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What Can A.I. Art Teach Us About the Real Thing? – The New Yorker



What Can A.I. Art Teach Us About the Real Thing?

The range and ease of pictorial invention offered by A.I. image generation are startling.

March 1, 2023

An illustration of a magnifying glass on top of a painting which is revealing pixels.
Illustration by Pablo Delcan

“An Avedon portrait of a Havanese,” I type into my laptop. An actual, if elderly and ailing, Havanese is looking up at me as I work, and an Avedon portrait book is open on my desk. What could be more beguiling than combining the two? Then my laptop stutters and pauses, and there it is, eerily similar to what Richard Avedon would have done if confronted with a Havanese.

An A.I.generated blackandwhite image of a Havanese dog in the style of Avedon.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

The stark expression, the white background, the implicit anxiety, the intellectual air, the implacable confrontational exchange with the viewer—one could quibble over details, but it is close enough to count.

My Havedon is, of course, an image produced by an artificial-intelligence image generator—DALL-E 2, in this case—and the capacity of such systems to make astonishing images in short order is, by now, part of the fabric of our time, or at least our pastimes. An image-soaked former art critic—one whose Ph.D. thesis on modernism is now wildly overdue—is bound to find it compelling, and, indeed, addictive, and so he spends hour after hour on serial afternoons producing composite pictures, as the real-life Havanese stands guard below his desk. The range and ease of pictorial invention offered by A.I. image generation is startling; the question, though, is whether its arrival is merely recreational or actually revolutionary. Is it like the invention of the electric light bulb or like the coming of the lava lamp? Herewith, some thoughts.

The intersection of new machines with new kinds of images has a long history. I once owned a French drawing device—a kind of camera lucida, with reflecting mirrors and refracting prisms—that called itself a Machine to Draw the World. It took for granted that the task of image-making was to incise and adjust a drawing to a pattern of light—in itself, a fiendishly difficult action that preoccupied artists for centuries. (Whether actual machines like it played a significant role in the art of Vermeer or Rembrandt is an unsettled question.)

But systems like DALL-E 2 don’t operate on light and shadow; they operate on art history—on the almost bottomless reservoir of images on which they’re trained. And the power of images lies less in their arguments than in their ambiguities. That’s why the images that DALL-E 2 makes are far more interesting than the texts that A.I. chatbots make. To be persuasive, a text demands a point; in contrast, looking at pictures, we can be fascinated by atmospheres and uncertainties. Even images made to persuade—such as propaganda posters or altarpieces—are only communicative through the intercession of our outside knowledge of the narratives that they illuminate. When you don’t know the story, even tutelary religious pictures become enigmatic. This happens to every student of Renaissance art who encounters a picture of an unfamiliar saint: What does that palm leaf mean? In Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” the agitated language of hands would mean nothing—who’s pointing at what, and why?—without our knowing the story in advance. The same thing occurs with ancient Mithraic friezes (basically, chiselled graphic novels), or even Athenian vases, whenever the specific story is lost. Surrealism is the default condition of the narrative image. It takes an extraordinary scaffolding of wit to explicate a single image of wonder. That’s not a weakness of images as a language of communication but a strength, and we’ve evolved a set of words that expresses their peculiar power to cast a spell without making a point. We don’t talk about pictures being persuasive, convincing, pointed. We talk about them being haunting, entrancing, unforgettable.

Surely this helps explain why A.I. pictures tend, for now, to be more compelling than A.I. prose. When you ask for a song about Paris in the manner of Cole Porter, you’ll invariably get a skillful string of clichés: “Oh Paris, city of love and delight, / Where the Seine flows, so elegant and bright.” It’s astonishing that such a thing gets conjured up at all, but it isn’t remotely Porter.

On the other hand, asked to make a watercolor of a Paris street in the style of Porter’s great contemporary and friend Charles Demuth, DALL-E 2 generates something that’s weirdly credible. (That’s to say, it did; in my experience, the same prompt never elicits the same image twice.) Someone paging through a Demuth portfolio would readily accept it as another specimen.

