Creativity AIn’t the issue

I tried to use generative AI in my last designs, both for the auroch and for the wild boar. First I tried the AI that is supplied with the latest version of Photoshop. Since I am paying for that, I might as well use it. Then I tried to use Stable Diffusion because it is free. And after that, there is no way in hell I will pay for Midjourney, even if I could afford it.

I won’t post the pictures I got here, the internet does not need more AI-generated crap to pollute it. Suffice it to say, that whilst some results looked at least somewhat interesting, most were total crap and none were useable for my purposes. Right from the outset, I found out that the AI does not actually contribute anything to my work at all.

I am one of those people who has some trouble visualizing things in their mind. Especially human faces. I would be completely incapable of drawing the face of even the most beloved person in my life. That might sound odd for someone who doodled all the time and who used to be sufficiently good at drawing to get into art school where part of the entrance examination was drawing a Goethe bust, but that is the way it is. I generally need some kind of template to get started. However, as I found out with the AI, my inability to form a clear visual picture in my mind does not mean that I start without a clue as to how the result shall look. And that is where I clashed with the AI and lost.

I got plenty of two-headed or six-legged animals, plenty of zebu or bison-like animals instead of aurochs, and a lot of domesticated pig lookalikes instead of wild boars. The pose of the animal was never right, no matter what prompts I used. Even after I wrote “auroch running from left to right” I got a picture of what looked like a pair of six-legged water buffaloes running from right to left. At one time the Photoshop AI even deleted one of three generated pictures because the prompt “auroch bull charging” somehow triggered its anti-porn filter or something.

After a few days of faffing around, I found out that my old process – which I described in my previous post – is actually the better way to go. Because despite my poor visualization skills, I still have a pretty good idea about what I want to achieve and what the end result should look like. The AI did not help with that in any way. I only wanted it to generate the picture to get started, and I haven’t got even that. I had zero control over what came out of it. It was a game of chance and I never enjoyed those.

No doubt that with a lot of work and a supply of carefully selected images to train the AI myself, I might get some useable results, but I also got those with a simple Google photo search and making a biro sketch in a few minutes. And once I had the sketch, once I got started, I built on that.

I do not consider generative AI to be completely useless but if it is creative, to me it was a hindrance, not a plus. Sure, I used it to generate dozens of somewhat unique pictures, but despite me being the one giving the prompts, I was in no meaningful way the one who actually created the result.

The results were pictorial ends to a game of Chinese whispers. Sometimes amusing, sometimes interesting, but always widely off the mark.

My Creative Process

Marcus’s recent posts about AI got me thinking and as a part of my thoughts on the issue, I want to start today by writing about my creative process, using my most recent art pieces. Those pieces being knives, because why not.

For me, the idea of how to create something usually pops into my mind without any conscious effort. I can be sleeping, eating my lunch, or driving my car, mulling over this and that and I get the starting of an idea about how to create something. And then it grows from there organically during the process itself.

Of course, all my knives are influenced by my experiences with using and making knives, as well as the designs I saw, whether conscious of that influence or not. But with these two knives, I can be a bit more specific. One of them started nearly thirty years ago and it is inspired by another knifemaker’s blade that I saw in one of my books. I changed both the outline and the grind profile, but the inspiration from someone else’s work was the starting point. For the other knife though, it started with my first failed attempt at a machete (-click-), thus the inspiration for this specific design was an accident.

When I started to make the two blades, I had no concrete plans for them and I had originally intended to make them with ordinary wooden scales. But as the works progressed, I started to think more and more that they would look splendid with engraved bone scales and I left them lying for a year with that idea at the back of my mind. During that year, I worked on other things, as the ideas for what to do with these two slowly matured in my mind. The bigger one got me on a line of thinking that ended up with the idea of engraving a picture of an auroch on the scale, but I still had no idea about the smaller one.

Then in the fall of last year, I successfully sold a knife with a picture of a roe deer on the sheath and when talking with my mother about what animal to use next, she suggested a wild boar. And whilst I have declined the idea for a sheath decoration (for now), I did think that it would look well on a bone scale, thus I finally got the idea for the second knife. Again, inspiration for one came out of some murky associations in my subconscious, the other one came from a nudge by another person’s ideas.

