A powerful algorithm allowed Karl Stiefvater to reproduce the presidential portraits, but with the style of Pablo Picasso. (Karl Stiefvater)

Five days ago, I pitched an idea to Karl Stiefvater, who like me was wowed by a new algorithm that was mimicking the styles of the greatest artists. What if he applied Picasso’s style to the portraits of the U.S. presidents? Would it involve an unbearable amount of work?

The answer was no, despite the St. Louis resident’s total lack of training with a paint brush.

“These pictures I’m making are coming out of a complete novice’s hands,” he told me last night. “I’ve learned more about Picasso in the the last week than I’ve learned in the last 20 years.”

What Stiefvater does have going for him is the algorithm, and training as a computer programmer. He described it to me as “black magic,” and doesn’t even fully understand how it works. He downloaded it from Github, where a computer programmer he’s never met posted it.

Stiefvater modeled the portraits after the periods Picasso went through. Our first presidents get a style from Picasso’s early years, while the modern presidents resemble his final works.

Stiefvater stressed that he doesn’t see the portraits as creative, but views his works as a reminder of how computers will match more and more of our human abilities.

“As the machines step in and take over more of our jobs, we’re distilling down what artistic creativity is,” Stiefvater said. “It’s not the physical precision of the curves, there’s something intangible, something complex about it. At the end, it’ll be the last thing machines can’t do.”

Stiefvater was nice enough to let me republish his work here. Which image is your favorite?

George Washington. (Karl Stiefvater)
George Washington. (Karl Stiefvater)
John Adams. (Karl Stiefvater)
John Adams. (Karl Stiefvater)
Thomas Jefferson. (Karl Stiefvater)
Thomas Jefferson. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Madison. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Madison. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Monroe. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Monroe. (Karl Stiefvater)
John Quincy Adams. (Karl Stiefvater)
John Quincy Adams. (Karl Stiefvater)
Andrew Jackson. (Karl Stiefvater)
Andrew Jackson. (Karl Stiefvater)
Martin van Buren. (Karl Stiefvater)
Martin van Buren. (Karl Stiefvater)
William Henry Harrison. (Karl Stiefvater)
William Henry Harrison. (Karl Stiefvater)
John Tyler. (Karl Stiefvater)
John Tyler. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Polk. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Polk. (Karl Stiefvater)
Zachary Taylor. (Karl Stiefvater)
Zachary Taylor. (Karl Stiefvater)
Millard Filmore. (Karl Stiefvater)
Millard Filmore. (Karl Stiefvater)
Franklin Pierce. (Karl Stiefvater)
Franklin Pierce. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Buchanan. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Buchanan. (Karl Stiefvater)
Abraham Lincoln. (Karl Stiefvater)
Abraham Lincoln. (Karl Stiefvater)
Andrew Johnson. (Karl Stiefvater)
Andrew Johnson. (Karl Stiefvater)
Ulysses S. Grant. (Karl Stiefvater)
Ulysses S. Grant. (Karl Stiefvater)
Rutherford B. Hayes. (Karl Stiefvater)
Rutherford B. Hayes. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Garfield. (Karl Stiefvater)
James Garfield. (Karl Stiefvater)
Chester Arthur. (Karl Stiefvater)
Chester Arthur. (Karl Stiefvater)
Grover Cleveland. (Karl Stiefvater)
Grover Cleveland. (Karl Stiefvater)
Benjamin Harrison. (Karl Stiefvater)
Benjamin Harrison. (Karl Stiefvater)
Grover Cleveland. (Karl Stiefvater)
Grover Cleveland. (Karl Stiefvater)
William McKinley. (Karl Stiefvater)
William McKinley. (Karl Stiefvater)
Theodore Roosevelt. (Karl Stiefvater)
Theodore Roosevelt. (Karl Stiefvater)
Williams Taft. (Karl Stiefvater)
William Taft. (Karl Stiefvater)
Woodrow Wilson. (Karl Stiefvater)
Woodrow Wilson. (Karl Stiefvater)
Warren Harding. (Karl Stiefvater)
Warren Harding. (Karl Stiefvater)
Calvin Coolidge. (Karl Stiefvater)
Calvin Coolidge. (Karl Stiefvater)
Herbert Hoover. (Karl Stiefvater)
Herbert Hoover. (Karl Stiefvater)
Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Karl Stiefvater)
Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Karl Stiefvater)
Harry Truman. (Karl Stiefvater)
Harry Truman. (Karl Stiefvater)
Dwight Eisenhower. (Karl Stiefvater)
Dwight Eisenhower. (Karl Stiefvater)
John F. Kennedy. (Karl Stiefvater)
John F. Kennedy. (Karl Stiefvater)
Lyndon B. Johnson. (Karl Stiefvater)
Lyndon B. Johnson. (Karl Stiefvater)
Richard Nixon. (Karl Stiefvater)
Richard Nixon. (Karl Stiefvater)
Gerald Ford. (Karl Stiefvater)
Gerald Ford. (Karl Stiefvater)
Jimmy Carter (Karl Stiefvater)
Jimmy Carter (Karl Stiefvater)
Ronald Reagan. (Karl Stiefvater)
Ronald Reagan. (Karl Stiefvater)
George H. W. Bush. (Karl Stiefvater)
George H. W. Bush. (Karl Stiefvater)
Bill Clinton. (Karl Stiefvater)
Bill Clinton. (Karl Stiefvater)
George W. Bush. (Karl Stiefvater)
George W. Bush. (Karl Stiefvater)
Barack Obama. (Karl Stiefvater)
Barack Obama. (Karl Stiefvater)