An A.I.generated image of the Eiffel Tower in the style of Demuth.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

A picture is its style. Approximating Demuth’s, we approximate Demuth. Those of us who have spent a big chunk of life looking at pictures and talking about the way that they reach and move us value images as exemplars of a temperament that we have come, or been taught, to admire. The DALL-E 2 system, by setting images free from neat, argumentative intentions, reducing them to responses to “prompts,” reminds us that pictures exist in a different world of meaning from prose. Something similar happens when we prompt ChatGPT to write a Beatles song about René Magritte. That it produces anything at all is impressive, but what it produces is not Beatlesesque. (My results: “Rene Magritte, oh can’t you see? / Your art is like a mystery. / With apples and pipes, and a bird in a cage / You bring us to another age.”) Yet, asked to make an album cover in Magritte’s manner, DALL-E 2 responds in ways that are often arresting, even witty.

An A.I.generated image of the Beatles standing with their backs toward the viewer.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

One of the things that thinking machines have traditionally done is sharpen our thoughts about our own thinking. Chess programs isolate the specific role of memory in chess. Art-trained systems like Midjourney and DALL-E 2 might, in turn, help us look more clearly at our own art-making. For instance, we typically talk about artistic style as a function or feature separate from the subjects of art: the Impressionist style is a way of painting, and the objects it attaches to—haystacks, or picnics, or Paris boulevards—are just instances of what the style can act on. Then one realizes that, for an art-making machine, style is inextricable from the subject matter that it usually superintends. Ask for a Constable interior, and one may get cows or sheep in a library. Ask for a Constable of Times Square and one is likely to get—well, confusion, almost the aesthetic equivalent of a program spitting out an “undefined value” error. What Constable would have made of a New York City space is in a sense an unanswerable question. Constable’s style is not a habit of brushstrokes applied to a particular kind of English landscape; it is bound up in a particular kind of English landscape. Prompted to do a pointillist painting of a wedding in the manner of Seurat, in turn, DALL-E 2 draws on top hats and pyramidal shapes and high-waisted dresses with long skirts. But asked to do a pointillist painting of Times Square, it produces something unstructured and primitive-seeming, as helpless as Seurat would have been at this task.

An A.I.generated image of Times Square in a pointillist style.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

This is, in part, a limitation in the system, no doubt improvable in time. But it is also a reminder. Seurat is his people, as van Gogh is his cypresses. The people on the Grande Jatte cannot have friezelike gravity without their already sober costumes. We pass by subject matter on our way to syntax, since, in our critical establishment, still forged in the aftermath of abstraction, style tends to be highly valued and subject matter regarded as a bit banal.

And so, to triangulate this theme, ask for a Wayne Thiebaud painting of a bookstore, and the system can do smashingly well.

An A.I.generated image of the front of a bookstore in the style of Thiebaud.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

It translates Thiebaud’s taste for geometric ordering, for pensive shopwindow-gazing, and his love of hyper-bright pastel color into a subject that he has never explored. But ask for a Thiebaud image of a battle, and we get a gibbering nightmare of unrelated form, vaguely and nightmarishly evocative of soldiers and tanks.

An A.I.generated image of a battlefield in the style of Thiebaud.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

There’s a real sense in which asking artificial Thiebaud to paint a battle is a nonsensical demand, to which the system responds with nonsense. A battle is not a variant of a Thiebaud theme but an absence within Thiebaud-world; the prompt is, in a way, unintelligible.

Yet the constraints of subject matter don’t prevent the system from making novel imagery that follows a certain internal logic and, very often, mimics the actual logic of art history. A prompt for a painting of the interior of a seventies disco in the style of Seurat produces something evocative of the Nabis movement, which was the successor to Impressionism, and which indeed most often brought indoors Post-Impressionist visual devices brewed out of doors en plein air.

