The Algorithm

In summer of 2015, a computer science paper was published that described a neural net based machine learning algorithm that could take a photo and an image of a painting and re-render the photo in the style of the painting.

Since then, there have been many open source implementations of the algorithm, and a handful of smartphone apps and social media photo and video filters built on them. I got interested in using the algorithm to produce illustrations for this haiku collection.

The Idea

While working on the haiku illustrations, I discovered that the algorithm worked particularly well with bodies, and went so far as to try them on nude photos, with amazing results. But it wasn’t so much that images generated from nudes were better. It was more that they were easier.

The algorithm doesn’t always produce good results. In fact, it usually doesn’t. For every photo that I wanted to style for the haiku collection, I had to try a number of art images before finding one that worked well enough to make it into the book. What I discovered was that with nude photos, the good combinations occurred more often. In other words, the “nude advantage” was one of quantity and not quality.

I got the idea for this site as a way to make something of that quantity. The algorithm works so well on nudes that I’ve been able to post new ones to the Neural Nudes social feeds almost every day, and sometimes more than once a day. And I see no reason this can’t continue far into the foreseeable future.

My Sources

The nude photos I’m using as my sources are all either public domain, or have the Creative Commons “CC BY” license, which allows reuse and modification, even for commercial purposes, as long as the photographer is credited. And as you’ve probably already seen, I embed the attributions directly in the images themselves. Furthermore, I’m doing my best to inform all the photographers about what I plan to do with their photos, and to honor any additional conditions they might want to place on their use beyond what’s spelled out in the licensing they choose. (Such as including the names of the models in the attributions, for one photographer, or not copyrighting the artwork I create based on another’s.)

But what about the style images?

This new algorithm has pushed us into unknown legal territory. We understand that artists own their individual artworks, and that we can’t copy them or use them for our own purposes without their permission, but what about an artist’s style? In my opinion, that’s an even more valuable intellectual property — even purchasing a painting from an artist shouldn’t give me the right to use that painting’s style to create artworks of my own — and so I’ve decided to only ever use paintings that are in the public domain, or for which I have express permission to use in that way from the artist.

The Balance

Ultimately, I’d like to generate fine art nudes that include all types of bodies and all genders, but unfortunately, there are very few photographers out there licensing their work as either public domain or CC BY. (The vast majority simply copyright them, which I totally understand. It’s what I’m doing with almost all the artwork I create.) In this very limited pool, there’s not a lot of diversity, but I do have some nonconventional subjects among the photos I’ve found so far, and hope to find more moving forward.


I’m Freeman Ng, author, digital artist, and software developer. Please check out my other creative work.