An artist is using deep learning to create realistic portraits of historical figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, Vincent Van Gogh, and England’s first Queen Elizabeth.

What happened: Combining technical and artistic ingenuity, Dutch photographer Bas Uterwijk is generating photorealistic images of people who lived before photography was invented.

How it works: Uterwijk uses Artbreeder, a web-based tool that lets users upload images and “breed” them to create hybrid versions.

  • Artbreeder’s portraits module generates images using StyleGAN-2. The model was fine-tuned on photographs, paintings, and drawings for training in human faces and the behavior of light in photography.
  • Artbreeder tends to average out a face’s distinctive features, Uterwijk told The Batch. So he pre-processes the input using Photoshop to amplify or de-emphasize certain features. “You learn when to exaggerate or take stuff out before you feed it to the network,” he said. Then he adjusts the output’s skin color, eye shape, and age.
  • For his Napoleon portrait, Uterwijk integrated a large number of historical portraits, drawings, and sculptures. That made the image particularly authentic, he said, unlike his efforts to portray Jeanne d’Arc or Cleopatra, whose likenesses are almost wholly invented by earlier artists.
  • Uterwijk has also created realistic images of fictional characters like Frankenstein, Michelangelo’s David, and the Marine from the video game Doom.

Behind the news: Artbreeder is one of several creative tools that take advantage of the uncanny ability of GANs to replicate and manipulate visual details.

  • Commercial apps like Prisma and Visionist render photos from social media in styles like impressionism, pointillism, and mosaic.
  • Deep Dream, a web tool for creating psychedelic art, started as a visualization technique to help engineers understand how computer vision models perceive images.

Why it matters: Uterwijk’s AI-fueled artistry helps to humanize historical personalities and fictional characters, too. A similar approach could help filmmakers, museums, and video game developers bring history to life.

We’re thinking: We’re waiting for photorealistic renderings of the characters in XKCD.

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