An A.I.generated image of a disco in the style of Seurat.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI
An A.I.generated image of a disco in the style of Seurat.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

Unlike Seurat in Times Square or Thiebaud at the Somme, these are very much “possible pictures,” leaping a century in time, from the eighteen-seventies to the nineteen-seventies. Perhaps the Nabis became Nabis because they saw cabarets as an arena for dots in a way that city boulevards were not. There is no true image “out there” that style then operates upon. Style has a logic that magnetizes itself to its subjects, which then, in turn, absorb the style. Roy Lichtenstein amplified comic-book panels in his early paintings, and then the comic-book panels began to look ever more like Lichtensteins.

Yet a giveaway, a tell to the secrets and potential of the program does eventually appear. It lies in the frequent suggestions that the program makes to the prompter. “Make improbable images,” it urges. “Ask for something never seen before.” And it offers, as you wait for your own image, instances of success, chimerical creatures and impossible worlds.

This is not a machine to draw the world. Instead, it proposes a recombinant approach to popular imagery as a means of making art. (The dialogue of popular imagery and modern art was, as it happens, the topic of that abandoned Ph.D. thesis.) In effect, it exploits, and has installed in it as a premise, an idea specific to a particular heritage of image-making, the heritage of Symbolism, and then of the Surrealism that Symbolism engendered. Appropriately enough, the system takes its punning name from a Surrealist painter, since DALL-E 2 is ideally trimmed to make soft watches and derby hats on dogs and trains racing out of fireplaces.

And so this prompter takes a sudden leap and decides to feed the system the foundational quote of the Symbolist and Surrealist tradition: the French poet Comte de Lautréamont’s 1868 dictum about wanting an art “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” (Out of some programmed primness, though, “dissecting table” must be tweaked to “operating table.”) Suddenly, what DALL-E 2 makes ceases to be merely interesting and has some of the authority of art, an image easily imagined hanging alongside a Leonor Fini or a Delvaux in a Surrealist gathering.

An A.I.generated image of a person lying down by a table with a sewing machine on top of it and another person on the right.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI
An A.I.generated image of two people near a large umbrella and some machinery.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

The reason that DALL-E 2 is a machine for making Surrealist images is that the essence of such art is to be a dialogue between the prompter and the prompted. That’s why so much of the best Surrealist art is not terribly accomplished in itself as optical painting. Instead, it approximates and appropriates the slick styles of illustration, or subjects popular imagery to sudden dislocations. Max Ernst collages are the type of this kind, made from many common sources—cheap advertisements in the back of the newspaper or department-store catalogue—scissored together into a new appearance of meaning. Ask for a “A Max Ernst collage of images of New York in the 1920s,” and this is one result:

An A.I.generated image with numerous buildings and an elephantlooking individual.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

So, lava lamp or electric light? Surely a lava lamp, for now—a diversion of the moment. But then there is something to be said for the idea that art should always be more lava lamp than electric light. The light bulb, after all, is a supreme specimen of imitative technology, a mechanized candle. The lava lamp is a combination of things never before seen, curious and worth looking at for its own sweet sake.

No doubt all art, low and high, has something of this appetite for felicitous incongruity, the shuffle and the surprise. In the nineteen-thirties, A. J. Liebling profiled a religious painter who had a faltering trade making pseudo-Renaissance Madonnas for the local Catholic parishes until he fell on the idea of giving them the faces of silent-movie stars. Business boomed. A Lichtenstein classic cartoon picture, such as “Drowning Girl,” involves dislocations in scale and finish; an artistic style emerges from the subtly wrought collision of comic panel and painting. The new visual A.I. is really a pictorial collider, the image-making equivalent of a particle accelerator that hurls subatomic bits together at high speeds to see what they will reveal as they slam into and fracture each other. In making images collide, we reveal the traces of our table of artistic elements.

