The Best Free AI Art Generators, Ranked

The Best Free AI Art Generators, Ranked

AI art needs to do more than composite a bundle of pictures found on Google image search.

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An image of a dog with swirling lines in an oil painterly style.
Sometimes, I prefer my dog to look a little bit more like a Pieter Bruegel artwork, and thanks to AI, that possibility is at my fingertips.
Image: Kyle Barr/Deep Dream Generator

The impenetrable hive mind of the internet is a better artist than me. It’s not a point of contention, it’s a fact. Sure, I can write, but you shouldn’t have to pay witness to the slapdash nature of my attempts at oil painting—all those atrocities lingering on a basement shelf. Even the worst AI image generators and their strange obsessions with certain wardrobes have a strange—almost disturbing—fluid quality to them that makes each attempted depiction so distinct.

Leaving the question of whether AI-generated pictures are legitimate “art,” by the wayside, the best system-produced images are more than just ways to create strange nightmare depictions of celebrities portrayed in various art styles. At the same time, it’s not enough for the digital artiste to vaguely offer an impressionistic, oddly shaped “interpretation” of users’ original pictures or prompts.

There’s a middle ground amid all this crush between technology and art that even the most untrained in the arts of brush on canvas can comprehend. What can inspire us? What can intrigue us? That is what AI image generators have the capacity to do.

So we turn to the free AI art generators, or at least the ones that offer free trial options. To best rank each program, I gave them all the same, rather esoteric, text prompts based on some books I’ve recently read. Those books include:

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng

Prompt: “A man and woman stand under a pendulum sun in the heart of Arcadia.”

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin

Prompt: “A lone mathematician stands on a dusty planet owning nothing.”

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Prompt: “A foreign woman struggles alone against the machinations of a cosmic empire.”

There are several image generators which require photos instead of text prompts. As much as I would like to keep it consistent, I want to be inclusive of different systems rather than exclude them. For the image generating platforms that don’t allow for text prompts, I used the same image for each one:

Say hello to the young greyhound named Skip.
Say hello to the young greyhound named Skip.
Photo: Kyle Barr

I’m no art critic by any imagination, but at least I can tell whether AI generated art actually attempted to depict a prompt in a way that’s not derivative or that relies upon copying and replicating art found on the internet.

To be honest, I’m pleasantly surprised by some of the results from a few of the more popular free art generators. Let’s take a look, shall we?

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14. Fotor

14. Fotor

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Image: Kyle Barr/Fotor

Oh boy, turn your image into NFT “art,” how grand a design. Well, beyond attempts to monetize the poor greyhound, let’s see what Fotor can do to make Skip a little more painterly.

Using the program’s GoArt creator, there’s honestly nothing here that I haven’t already seen from a Photoshop filter. Though the program is relatively easy to use, I don’t see any real fun to be had making an image a little more sketch-like. The program does have a neat little photo editor, but if you want an image without a watermark you’ll have to pay, but really you shouldn’t expect anything less. There are better, free programs available online if that’s all you’re looking for.

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13. Hotpot AI

13. Hotpot AI

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Image: Hotpot

Hotpot is a pretty rudimentary program, but it does allow users to make relatively simple AI art on the cheap. Though in the end, it doesn’t really comprehend what its being asked to make. It’s hard to see any of the original prompts in anything the AI system can produce. Like many image generators, it also struggles with faces.

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12. Deep AI

12. Deep AI

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Image: DeepAI

DeepAI’s rather simple and rudimentary AI generator doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, and despite all that it… doesn’t have much else going for it anyway. The text to image API system simply doesn’t have the bells and whistles more updated systems have. The images are more collages of images found on the internet than any real attempt at creating something “new.”

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11. Dream Studio

11. Dream Studio

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Image: Dream Studio/Stability AI

The Dream Studio beta AI art generator is free, and it has a lot of bells and whistles other AI art generators don’t have, like the ability to scale the width and height of the image while telling it how close you want the image to be to your prompt. It’s developed by Stability AI, which recently released a much more popular AI art generator (click through to find out more of Stable Diffusion).

The system is also surprisingly fast, just by the examples above you can see the AI isn’t afraid to mix and match art styles on a whim.