So with a rough idea in my head about what I wanted to accomplish, I started outfitting the knives. And as I wrote in my previous post, during the manufacture I decided to make the handle scales with hidden pins, which gave me an even bigger area to embellish. And when the knives were finally finished, I could start on the designs for the engravings.

With animal designs, I normally start by looking through my books and the interwebs for photos and drawings for inspiration. Not to copy – not the lest because to find a picture with the exact pose that I could use would be a stroke of luck indeed – but to use it as a guideline for a picture that is not egregiously anatomically incorrect. When I find a picture that is roughly what I want the end result to be, I start sketching. Most of that process can be seen in this picture:

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Nowadays I start with biro sketches on paper that I subsequently refine on PC. In the past, I would go with pencils on paper all the way to the finished product. I wanted to use a whole pig, but I had trouble fitting that on the scale due to its shape, so I decided to use just the head.

When I fine-tuned both designs on PC to my satisfaction, I decided to test whether the boar head would look acceptable, so I made a test piece on an offcut of bone.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

As you can see I made again changes from the previous sketches. Not only because I am not a copy machine, but also because each medium imposes its own limits on the creative process and thus each medium demands some changes in attitude to get a usable result. At this stage, I thought I was finished with designing and ready to set out to work, but my mind kept working. It kept nagging me that the scales looked too empty. There were no visible pins and thus there was ample space to fill. I added a rope pattern as framing around the head, but it still was not enough. I tried to fish my mother’s mind for ideas and she delivered – I should add some spruce twigs. I initially dismissed the idea because I did not know how to implement it, but when I tried to google “spruce twig pattern”, I got an idea for how to do it, I drew it and I was finally satisfied.

Nevertheless, I still only had decorative designs for the right side of each knife. I decided to leave the left side on the auroch blade blank, but I felt somehow that the boar needed to have something on the other side too. And without prompting, an idea came to me in the evening just before sleep – to continue the rope frame around the boar head to the other side and engrave a decorative knot there. As far as which knot to use, this time I did not look for inspiration to others, I simply took two pieces of paracord and arranged them into knots for about an hour until I got a result I liked.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

I have redrawn the design on the PC into a shape that fits the scale and thus my designs were finished. I printed them out on paper labels and set out to work.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

The actual realization is more about craft and technique than about the creative process. If you are interested in that, tomorrow there will be a short article on my Knife Blogge about it.

Next time I would like to write about how this all connects to generative AI. I do not know when, but hopefully next weekend.

Hidden Pins on Bone Scales

I wrote about how I make handles with hidden pins before (-click-, -click-) so I won’t repeat myself in this post too much. However, I tried that technique with something new this time – bone scales.

I am currently making two big outdoor knives with highly polished blades. Those blades alone were a lot of work so I have decided to go all the way and make the knives really posh. So I have decided to make the handles with bone scales. However, when making handle scales from bone this big, they were a bit too thin. Thus I have decided to bulk them a little bit with 2 mm micarta (dark brown for contrast). And using micarta gave me the idea to use my hidden-pin technique for bone scales too.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

I did not originally plan to make the pins hidden so the holes were placed just as if they were visible (I originally planned a different bolster shape too). So there are six 3 mm metal pins and 4 6 mm bamboo dowels holding the handles together now. The super big holes filled with wood were drilled so big to remove needless mass from the tang and the wooden plugs are there to increase glued surface.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

I drilled all the way through the micarta and about 1 mm into the bone. I would not use this technique for bone alone because it is very rigid, stiff, and brittle. But micarta is somewhat pliable, elastic, and strong both in tension and pressure so I think it is an ideal material for the transition between the metal tang and the bone scale.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

This gives me a nice, big surface on which to draw something pretty. I already have designs for both handles and one is half-finished.

Mechanically, I think this handle construction should withstand everything that a classic one with pins going all the way through would. As far as aging goes, the epoxy glue did not fail on any knife I have made yet, but should it fail at some point in the distant future, it should also be relatively easy to fix with new glue.