And sometimes the phantasms of artificial intelligence can prompt, in the prompter, genuine emotion. The aging Havanese who stays under the desk as the experiments proceed will never again go to her favorite ocean. And, so, “A Havanese at six pm on an East Coast beach in the style of a Winslow Homer watercolor”:

An A.I.generated image of a small dog standing on a beach in the style of Winslow Homer.
Art work by DALL-E 2 / Courtesy OpenAI

It is, as simple appreciation used to say, almost like being there, almost like her being there. Our means in art are mixed, but our motives are nearly always memorial. We want to keep time from passing and our loves alive. The mechanical collision of kinds first startles our eyes and then softens our hearts. It’s the secret system of art. ♦

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N.S. government got duped buying 3 Maud Lewis paintings. Here's how they learned the truth –



Months before the Nova Scotia government received confirmation that three Maud Lewis paintings it owned were fakes and admitted it publicly, the province had good reason to believe they were not painted by the famous Nova Scotia folk artist.

“These do look like fakes,” an official with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia wrote in an email to an official with Arts Nova Scotia, the organization that oversees the Nova Scotia Art Bank.

That program has purchased 2,400 works by Nova Scotia artists since its inception in the mid-1970s, including what it believed to be three Lewis paintings.


These paintings were purchased from the Herring Gull Gallery in Chester, N.S., in 1982, for $300 each, which was below the market rate of $500.

The province became aware the paintings might be fake last September because of CBC News.

A colourful Maud Lewis painting of a truck on a road is shown.
This Lewis painting sold for $350,000 at an auction in 2022. High prices for her work has renewed interest in forging her work. (Submitted by Miller & Miller Auctions Ltd. )

The broadcaster had learned of the potential forgeries while doing research for a Lewis story. The potential fakes included two hanging in the premier’s office.

CBC requested to view the paintings in the company of an art expert, but the province declined. That expert, Alan Deacon, would later be part of the process that determined three paintings the province owns were “not by the hand of Maud Lewis,” whose works sell for as much as $350,000 today.

While the province received official word in January 2023 the three paintings were fake, an Art Gallery of Nova Scotia official wrote in September 2022 that she thought they were forgeries.

“I speculate that they’re possibly done by [name redacted] they’re not bad and in person it would be easier to tell based on the paint and brushstrokes, as they are clearly derived from specific Maud paintings,” Shannon Parker, the Laufer Curator of Collections with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, wrote in a Sept. 12, 2022, email to an official from the Nova Scotia Art Bank.

In a separate email from the same day, Parker saw the paintings as a teaching tool.

“If nothing else, they’re still quite charming and if they’re fakes, they’re a great educational tool,” Shannon Parker wrote in another email to Lauren Williams.

A painting of a red sled being pulled by a horse, in a winter scene.
Sled is one of three Maud Lewis paintings purchased through the Nova Scotia Art Bank that turned out to be fake. (Submitted by Arts Nova Scotia)
A painting of white boats and seagulls in a harbour.
Boat is another one of the fakes the province bought under the Nova Scotia Art Bank program. (Submitted by Arts Nova Scotia)

CBC News obtained the emails through an access-to-information request to find out more about what the province knew about the potential fakes.

When the CBC story published on Oct. 21, 2022, the article noted there were concerns around the authenticity of the Lewis paintings.

While the authenticity evaluation hadn’t taken place, Williams seemed resigned to the fact they were fake.

“It’s going to be so expensive to replace these with real ones!” she wrote in an email to Briony Carros and Christopher Shore, who both worked for Arts Nova Scotia, the organization that oversees the art bank program.

Paintings were taken for authentication in December

A Dec. 14, 2022, email from Williams to Parker with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, said the paintings were dropped off to Zwicker’s Gallery earlier in the week for authentication.

The Halifax gallery charged $175 per painting for the authentication. With taxes, the total came to $603.75 — roughly two-thirds the amount the province originally paid for the fakes.

