What DALL-E 2 can and cannot do

I got access to DALL-E 2 earlier this week, and have spent the last few days (probably adding up to dozens of hours) playing with it, with the goal of mapping out its performance in various areas – and, of course, ending up with some epic art.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of observations made about DALL-E, along with examples. If you want to request art of a particular scene, or to test see what a particular prompt does, feel free to comment with your requests.

DALL-E’s strengths

Stock photography content

It’s stunning at creating photorealistic content for anything that (this is my guess, at least) has a broad repertoire of online stock images – which is perhaps less interesting because if I wanted a stock photo of (rolls dice) a polar bear, Google Images already has me covered. DALL-E performs somewhat better at discrete objects and close-up photographs than at larger scenes, but it can do photographs of city skylines, or National Geographic-style nature scenes, tolerably well (just don’t look too closely at the textures or detailing.) Some highlights:

  • Clothing design: DALL-E has a reasonable if not perfect understanding of clothing styles, and especially for women’s clothes and with the stylistic guidance of “displayed on a store mannequin” or “modeling photoshoot” etc, it can produce some gorgeous and creative outfits. It does especially plausible-looking wedding dresses – maybe because wedding dresses are especially consistent in aesthetic, and online photos of them are likely to be high quality?

a “toga style wedding dress, displayed on a store mannequin”
  • Close-ups of cute animals. DALL-E can pull off scenes with several elements, and often produce something that I would buy was a real photo if I scrolled past it on Tumblr.

“kittens playing with yarn in a sunbeam”
  • Close-ups of food. These can be a little more uncanny valley – and I don’t know what’s up with the apparent boiled eggs in there – but DALL-E absolutely has the plating style for high-end restaurants down.

”dessert special, award-winning chef five star restaurant, close-up photograph”
  • Jewelry. DALL-E doesn’t always follow the instructions of the prompt exactly (it seems to be randomizing whether the big pendant is amber or amethyst) but the details are generally convincing and the results are almost always really pretty.

“silver statement necklace with amethysts and an amber pendant, close-up photograph”

Pop culture and media

DALL-E “recognizes” a wide range of pop culture references, particularly for visual media (it’s very solid on Disney princesses) or for literary works with film adaptations like Tolkien’s LOTR. For almost all media that it recognizes at all, it can convert it in almost-arbitrary art styles.

”art nouveau stained glass window depicting Marvel’s Captain America”
“Elsa from Frozen, cross-stitched sampler”
Sesame Street, screenshots from the miyazaki anime movie

[Tip: I find I get more reliably high-quality images from the prompt “X, screenshots from the Miyazaki anime movie” than just “in the style of anime”, I suspect because Miyazaki has a consistent style, whereas anime more broadly is probably pulling in a lot of poorer-quality anime art.]

Art style transfer

Some of most impressively high-quality output involves specific artistic styles. DALL-E can do charcoal or pencil sketches, paintings in the style of various famous artists, and some weirder stuff like “medieval illuminated manuscripts”.

”a monk riding a snail, medieval illuminated manuscript”

IMO it performs especially well with art styles like “impressionist watercolor painting” or “pencil sketch”, that are a little more forgiving around imperfections in the details.

”A woman at a coffeeshop working on her laptop and wearing headphones, painting by Alphonse Mucha”
“a little girl and a puppy playing in a pile of autumn leaves, photorealistic charcoal sketch”

Creative digital art

DALL-E can (with the right prompts and some cherrypicking) pull off some absolutely gorgeous fantasy-esque art pieces. Some examples:

”a mermaid swimming underwater, photorealistic digital art”
“a woman knitting the Milky Way galaxy into a scarf, photorealistic digital art”

The output when putting in more abstract prompts (I’ve run a lot of “[song lyric or poetry line], digital art” requests) is hit-or-miss, but with patience and some trial and error, it can pull out some absolutely stunning – or deeply hilarious – artistic depictions of poetry or abstract concepts. I kind of like using it in this way because of the sheer variety; I never know where it’s going to go with a prompt.

”an activist destroyed by facts and logic, digital art”
“if the lord won’t send us water, well we’ll get it from the devil, digital art”
”For you are made of nebulas and novas and night sky You’re made of memories you bury or live by, digital art” (lyric from Never Look Away by Vienna Teng)

The future of commercials

This might be just a me thing, but I love almost everything DALL-E does with the prompt “in the style of surrealism” – in particular, its surreal attempt at commercials or advertisements. If my online ads were 100% replaced by DALL-E art, I would probably click on at least 50% more of them.

