If you live in the East Bay, you know that no matter where you go, Mount Diablo is always just kind of there. At 3,800+ feet, the iconic East Bay mountain is massive and imposing enough that you feel its presence on a daily basis. It’s there in the background when I’m driving on 680, lounging by a friend’s pool, or picking up my son at his outdoor preschool.
Sometimes it’s enrobed by a bank of clouds or fog. Sometimes it’s capped with snow. Sometimes it’s on fire. But no matter where you are in the East Bay — and no matter the conditions — Mount Diablo is a silent, stately, powerful presence.
In that way, the mountain has always reminded me of another mountain: Mount Fuji in Japan. In the mid-1800s, legendary ukiyo-e artist Hokusai noticed the constant presence of Mount Fuji and created his masterpiece, a set of woodblock prints called 36 Views of Mount Fuji. The series shows Mount Fuji at various points throughout the year, in all kinds of weather conditions. It also shows people going about their daily lives — fishing, trading, and the like — with the mountain as a backdrop.
I’ve always thought it would be cool to make a series of woodblock prints in Hokusai’s style, but of Mount Diablo instead of Mount Fuji. The connections between the two mountains and their constant, silent presence — visually and otherwise — in daily life felt strong enough to merit an artistic connection. I’ve just never had the artistic skills to make it happen.
A new tool, though, changed that overnight. Earlier this year, AI company OpenAI began making its DALL-E system available to select Beta testers. The system takes a text prompt and turns it into an image. You can enter basically any text you want, and DALL-E will generate a corresponding, imagined photo.
I decided to see how DALL-E would handle a request to depict Mount Diablo in Hokusai’s style. I decided to feed DALL-E various prompts asking to see Mount Diablo in different seasons, weather conditions, and the like, in order to duplicate the concept of 36 Views of Mount Fuji as closely as I could. Each time, I stipulated that the system should make an image in Hokusai’s style.
The results blew me away.
19th Century Print
This was my first attempt at having DALL-E generate a Hokusai-style print of Mount Diablo. I told the system to make a “19th-century Japanese print.” As AI systems often do, it took this quite literally — not only did it create the print in a 19th-century style, but it also made the print’s fake paper look a bit torn and dirtied, as if it was nearly 200 years old!
The foreground isn’t perfect, but that’s definitely Mount Diablo in Hokusai’s style.
Mount Diablo from Lafayette
Moving on, I kept the “19th century” descriptor, but also added that DALL-E should depict the mountain as seen from Lafayette, where I live. That changed up the perspective nicely. Now you can see the Diablo Foothills in the foreground, just as you can from real-life Lafayette.
A cool bonus was that the system seems to have chosen to depict the mountain as it would have appeared in the 19th century, with no buildings or other developments near its base. DALL-E even threw in a pioneer-looking person in the foreground to establish the time period!
Here’s another version, using the same prompt.
Mount Diablo During a Storm
When I dropped the “19th-century” language from my prompt, the images that DALL-E generated became a lot more colorful, stylized, and beautiful.
I tried adding in some other language, too, to change up the ways that DALL-E depicted the mountain — again, much as Hokusai had done with Mount Fuji.
Here is Mount Diablo during a storm:
And another version:
I love how the clouds in this one extend up to the peak, totally covering it and encircling it like a snake. They’re then mirrored by the storm clouds above the mountain. It looks menacing and beautiful, and really suggests the idea of a stylized storm.
Snowcapped Mount Diablo
About 4–5 days out of the year, Mount Diablo gets a light dusting of snow at its peak. That’s always an exciting moment for people in the East Bay. A few always drive up the mountain to see if they can make a snowball, usually only to discover that the sprinkling of snow has melted by the time they reach the top.
I asked DALL-E to draw Mount Diablo with a snow-capped peak. It added a bit more snow than we’d actually get, but I think we can agree the results are lovely.
Mount Diablo on Fire
Wildfires occasionally start on Mount Diablo. They’re apparently terrifying to see, because the mountain’s constant presence means that the eerie orange glow of the fire is always visually present for East Bay residents, too.
Thankfully, these fires don’t happen too often. But I still asked DALL-E to imagine one.
This image is beautiful, powerful, and scary. It’s one of my favorite images from the whole series. It could easily be an allegory about climate change and increasingly severe weather, too.
A lot of people feel that computers could never create art. After making this series with DALL-E’s help, I disagree. Sure, DALL-E probably doesn’t understand what it’s creating. But the system’s ability to effortlessly apply an artistic style to a new subject — and to imagine wholly new and, frankly, beautiful works of art — is amazing to witness nonetheless.
These woodcuts of Mount Diablo might be the hallucinations of a computer program. But still, given the chance, I’d hang one on my wall.