Unfortunately, using my prompts resulted in some interesting renditions, but a few weird and strangely derivative images as well. Several times when I used the A Memory Called Empire prompt I received images with broken text in no human language, almost like an alien book cover. It’s a sign that the system really wants me to give it more information, to tell it to rip off one particular artist or another. It does so much better when you give it the name of an artist to copy off of, but it’s similar to our next AI art generator in that regard.

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10. Stable Diffusion

10. Stable Diffusion

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Image: Stable Diffusion (Stability AI)

A lot’s been said about Stability AI’s free art generator while it was in closed beta, but on Aug. 22 the free image generator finally got a full release and since then it’s been one of the more talked about image creators. Stable Diffusion is open source, free, and unfiltered compared to the likes of Dall-E or Google’s (still publicly unavailable) Imagen. It’s basic page on Hugging Face is pretty rudimentary, but you can make it much easier to use with some simple freeware tools, though you’ll have to install Python to get it working. Stable Diffusion relies on a model based on the LAION-5B data set that filters out watermarked images and logos, according to its own page. Based on a report from tech blogger Andy Baio, many of the images are mostly sourced from Pinterest and other photo and art blogs. My attempts at asking it to create its own art without telling it to ape copy one particular artist were largely unsuccessful. It kept offering me black and white images without any kind of style or substance. Without asking it to copy a specific artist, it only offers pretty disappointing works compared to what other users have managed to get.

It seems the system is much better at coming up with art when you specifically ask it to do it in the style of a particular artist. This, of course, introduces a host of ethical problems especially for the living artists people may be emulating, as shown by fantasy artist Greg Rutkowski who was interviewed by MIT Technology Review and said he was worried the number of fake AI art bearing his name would eclipse his own visibility.

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9. VQGAN+CLIP

9. VQGAN+CLIP

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Image: VQGAN

You got to love freeware, and this Python-based Google Colab notebook is relatively easy to use, so really, you have to give major props for a system that’s both relatively simple and open and available to all users. All you have to do is go to the link, scroll down and input your prompt in the text box, then either hit Ctrl+F9 or Runtime - Run All.

But of course we’re ranking system’s artistic ability. The system progressively iterates on the design, so you can see where the AI is trying to go with each image. My prompts offered some really interesting results but a few head scratchers as well.

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8. Dall-E Mini (Craiyon)

8. Dall-E Mini (Craiyon)

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Image: Craiyon

The system once known as Dall-E Mini, now Craiyon, creates a host of different images it hopes fits the bill, so I chose the closest out of all of them to the spirit of the prompt. The images themselves are pretty low resolution, which does detract from the fact it’s giving you so many options to choose from based on a single sentence.

Even when choosing among nine different tiles, the art left a lot to be desired. Compared to other AI art, craiyon really does feel like it’s grabbing images from all over the internet and turning them into a hodgepodge of an approximation of what it thinks is the prompt.

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7. Deep Dream Generator

7. Deep Dream Generator

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Image: Deep Dream Generator

Google’s Deep Dream Generator claims it can transform images into stylized works of art. The main feed of images on the site does make it seem very evocative, but of course it’s not exactly easy to make an image of young Skip appear as more than just a dog with a Photoshop filter on.

I put young Skip in the style of Pieter Bruegel, the famed Dutch artist behind works like The Blind Leading the Blind. It came out… okay. I tried it with a mandala pattern and it was… interesting, I guess. I then added a Salvador Dali painting to the style, and—well—it came out kind of boring.

It’s definitely a fun tool, but it feels like I’m playing with a sophisticated color-in-the-lines book rather than generating any real art.

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6: Nightcafe

6: Nightcafe

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Image: Nightcafe

The Nightcafe system will only let you do a few images before asking you to pay up, but like some other AI image generators it gives users a whole selection of different styles to choose from. It wants users to buy “credits” in order to make more arts or bump up the quality and resolution of each image, and you will run out fairly quickly.

The art itself is all over the place. I appreciate what it tried to do with The Dispossessed but it wouldn’t even create a human-looking being in either of the other two prompts. The image resolution is also not great, and the art is very strange even in the default oil painting setting. Sure, it’s nice to be able to try out the system to see if you like it first, but even for just $10 a month, I can’t say you won’t find better options out there.