A man sits at a table looking at a book of paintings.
Alan Deacon is an expert in the art of Maud Lewis. He was consulted as part of the process to determine the authenticity of three paintings owned under the Nova Scotia Art Bank program. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

One day before the province received official confirmation on Jan. 6, 2023, of the forgeries, CBC News learned the results of the examination and contacted the province for comment.

Officials weren’t impressed.

“It’s so unprofessional for Alan Deacon to reach out to the reporter. We haven’t even received report back from Ian Muncaster at Zwickers, but I assume he reached out to Alan for an opinion,” said an email from Carros to Shore.

When the province received the findings on Jan. 6, 2023, the owner of Zwicker’s Gallery, Muncaster, noted Deacon was consulted as part of the authentication process.

New fakes may be coming from Hungary

“While they are plausible images, they do not bear the features that one looks for in authentic paintings by Maud Lewis,” Muncaster wrote.

“As you are probably aware, there has been a forger of Maud Lewis’s work who has been working since shortly after her death in the summer of 1970. We estimate that he has produced somewhere in the order of 1,500 forgeries, which have been distributed over the years, mostly through auction houses in many parts of Canada.

Two men look at a number of paintings propped up on a table.
Buyer Chad Brown, left, and Ian Muncaster, owner of Zwicker’s Gallery in Halifax, look at some paintings by Lewis. The province hired Zwicker’s Gallery to authenticate three paintings it owns under the Nova Scotia Art Bank program. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

It is interesting to note that recently several very good forgeries of Maud Lewis paintings have turned up in the United States, that we believe are being produced in Hungary.”

In a Jan. 9, 2023, email to CBC Radio’s Information Morning, the province declined an interview to discuss the fakes. Instead, it sent along a statement, noting the paintings “were deemed likely not to have been painted by Maud Lewis” and have been removed from circulation.


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You can visit Toronto’s best contemporary art museum for free every month



The beauty of living in Toronto is that it grants you multiple opportunities to visit its major art galleries for the low, low price of FREE.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Toronto offers free admission on Fridays at 5-9 p.m. and on the first Sunday of every month.


You can spend an evening at the art exhibitions like Remediation by Kapwani Kiwanga, or an outdoor augmented reality experince Seeing the Invisible.

Until the end of April, MOCA has Susan For Susan’s piece Trade Show and Athena Papadopoulsos’ The New Alphabet.

One fascinating and immersive installation is ni4ni (v.3) by Serkin Özkaya, which uses reflections to turn a human-sized sphere into an eyeball, and projections to to the same on the entire surrounding walls.

Visit to book your tickets in advance.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) also offers select free evenings to its collections. Every Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. you can visit for free.

AGO’s current exhibition Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows is on now and only until Apr. 10.

Until June 11, you can view the collection You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa.

General admission tickets are released on Mondays at 10 a.m. for only the following Wednesday night. You need a valid email address to book up to four tickets for the select evening. Get your free AGO tickets on their website.



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Colour Crusader: How the ‘Robin Hood’ of the art world is liberating colour for everyone



Stepping into Stuart Semple’s world is like entering a Willy Wonka-esque fantasyland. Only instead of chocolate and candy, everywhere you look there are bags of bright powdered paint pigments, colour-mixing machines, paint-spattered canvases, sculptures, brushes and of course, brightly coloured bottles of paint.

The man himself bustles around with a giddy sort of energy, clad in furry animal slippers, with long hair and perpetually paint-stained fingers, a visual reminder of his love affair with colour.

“I would explain colour as something that can change our emotions and our state and way of being as we interact with that. And it is a way, really, of feeling the world inside us visually.”

To see him, you’d never think Semple is anything other than a creative type. You certainly wouldn’t peg him as a political crusader. But when someone threatens what he sees as a universal right to artistic self-expression, a different picture emerges.


Sitting in his studio on England’s south coast, Semple is looking at a popup message on his computer screen, brow furrowed.

