanding the limitations.)

So it’s very simple: either we auction a very small part of what’s there, replacing it indistinguishably so the look of the house doesn’t change…or none of this can happen, and Harlan’s wishes are not met.

Pick one.” -J. Michael Straczynski

There it is, guys. Go check out the auction. Go if you can. Get involved. Donate if this matters to you. I appreciate your time on this.

Till next time,

AI Art Tribute To Mervyn Peake: Genius Of Gormenghast.

Here’s a true genius for you, this guy here entertaining these lucky little munchkins. His name was Mervyn Peake. He’d have wanted you to call him an illustrator or a poet, though he wrote two of the most white-hot works of genius ever put to paper in the unique genre of Dickens-esque fantasy fiction: Titus Groan and Gormenghast.

From being a painter & illustrator in the 1930’s and 1940’s, he went on to write poetry and short stories for children as well as adults. In 2008, The London Times named Peake among their list of ‘The 50 greatest British writers since 1945’.

As I see it, life is an effort to grip before they slip through one’s fingers and slide into oblivion, the startling, the ghastly or the blindingly exquisite fish of the imagination before they whip away on the endless current and are lost for ever in oblivion’s black ocean.” -Mervyn Peake

Though born in China in 1911, Peake’s family moved to England when he was 11. He was formally educated, particularly inspired and encouraged by an English teacher named Eric Drake who subsequently started an artist’s colony on the channel Island Of Sark which Peake joined later. Peake first exhibited his oil painting in 1931 with the Royal Academy. At the outbreak of World War Two, he applied to be a war artist and made a shocking, fascinating proposal to the Ministry Of Information of a way to help fight the war with his talent.

The love of the painter standing alone and staring, staring at the great coloured surface he is making. The window gapes as he inhales his world. His world: a rented room, and turpentine. He moves towards his half-born. He is in Love.” – Mervyn Peake

For the war effort, Peake proposed an illustrated catalogue for an exhibition purported to be by Adolf Hitler himself be published as a propaganda weapon. The catalogue would include paintings showing mutilated, raped or starving victims of war atrocities, as Peake imagined Hitler might have drawn them, but with mundane titles like “Family group”, “Still life” and “Reclining figure”.

A still life from Peake’s proposed catalogue.

There is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or a woman for their world. For the world of their center where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.” –Mervyn Peake

Between 1943 and 1948, Peake completed Titus Groan and Gormenghast as well as some of his most notable illustrations for books by other authors, including Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark and Alice in Wonderland, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. By the late 1950’s he’d had at least two nervous breakdowns and was showing signs of dementia. It’s a terrible loss and shame what is so clear in the third book of the Gormenghast series, Titus Alone just comparing the writing. A fourth book in the series was left unfinished when Peake became too ill to write, though his widow’s manuscript supposedly found in the family attic formed the basis of a book of that title published in 2011.

I am the wilderness lost in man.” –Mervyn Peake

Grailrunner launched the Past Masters series of articles recently with a combined celebration of John Berkey, Will Eisner, and Jack Kirby. The idea with the series is to use AI art generators, properly coaxed with the prompts and data set options, cycled till the styles look about right and simulate works by these artists – not to pretend these works in any way approach their talent. Rather, it’s just to make us pause, take a look at what made these geniuses unique, and imagine what it would be like to see new works by them now.

Enjoy some simulated pen & ink and wash illustrations generated by the Wonder AI art generator from Codeway. Prompts included “Steerpike in the kitchens”, “Gormenghast”, “ugly man telling stories”, “grotesque man screaming”, and “fantasy explorer in an airship”:

I hope you enjoyed these and are inspired in some way to find out more about Mervyn Peake. He’s worth your time.

In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.” –Mervyn Peake

Till next time,