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How to Master the Art of Writing Powerful AI Prompts

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How to Master the Art of Writing Powerful AI Prompts

iguring out how to write a good prompt is half the battle when using AI art tools. “Programs like Midjourney don’t know what you want, but they’ll give you an amazing result if you can tell them what to do,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and publisher of a leading Midjourney newsletter. “Does the result match what’s in your head? If not, it’s the prompt that’s the problem. That’s where people struggle.”

If you’re struggling with AI prompts, we’ve got five insider tips to help you get the results you want, faster. “You need to imagine your result and then tweak the prompt to get what you want,” Atkinson says. “Sometimes, unexpected results look better than anything you had in your head.”

1. Focus On Clear and Specific Details.

When it comes to crafting prompts, Heather Streible, co-owner and graphic designer at Replica Screenprinting, places as much importance on graphic style elements as she does on subject matter.

“For my screen-printed designs, I lean heavily on terms like vector, bold lines, thick outlines, simple line drawing, and litho cut. It’s these elements that ensure my designs are visually striking, but also practical for printing.”
- Heather Streible, co-owner at Replica Screenprinting

Try out Streible’s preferred format for most designs: subject matter, graphic style, the design's feel, design color, and background color. Here’s how that could look in practice:

“Colonel, school mascot, thick lines, vector, purple and white in color, black background” or “tattooed inspired graphic, thick outlines, simple graphic illustration, flat colors, black background.”

Clear prompts help your AI tool understand exactly what you want, leading to better results. To make sure your AI art prompts are clear and specific, try these techniques:

●            Use descriptive detail: Include specific details about the subject, setting, colors, and any other relevant aspects. Instead of just saying “forest,” write “dense forest with tall, dark pine trees, a carpet of fallen leaves, and mist.”

●            Provide context: Help the AI place the subject within a specific scene or mood. For example, rather than typing “city street,” try “city street at sunset, golden light reflecting off the buildings, people walking on the sidewalks.”

●            Specify your style: For example, “a realistic painting of a vintage car parked by the beach with waves crashing in the background.”

●            Explain the emotional tone: Again, instead of “forest,” try “eerie, dark forest with twisted trees, a full moon casting spooky shadows.”

●            Spell out the composition: Clear layout instructions help the AI arrange the elements in the desired way. Here’s an example: “top-down view of a cozy café with patrons sitting at tables, sipping coffee, and reading books.” Atkinson suggests imagining your result POV: the type of lighting, a high or low angle, the view from a drone, and so on.

By focusing on clarity, you naturally incorporate the necessary details, context, style, emotional tone, and composition, resulting in a well-defined and effective AI art prompt. Atkinson keeps a spreadsheet of prompts he’s tried and then logs the results, with links to the final images.

“I include details about the prompts like, ‘good when you want an element to look like aluminum’ or ‘great for more negative space.’”
- Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting
If you follow Atkinson on Instagram (@marshallatkinson), you’ll get to see his prompt experiments and the resulting art. Here’s his May the Fourth prompt: “Darth Vadar making a sandcastle at the beach, sunny day, low angle, in the style of tourism photography, joyful.

2. Balance Detail with Simplicity.

Overloading your prompt can overwhelm the AI and produce cluttered or incoherent images.

This photo provided by Replica Screenprinting shows the resulting artwork from the combination of multiple prompts.
“The biggest mistake in writing prompts for designs is including too many details all at once. It’s better to break your design into smaller parts and create prompts for each one. For example, if I’m designing artwork for a gym, I could focus on a background, then a skull element, and lastly, create a separate prompt for the barbell itself for combining them later.”
Heather Streible, co-owner at Replica Screenprinting

While some detail is important, balance it with brevity. Avoid being too vague or too verbose. For example, instead of “detailed cityscape with skyscrapers, parks, people walking dogs, cyclists, food vendors, and a parade,” simplify your prompt to “detailed cityscape with tall skyscrapers, bustling park in the foreground.”

Atkinson’s prompt: “Ceramic armadillo, with a Texas inspired bandana pattern, red, white and blue, product lighting and photography, isolated, neutral background.”