“Some Pantone colours may no longer be available due to changes in Pantone’s licensing with Adobe.”

In November, creators saw a similar message pop up in their Adobe software, meaning colours they’d previously been able to access were no longer available. Adobe is the industry standard for digital artists all over the world, and Pantone supplies many of the digital colour palettes.

Semple immediately saw red.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I think they’re (Pantone) just trying to milk the creators that use their tools for more money.”

The Pantone colour system is used for matching shades of colour.

Brent Rose / Global News

Pantone’s palettes are the international language of colour. The company’s colour coding system is nearly universally used to match shades and allow printers to accurately reproduce computerized artwork across the globe. But all of a sudden, many of the colours artists rely on were jailed behind an additional paywall.

“I think that there’s a difference between being a business and being commercially minded and paying your staff and keeping the lights on, to actually just seeing how much you can squeeze out of people, and it feels like that’s what they’re doing.”

A young Stuart Semple outside his childhood home.

Stuart Semple

Semple’s reverence for colour and art goes back to his childhood. He grew up in a modest, working-class family. A high achiever in school, he was destined for a high-paying career as a doctor or lawyer. But a trip to the National Gallery in London when he was eight years old lit a creative fire.

“I came in contact with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and it made a huge impact on my whole life and it sort of burned into my head,” he says.

“And my mum said I was in a state of almost awe, like I was shaking in front of this thing.”

Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ hangs in London’s National Gallery.

VCG Wilson/Corbis / Getty Images

The young Semple got home and immediately started creating. He couldn’t afford professional paints, so he made them himself with household materials.

“We didn’t have art materials. I mean, that was a luxury. So I started, like most kids do, going into the kitchen and mixing food colouring with, you know, beetroot and cooking oil and making these colours and slapping them on things.”

Today, Semple is a successful artist, and he hasn’t lost his passion for producing pigment. He still makes his own shades of paint. Mixing up an extremely bright shade of pink — he calls it the Pinkest Pink — the childlike wonder is still there.

“Aww! There’s something so satisfying about it,” he giggles, dumping in the powdered paint pigment and watching it swirl around the mixer.

Bottles of Semple’s branded paints.

Craig Herd for Global News

He knows the science, obsessing over details to make his paints pop.

“By using resins that can hold a lot of ingredients, you can put a lot more ingredients in, which means you can actually put more pigment in,” he says. “And it’s all to do with the shape of the pigment because a spherical shape will reflect light in a very direct angle from one small bit of surface area, whereas a flatter pigment will do the opposite.”

But there’s something much larger at play here. What makes Semple’s studio truly special is the philosophy behind the operation. Art is an expensive endeavour, often only open to the wealthy. Semple’s own experience is one factor that drives him to help make art affordable to both patrons and creators. He makes high-quality paints he sells at reasonable prices.

“So it’s more than, how do I make money? It’s actually more, how do I make art accessible and give people, you know, the chance to interact with it?”

Semple contemplating a work in progress.

Craig Herd for Global News

That’s just one part of the operation. Semple employs 20 people, all of whom are artists. He gives them free access to materials, studio space, tools and mentorship to support them to create their own works of art. Semple also founded the “Giant” art gallery in his hometown of Bournemouth, which offers free admission, and the online VOMA gallery (Virtual Online Museum of Art). Just as he believes art should be for everyone, he says that the colours all around us should be free to enjoy and inspire creativity.

That’s what made him so mad about Adobe and Pantone restricting access to colours that had been free for years.

“We all consume colour all day long, so we’re all invested in it,” Semple says. “So it actually does really, really matter. And as these corporations get big and become mega-corporations, the idea that we have a culture that is being dominated by the richest and most powerful and they can actually control the colours that we see is outrageous.”

Across the Atlantic ocean in Toronto, graphic artist Daryl Woods got the same message Adobe users everywhere were seeing: if he wanted access to the same range of Pantone colours he’d had for years, he’d have to pay extra, over and above the $80 per month he already pays for his Adobe software subscription.