”an advertisement for sound-cancelling headphones, in the style of surrealism”

DALLE’s weaknesses

I had been really excited about using DALL-E to make fan art of fiction that I or other people have written, and so I was somewhat disappointed at how much it struggles to do complex scenes according to spec. In particular, it still has a long way to go with:

Scenes with two characters

I’m not kidding. DALL-E does fine at giving one character a list of specific traits (though if you want pink hair, watch out, DALL-E might start spamming the entire image with pink objects). It can sometimes handle multiple generic people in a crowd scene, though it quickly forgets how faces work. However, it finds it very challenging to keep track of which traits ought to belong to a specific Character A versus a different specific Character B, beyond a very basic minimum like “a man and a woman.”

The above is one iteration of a scene I was very motivated to figure out how to depict, as a fan art of my Valdemar rationalfic. DALL-E can handle two people, check, and a room with a window and at least one of a bed or chair, but it’s lost when it comes to remembering which combination of age/​gender/​hair color is in what location.

“a young dark-haired boy resting in bed, and a grey-haired older woman sitting in a chair beside the bed underneath a window with sun streaming through, Pixar style digital art”

Even in cases where the two characters are pop culture references that I’ve already been able to confirm the model “knows” separately – for example, Captain America and Iron Man – it can’t seem to help blending them together. It’s as though the model has “two characters” and then separately “a list of traits” (user-specified or just implicit in the training data), and reassigns the traits mostly at random.

”Captain America and Iron Man standing side by side” which is which????

Foreground and background

A good example of this: someone on Twitter had commented that they couldn’t get DALL-E to provide them with “Two dogs dressed like roman soldiers on a pirate ship looking at New York City through a spyglass”. I took this as a CHALLENGE and spent half an hour trying; I, too, could not get DALL-E to output this, and end up needing to choose between “NYC and a pirate ship” or “dogs in Roman soldier uniforms with spyglasses”.

DALL-E can do scenes with generic backgrounds (a city, bookshelves in a library, a landscape) but even then, if that’s not the main focus of the image then the fine details tend to get pretty scrambled.

Novel objects, or nonstandard usages

Objects that are not something it already “recognizes.” DALL-E knows what a chair is. It can give you something that is recognizably a chair in several dozen different art mediums. It could not with any amount of coaxing produce an “Otto bicycle”, which my friend specifically wanted for her book cover. Its failed attempts were both hilarious and concerning.

prompt was something like “a little girl with dark curly hair riding down a barren hill on a magical rickshaw with enormous bicycle wheels, in the style of Bill Watterson”
An actual Otto bicycle, per Google Images

Objects used in nonstandard ways. It seems to slide back toward some kind of ~prior; when I asked it for a dress made of Kermit plushies displayed on a store mannequin, it repeatedly gave me a Kermit plushie wearing a dress.

”Dress made out of Kermit plushies, displayed on a store mannequin”

DALL-E generally seems to have extremely strong priors in a few areas, which end up being almost impossible to shift. I spent at least half an hour trying to convince it to give me digital art of a woman whose eyes were full of stars (no, not the rest of her, not the background scenery either, just her eyes...) and the closest DALL-E ever got was this.

I wanted: the Star-Eyed Goddess
I got: the goddess-eyed goddess of recursion


DALL-E can’t spell. It really really cannot spell. It will occasionally spell a word correctly by utter coincidence. (Okay, fine, it can consistently spell “STOP” as long as it’s written on a stop sign.)

It does mostly produce recognizable English letters (and recognizable attempts at Chinese calligraphy in other instances), and letter order that is closer to English spelling than to a random draw from a bag of Scrabble letters, so I would guess that even given the new model structure that makes DALL-E 2 worse than the first DALL-E, just scaling it up some would eventually let it crack spelling.

At least sometimes its inability to spell results in unintentionally hilarious memes?


