It was just another photograph of freshly brewed coffee, lying in my mobile phone gallery archive. A brown and white mug, holding deep brown coffee, placed on a brown table. It could do with a pop of colour. I imported the image to the ‘Art Transfer’ tool of Google Arts & Culture (GA&C) app, and selected an artistic style I wanted to see on the mug — an untitled self-portrait of Frida Kahlo with a thorn necklace and hummingbird. In a few seconds, the coffee mug looked like a quirky piece of art.
Then, I re-imagined another photograph, incorporating a Vincent Van Gogh self portrait-inspired style onto a friend’s sari.
Art Transfer is the new fun and informative tool from GA&C, coming after the Art Selfie feature launched in 2018. It allows users to play with artistic styles, read nuggets of information about iconic artworks, and maybe use the ‘Art Projector’ tool to project and view the artwork at a chosen spot in your home.
More than a filter
In an e-mail interview, Michelle Luo, the product manager of GA&C, says, like Art Selfie, Art Transfer started as an experiment at the GA&C lab, where creative coders and artists in residence explore new ways to engage people with art and culture: “AI (artificial intelligence) can be a powerful tool in the hands of artists, museums, and curators to create new experiences and unlock art for everyone, and we aim to connect not only these artists with the latest technologies but also everyone who has a camera in their pocket.”
Think of the tool as an ‘artistic style transfer’ and not just set of filters for photographs. A scissor tool also helps to demarcate an area in the photograph, and apply an artistic style to the foreground or the background, enabling a layered transformation of an image. The end result can be saved as an image or a GIF. “After you take a photo or select a photo from your phone, the image will be processed by a machine learning algorithm — created by the Google AI team — that considers both your photo and the artwork that you choose. The process is not simply blending two things together or overlaying two images. It is a unique recreation of your selfie/photo influenced by the specific art style you have chosen,” explains Michelle.
The results are processed entirely on the device, and none of the images are shared unless the user chooses to do so.
Michelle says the scissor tool went through a few experiments at the GA&C lab: “We tried a few options for selecting the area where the style is applied, including more automatic options to separate the foreground and background. In the end, we decided on having a way to trace the area that you want so that we could give you more freedom to unleash your creativity. That way you can, for example, create a GIF of your sari transformed by the style characteristic of Yayoi Kusama while the background stays the same.” The GA&C has partnerships with cultural institutions such as The Museum of Modern Art (USA), The National Gallery (UK) and the MOA Museum of Art (Japan). As a result, Art Transfer features many iconic masterpieces by renowned artists including Frida Kahlo, Edvard Munch and Leonardo Da Vinci.