3. Specify an Artistic Style and Tone with References.

Stating the desired style and emotional tone helps to guide your AI tool on the artistic direction and atmosphere of the artwork. “This is where artists and writers have a leg up on everyone else, since we understand words like ‘monochromatic,’ ‘chromatic,’ or ‘chiaroscuro,’” Atkinson says. “The words you use matter, so look at terms used in photography, art, composition, color theory, and color harmony.”

Here are some tips to try:

●            Indicate your artistic style: Are you aiming to get a realistic, abstract, impressionistic, surreal, or other specific style? Try a prompt like: “realistic painting of a vintage car parked by the beach with waves crashing in the background” or “abstract piece with bold, geometric shapes and a striking color palette.”

●            Set the emotional mood: The tone of your prompt sets the mood for the artwork. For example, a prompt with a playful tone might yield vibrant, whimsical images, while a formal tone could result in a more structured, refined image. A playful prompt could be: “vibrant, cartoon-style image of a joyful dragon flying over a candy-colored landscape.” A more serious prompt might be: “sophisticated, minimalist illustration, sleek, modern city skyline at dusk.”

●            Include composition elements: Specify the composition or layout of the scene, such as the placement of objects or the perspective. Try: “top-down view of a cozy café with patrons sitting at tables, sipping coffee, reading books.”

●            Take it a step further with comparisons or specific artists: Instead of “abstract painting,” try “surreal landscape reminiscent of Salvador Dalí, melting clocks hanging from barren trees.” Or: “abstract painting in the style of Wassily Kandinsky, vibrant colors, geometric shapes.”

Atkinson’s prompt: “Doberman Pinscher, solarization effect, neon hallucinations, extreme close-up, chromatic aberration, cross processing, electric color schemes.”

4.  Use Your Own Vocabulary.

On the flip side, using too many specialized or technical terms that AI might not understand can hinder the output. Instead, Atkinson recommends boiling your prompts down to as few words as possible.

“The first word is more important than the last to Midjourney, and it’ll ignore any words past 50.”
- Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting

For example, instead of “baroque chiaroscuro scene,” try “a dramatic scene with strong contrasts between light and dark, in a classical style.”

Atkinson’s prompt: “Peony flower, close-up, vibrant, shades of blue and purple, soft blue lighting, subtle chiaroscuro, intricate details, professional color balance, crisp.”

5.  Refine and Iterate Your Prompts.

Don’t expect perfect results on the first try. Refine your prompt based on the initial outputs to get closer to what you want. “Sometimes it takes 80 images to get to the one I like,” Atkinson says. “Start with a clear subject, like ‘explorer logo,' and then modify your idea.”

Recognize these common mistakes and refine your prompts accordingly:

●            Your prompt is too vague. If you write a short prompt like “a landscape,” most likely you won’t get what you want. If you write, “mountain landscape at sunrise with snow-capped peaks, a clear blue sky, and a river flowing through a pine forest,” you’ll get a lot closer. “Think about the outcome you want before you start,” Atkinson says. “This helps you find the right words for your prompts. Use tools like ChatGPT to help you craft them.”

●            The design doesn’t meet your vision. If you want a forest scene during the day, and your AI tool gives you an evening scene, revise the prompt to “brightly lit forest scene.” A thesaurus can be your best friend in creating prompts. “Words like ‘minimalistic,’ ‘stark,’ ‘spartan,’ and ‘clean’ can give you different results,” Atkinson says. “Inspiration can come from anywhere, even song lyrics,  so let your creativity flow.”

●            You haven’t researched your subject matter. “It’s too easy to take an image generated by AI and use it for printing,” Streible says.

“If you’re not careful, it can make your design a horrible masterpiece. AI might add an extra vent on a car grill or misshape a headlight, so look for the subtle details you could miss due to the design’s quality.” - Heather Streible, co-owner at Replica Screenprinting

Keep On Prompting

Remember, AI usually won’t spit out a perfect image – and most results probably won’t work for you initially; however, Atkinson says, you can ask a program like Midjourney for 11 versions of four images, so you get 44 at once. “Two to four of those will be good,” he says. “Then you edit and play with them in Photoshop or Illustrator.”

Atkinson recommends experimenting with AI every day. “It’s like driving a car—you need to get in and drive with a no-fear attitude.”

“Approach creating AI art with the joy of a 6-year-old with a new box of crayons. Don’t stress, just play with it to discover what works, like a chef perfecting the spices in a gumbo.” - Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting

Jun 16, 2024