Toronto Graphic artist Daryl Woods now has to pay more for colours or make do with fewer options.

Brent Rose / Global News

“I think this is pretty much a cash grab by Pantone. This is something that’s been available for probably a couple of decades at least,” Woods says.

Woods has a graphic design business, creating art for advertisements and for packaging on brands, like wine labels. And he says most digital artists rely on Adobe software and Pantone’s colour palettes.

“I can’t do my work without the Adobe products. They are just part of my everyday life. And I think that pretty much goes for anybody who works in visual communication.”

Semple created the ‘Freetone’ plug-in for Adobe users who could no longer access the full range of Pantone colours.

Craig Herd for Global News

Semple decided to do something about the new fee. In just a few hours, he created a software plug-in for Adobe that had colour palettes that he describes as “indistinguishable” from Pantone’s. He calls his “Sempletones.”

“One of the things that people don’t know is that I learned how to program a computer when I was eight,” he says casually. “So coding and computers are a huge part of my life. And yeah, I can do things like that.”

So why did he do it?

“I hate the idea that art or colour or materials are sort of gate-kept, in any way, shape or form,” Semple says. “I really think it’s important that people have that permission to kind of do their thing with the stuff they need to do it.”

Woods was impressed Semple was able to come up with a workaround so quickly. “I was very surprised at how easy it was to work with how complete it was. It’s no different than when I used Pantone colours.”

Global News reached out to Adobe and Pantone for comment. Adobe responded that it was Pantone’s decision to charge an additional fee to access its complete range of colours, and that “the Adobe team continues to find ways to lessen the impact on our customers.”

Pantone did not directly address the question of who was responsible for pulling some of its colour palettes, but the company is now selling a separate plug-in with the missing colours directly on its website at a cost of $19.99 per month or $119.99 per year.

For Semple, the Adobe-Pantone affair was just the latest battle in a long-running colour crusade.

English-Indian artist Anish Kapoor at his retrospective anthological exhibition preview at Galleria dell’Accademia Museum on April 19, 2022, in Venice, Italy.

Roberto Serra / Iguana Press

In 2016, he got into a very public feud with Anish Kapoor. He’s the British artist perhaps best known for “Cloud Gate,” sometimes better known as “The Bean,” a public art installation at Chicago’s Millennium Park.

In 2016, Kapoor bought the exclusive artistic rights to Vantablack, a material then known as the world’s blackest black. Vantablack absorbs 99.965 per cent of visible light, creating the impression of complete dark, flatness.

Anish Kapoor works using Vantablack on display in Venice, Italy.

Roberto Serra / Iguana Press

Semple criticized Kapoor for keeping the material for himself, and in response, decided to sell a special shade he made called “The Pinkest Pink.” He made it available for purchase on his website, with one caveat: “By adding this product to your cart you confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor. To the best of your knowledge, information and belief this paint will not make its way into the hands of Anish Kapoor.”

Filling a bottle of ‘The Pinkest Pink’ at Semple’s paint lab.

Craig Herd for Global News

Semple’s efforts to keep colour accessible during the Adobe/Pantone episode, as well as his response to Kapoor’s attempts to keep Vantablack for himself, have earned him comparisons to Robin Hood.

“People say that. It’s a weird thing,” Semple says self-consciously, before adding: “Maybe it’s just a weird, geeky thing that only I’m interested in, which is why no one’s doing it. But I really enjoy doing it. It’s something I love to do.”

Kapoor’s response was, perhaps, a little less than collegial. He posted a simple, terse retort on his Instagram, a middle finger, dipped in Semple’s pink paint.

But that episode wasn’t just a petty slap fight between two rivals within the narrow confines of the art world. Just as charging Adobe users extra to access some of Pantone’s range of colours wasn’t just a small extra charge. It’s all part of a larger trend to commodify colour.

