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As a professional photographer and former advertising designer, Jim Henderson understands artists' concerns how their work will be affected by artificial intelligence (AI), which can whip out a piece of art faster than a human artist can set up an easel and palette.

Artists complain that their own human-made art is being used to train AI programs without their permission, and that the technology could steal their ideas and work opportunities. Henderson gets all that, but thinks artists might as well learn to live in an AI world.

"It's definitely impacting all the creative fields quite a bit," said Henderson, 60, who lives in Eden Prairie. "The technology's out of the bottle and we're not going to probably go backward, so I think you need to figure out how to use it to your advantage."

So Henderson uses AI to make people happy — and bring in a little extra cash along the way — by making poster-size portraits of their dogs. The project happened sort of by accident. Last summer, just for fun, Henderson used an AI program to create portraits of his own dogs. He labeled them with the dogs' names, Riley and Kody, and short descriptions. He thought the finished products "looked pretty good," so he posted them on Facebook.

"I got people that were like, 'Oh, can you do that with my dog?'" he said. He made a few portraits of friends' canines, and word spread. "I started getting people emailing me quite a bit."

Making an AI-created dog portrait usually takes Henderson about three hours. Starting with a photograph of the pet, he enters a description into the AI program Midjourney, specifying the dog's breed or mix of breeds, its size and coloration and details about its markings, body type, personality characteristics — energetic, serene, etc. — and gives instructions on the dog's surroundings. He instructs the program to make the picture in the style of the national park posters created around 1940 by human artists in the Works Progress Administration.

He often has to adjust the prompts and try again.

"Sometimes you have to keep running it, and you have to keep tweaking your wording," he said. "Sometimes it can go fairly quickly, and sometimes it can be kind of painful."

Last summer, Jim Henderson created poster-size portraits of his dogs, Riley and Kody, for fun. Soon, everybody wanted one.
Last summer, Jim Henderson created poster-size portraits of his dogs, Riley and Kody, for fun. Soon, everybody wanted one.

Jim Henderson, Provided

He adds finishing touches by hand, including borders and type, and prints the pictures on expensive art-print paper using an ink-jet printer. The 13- by 19-inch prints are priced at $250 apiece (plus tax and shipping).

So far, Henderson has made about 70. Photography remains his main source of income, but he finds making dog portraits an enjoyable side gig.

"It's been a fun thing," he said. "I just invested in some new equipment, and I'm going to keep trying to grow this thing."

Emotional resonance

AI development could alter the world in unpredictable ways, and artists aren't the only ones who worry about it. Writers and musicians are concerned that AI could take their jobs. Teachers know that some students are turning in papers written by AI. AI deepfakes (including recent fake pornographic images of Taylor Swift) could spread misinformation without being detectable. AI can synthesize "photographs" of people that look anything but robotic.

And then there's that rather unsettling proportion of tech experts who say there's a chance AI could destroy humanity (thankfully, others say that fear is overblown).

Although Minnetonka artist Tom Foty creates portraits of people's dogs the old-fashioned way, with a brush and paint, he understands that AI can be useful for artists.

"It's a tool, and I'm not so naïve as to think it's not an important tool," said Foty, 68.

But for Foty, who makes commercial art, illustrations and fine art in addition to dog portraits, great art relies on a human element.

On its own, AI "only responds to what data has been put into it" — it could not, without explicit instructions, create something like Salvador Dali's surrealist images of melting clocks in the 1931 painting, "The Persistence of Memory". It wouldn't come up with Jackson Pollock's "drip technique" of making art using poured or splashed liquid household paint. It wouldn't evolve, as Pablo Picasso did, moving from realism to cubism and then into "really weird stuff," he said.

Minnetonka artist Tom Foty makes portraits of people's dogs the old-fashioned way, with paint and brush.
Minnetonka artist Tom Foty makes portraits of people's dogs the old-fashioned way, with paint and brush.

Tom Foty, Tom Foty

Given the right instructions, AI can produce perfect pictures. But great art isn't perfect, Foty argues.

"The machine doesn't think; it only responds to what data has been put into it," he said. "We lose creativity. And I think we also lose the beauty of something that has errors in it— little touches, little mistakes, little flaws. ... I love the beauty of the human hand doing the work, because of the emotion and the love that it conveys, even in the brush stroke or the pen mark."

The human touch is what gives a work of art its emotional resonance, Foty said.

"If I can evoke an emotion, that's my goal in doing my art, in twisting the color or doing something that's a little bit different. If a lady sees the dog portrait that I created [for her] and she cries? Man, I'm just thrilled."

People love their dogs, and Henderson likes that response, too. When he asks people to write a paragraph about their pets, even powerful CEOs write descriptions so adoring they sound "like a kid is writing it," he said. "People are just giddy about their dogs."

Dean Hanson ordered three of Henderson's portraits as Christmas gifts for his kids, each of whom has a dog. "I was impressed at how he managed to capture each dog's personality perfectly," Hanson said. "It felt really wonderful to give a gift that expressed our feelings for the dogs so well."

Sadly, 16-year-old Kip, the oldest of the family dogs, died about a week after his poster arrived, Hanson said. "The timing was bittersweet. ... Jim gave us a something a bit more permanent and lovely to hang on our wall as a reminder of our companions. We're grateful."

Henderson felt good about providing Hanson's family with that memento. All of his portraits, he said, seem to have pleased the dogs' owners, which is one reason he likes doing them.

"On one hand you're like, 'I just can't believe that I can make something like this that quickly and that well,' " he said, adding, "That's kind of the terrifying part of it, too."