Behind the Scenes of The Gift
The inspiration for this concept were traditional paintings of a gift being given to an emperor. The idea started out as a knife being served to an emperor on a metal plate. It then wandered off into a more futuristic direction, with aliens, and ultimately, an astronaut. During the selection and mutation process of hundreds and hundreds of images, the following key points were important:
The gift should be visible, yet remain ambiguous. Many pictures had no gift, and thus were less interesting to dream up a story. I often think of this part as the "verb" of the picture -- does it have an action?
There should be a surrounding setting, like a palace, a horizon, a village in distance. These were added to the prompt text to add more context and interest. In prompting, I do testing by replacing just one word with another for a row of comparisons -- "village", "city", "landscape" -- to see what works best.
The animal in this image looked like a normal dog in some, and an alien creature in other creations. The final one was selected to be in-between these two. It pulls you half-way into imagining a human side to it, but altered into the mystery. The dog adds an observer -- our role as viewer of the image, too -- and underlines the question of what will happen now. Will the gift be accepted?
It was important that the emperor's size was daunting, but not giant-like. They didn't gain their power through size, or by being a monster. The position also needed to be elevated. These criteria ruled out many pictures.
The image's style was meant to be not abstractly painted or photorealistic, but in-between, connecting it to paintings of past centuries. It's a story as old as humanity.
All else equal, I often prefer symmetry in pictures, and this delivered. It strengthens the symbolic nature.
The gift-giver's role, too, was meant to be ambiguous -- are they a peasant, a servant, a messenger, a hidden opponent? It was important that they carry no helmet. This emphasizes the role of the astronaut's helmet as having taken on symbolic power, rather than being of physical need for this planet's atmosphere. It shows how traditions and symbols emerge out of tools over time.
The emperor's body posture. In some, they leaned forward, but the goal was to show them almost grown into the throne. In other pictures, the arms were on the legs, which did not feel as relaxed. In the one you see, there is full relaxation. The emperor doesn't feel like they need to act or move -- a blessing and, possibly, a curse.
The emperor should be clearly visible as being an astronaut. It's not clear if there's an alien or human under the helmet. But what seems to be clear is that they traveled from somewhere. Where they colonizing other planets? What made them establish an empire? Was technology the key to being crowned the leader on this world?
A gift given to a person in power holds ambiguous meaning. The Trojan horse was also a gift, but it ultimately destroyed the receiver. Status is always on the power of being disrupted, which is a key element -- some say: the key element -- to many stories. In our image, the rocks on the ground express an aging, possibly crumbling empire.
Once you start to see how status change is the key of many stories, you can't unsee it. The Godfather? The mafia boss holding on to power, the son slowly taking it on. Titanic? A poor and a rich person meet, and their status becomes intertwined. Think of any Hollywood blockbuster -- or novel -- and see if you can look at it through the status change lens. Humans are fascinated by it -- maybe it teaches our brains of survival, key in evolution.
For retouching this in Photoshop, two layers were used, and elements from both were mixed. For instance, the headwear of the gift giver is an element taken from the secondary image. The gift mixes technology aspects with a magical, glowing part. Stars inside the palace were removed, the dog's snout and tail were painted over to clarify, and the second stand next to the throne was drawn out. I did not paint this picture -- the Midjourney AI did, and it did an enormously amazing job.
The picture raises questions, but does not answer them. What this world and emperor is, what the gift is, if it will be accepted, if the empire will fall and much more -- it's left to your imagination. I hope you enjoy this and that it inspires your dreams!