TD Bank is one of the Canadian brands applying for a colour trademark.

Brent Rose / Global News

In 2019, Canada’s trademark laws were updated to allow businesses to trademark colours closely associated with their brands. Tiffany & Co, the jeweller known for its iconic robin’s egg blue box, is often cited as an example.

“So historically, you could claim a Tiffany blue box,” says Toronto intellectual property lawyer Sebastian Beck-Watt. “So you would say the colour blue, as applied to the surface of a box. And then you would say, I’m claiming this trademark in association with jewellery, for example.”

But in 2019, Canada followed other countries and updated its trademark law, allowing brands to trademark colour “per se.” That allows businesses to trademark shades associated with their brand across a more general range of products and services they offer, and stop industry competitors from using similar hues.

Screenshot of TD Bank’s application for a colour trademark.

Canadian trademarks database

TD Bank has applied for the trademark for the green colour associated with its brand, Pantone 361. TD lists a range of products and services, and nobody knows how far companies might go to protect a colour trademark. But we have a hint from other countries.

In 2019, the parent company of mobile giant T-Mobile sued Lemonade, a small insurance company which had just launched in Germany. The parent company, Deutsche Telekom, claimed Lemonade used a shade of pink that was too close to its familiar magenta, or Pantone Rhodamine Red U, and that its trademark over similar shades extended to Lemonade’s insurance business. European countries have allowed businesses to trademark colours before Canada, and Lemonade was forced to remove the pink from its branding in Germany.

In 2020, however, Lemonade won a court challenge in France, when a court ruled “there is no evidence of genuine use of this mark for the contested services.” But the case provides a cautionary tale, because it shows large corporations can drag smaller parties through costly court proceedings, even when they don’t have a valid claim.

Similar shades of yellow paint on art store shelves.

Brent Rose / Global News

It is also illustrative of the subjectivity of colour. How will courts determine when two shades of the same colour are too close to tell the difference? Beck-Watt says there’s no way of knowing how far it will go until the laws are tested in court.

“Something like colour might be an instance where you take a survey of the public and see how close they think these are.”

Determining matters of law so subjectively raises another issue: people’s brains do not process colour in the same way.

“I’m colour blind,” Semple says, without a hint of irony.


“Yeah, actually. Colour blind. Blue and purple. Which is a rare one.”

Semple at work on his latest creation.

Craig Herd for Global News

In spite of his inability to distinguish between some colours, Semple is fearless in his opposition to any attempt to control and restrict them. Tiffany has had a trademark for Pantone 1837 in the US since 1998. Semple responded by creating “Tiff,” a very similar shade of blue.

Semple’s branded “Tiff” robin’s egg blue paint.

Craig Herd for sure Global News

It all makes his lawyers nervous.

“They always say the same thing, which is that what I’m doing is risky. And I should be aware of that, you know.” But he has no intention of stopping

It could be called a principled stand, or perhaps brazen, almost reckless. But for Semple, it’s worth it. Art, he says, saved his life when he was in his late teens, when a sandwich triggered a severe allergic reaction and landed him in hospital.

“I kind of died for a few seconds, in the middle of the night. And I said goodbye to my mom and my sister, and my nana had been in. My whole body went into hives and I completely flatlined and kind of died for a bit. And then I came back and everything was different after.”

Semple describes art as a coping mechanism that saved him after a near-death experience.

Craig Herd for Global News

Art, he says, became a way of coping with the reality that everything could be taken away at any moment.

“It changed everything. So the first thing that happened, which is a bit of a cliche and a bit weird to say, is that I decided I wanted to be an artist. I was like, ‘If I live, I’m going to make art every day, all day.’”

That’s a big reason why Semple is so steadfast in his efforts to stop anyone from trying to “own” or restrict colours.

“No one can own colour,” he says pointedly. “Colour exists. It’s just a phenomenon of nature. How can you own an experience that your eyes have when they see something?”



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