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5: StarryAI

5: StarryAI

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Image: StarryAI

I appreciate StarryAI’s clean interface and simple systems, though of course this is another one that gives users a few free credits to start before eventually asking you to cough up for more. Again, there’s nothing wrong with getting users to pay for creating a whole lot of art, but it does have to be worth it. This art generator also lets users upload an initial image to give the AI a leg up, but there’s no hand holding allowed here for these rankings.

The art itself is a mixed bag. I like what It came up with for The Dispossessed but can’t really tell what it had in mind for A Memory Called Empire.

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4: DALL-E 2

4: DALL-E 2

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Image: DALL-E 2

DALL-E 2 may have been the most hotly anticipated AI image generator since it was initially put into its beta release back in April. However, as shown by these examples there’s been multiple releases to cash in on the AI-art craze.

OpenAI, the makers of DALL-E, finally released their system to the wider public Sept. 28. Like many other systems, it offers users a slate of 50 free prompts, plus a few more each month. Users can also pay for more image generation credits.

My experiences with DALL-E have been interesting, to say the least. I find the system does not compute specific artists too well, and even when you give it pretty detailed instructions it defaults to an impressionistic art style. Of course, that’s not what this ranking is looking to do. For this, I’m more interested in what each AI system is capable on its own without giving it an image to specifically replicate. DALL-E’s systems obviously draw from a whole host of real photos and art, but it still largely fails to replicate faces. However, the generator did seem fond of the prompt for A Memory Called Empire and it offered several inspiring images that capture the essence of the book.

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3. Stable Diffusion 2

3. Stable Diffusion 2

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Image: Stable Diffusion

The sequel to the first Stable Diffusion, developed by Stability AI, may struggle to call itself a full iteration compared to its original incarnation, but the new system released in late November is certainly an upgrade in many ways from its predecessor.

In its announcement blog, Stability AI noted it had introduced a new text encoder which was developed by LAION, the open source project which also provided the massive image set that Stable Diffusion draws from. Stable Diffusion 2 also displays images at a much better resolution and is also better at upscaling them, according to Stability AI. They also mention it features a greater ability to facilitate depth of field, though in my own tests with my prompts that didn’t really come up. 

When using the system to generate my open-ended prompts, I was surprised at the crispness of some of the generated images. I want the AI to generate images without mention of any particular artist, style, or format. Without prompting it to base a face on any one person, the system still struggles to generate a realistic head. Still, I was surprised what it came up with for my Under the Pendulum Sun prompt. 

Strangely, every single time I fed Stable Diffusion 2 my A Memory Called Empire prompt, it came up with a comic-inspired display. I picked the best one, but it is especially concerning that the system wants to keep replicating text. It’s more evidence of how much the system has likely borrowed from scans of actual comics and comic artists. 

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2: Wombo Dream

2: Wombo Dream

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Image: Wombo Dream

The Wombo Dream system allows you to create art in multiple different styles such as old retro art, Salvador Dahli, or—simply—”Ghibli.” I chose a different style for each based on the style of each book. It also allows you to include a reference image that Dream can use, but I’ve restricted the system to its own imagination. You can also turn the images into NFTs, but thanks, no.

I have to hand it to Wombo, some of this art is truly evocative. I’m especially taken by the Throwback filter, as it definitely gave it the 1970s art style look you might see on an old album cover. Though as you can tell, it’s very loose with its interpretations. The weirdly erotic sense I get from its interpretation of A Memory Called Empire is strange since that wasn’t the prompt. I was very surprised by its interpretation of Under the Pendulum Sun, so it gets rather high marks.

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1: Midjourney AI

1: Midjourney AI

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Image: Midjourney

The crown of the AI art generation scene falls on none other than Midjourney. It’s gotten quite a lot of hype since its open beta first burst up from the weeds of Discord’s servers, but it’s honestly one of the best AI art generators available. Though I’ve seen some rather strange depictions of ships and other objects, the crispness of the generated images could convince somebody they were done with human hands.

I will say that Midjourney does have a little sense of repetition, as I’ve seen similar poses among the stoic, female design among other user-prompted images. However, that doesn’t take away from how evocative the art is, especially based on such strange, convoluted prompts. I mean just look at it! Several of the images based on The Dispossessed prompt could be the actual cover to the book. Several of those in the last panel are easily how I might imagine Mahit Dzmare from A Memory Called Empire would look like.

The program remains beholden to Discord, and the bot offers the first few generated images as a trial, but then they ask users to pay $10 for a monthly basic membership with 200 images.

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