Realistic human faces

My understanding is that the face model limitation may have been deliberate to avoid deepfakes of celebrities, etc. Interestingly, DALL-E can nonetheless at least sometimes do perfectly reasonable faces, either as photographs or in various art styles, if they’re the central element of a scene. (And it keeps giving me photorealistic faces as a component of images where I wasn’t even asking for that, meaning that per the terms and conditions I can’t share those images publicly.)

Even more interestingly, it seems to specifically alter the appearance of actors even when it clearly “knows” a particular movie or TV show. I asked it for “screenshots from the second season of Firefly”, and they were very recognizably screenshots from Firefly in terms of lighting, ambiance, scenery etc, with an actor who looked almost like Nathan Fillion – as though cast in a remake that was trying to get it fairly similar – and who looked consistently the same across all 10 images, but was definitely a different person.

There are a couple of specific cases where DALL-E seems to “remember” how human hands work. The ones I’ve found so far mostly involve a character doing some standard activity using their hands, like “playing a musical instrument.” Below, I was trying to depict a character from A Song For Two Voices who’s a Bard; this round came out shockingly good in a number of ways, but the hands particularly surprised me.

Limitations of the “edit” functionality

DALL-E 2 offers an edit functionality – if you mostly like an image except for one detail, you can highlight an area of it with a cursor, and change the full description as applicable in order to tell it how to modify the selected region.

It sometimes works—this gorgeous dress (didn’t save the prompt, sorry) originally had no top, and the edit function successfully added one without changing the rest too much.

This is how people will dress in the glorious transhumanist future.

It often appears to do nothing. It occasionally full-on panics and does....whatever this is.

I was just trying to give the figure short hair!

There’s also a “variations” functionality that lets you select the best image given by a prompt and generate near neighbors of it, but my experience so far is that the variations are almost invariably less of a good fit for the original prompt, and very rarely better on specific details (like faces) that I might want to fix.

Some art style observations

DALL-E doesn’t seem to hold a sharp delineation between style and content; in other words, adding stylistic prompts actively changes the some of what I would consider to be content.

For example, asking for a coffeeshop scene as painted by Alphonse Mucha puts the woman in in a long flowing period-style dress, like in this reference painting, and gives us a “coffeeshop” that looks a lot to me like a lady’s parlor; in comparison, the Miyazaki anime version mostly has the character in a casual sweatshirt. This makes sense given the way the model was trained; background details are going to be systematically different between Nouveau Art paintings and anime movies.

”A woman at a coffeeshop working on her laptop and wearing headphones, painting by Alphonse Mucha”
“A woman at a coffeeshop working on her laptop and wearing headphones, screenshots from the miyazaki anime movie”

DALL-E is often sensitive to exact wording, and in particular it’s fascinating how “in the style of x” often gets very different results from “screenshot from an x movie”. I’m guessing that in the Pixar case, generic “Pixar style” might capture training data from Pixar shorts or illustrations that aren’t in their standard recognizable movie style. (Also, sometimes if asked for “anime” it gives me content that either looks like 3D rendered video game cutscenes, or occasionally what I assume is meant to be people at an anime con in cosplay.)

”A woman at a coffeeshop working on her laptop and wearing headphones, screenshots from the Pixar movie”
“A woman at a coffeeshop working on her laptop and wearing headphones, in the style of Pixar”


How smart is DALL-E?

I would give it an excellent grade in recognizing objects, and most of the time it has a pretty good sense of their purpose and expected context. If I give it just the prompt “a box, a chair, a computer, a ceiling fan, a lamp, a rug, a window, a desk” with no other specification, it consistently includes at least 7 of the 8 requested objects, and places them in reasonable relation to each other – and in a room with walls and a floor, which I did not explicitly ask for. This “understanding” of objects is a lot of what makes DALL-E so easy to work with, and in some sense seems more impressive than a perfect art style.

The biggest thing I’ve noticed that looks like a ~conceptual limitation in the model is its inability to consistently track two different characters, unless they differ on exactly one trait (male and female, adult and child, red hair and blue hair, etc) – in which case the model could be getting this right if all it’s doing is randomizing the traits in its bucket between the characters. It seems to have a similar issue with two non-person objects of the same type, like chairs, though I’ve explored this less.

It often applies color and texture styling to parts of the image other than the ones specified in the prompt; if you ask for a girl with pink hair, it’s likely to make the walls or her clothes pink, and it’s given me several Rapunzels wearing a gown apparently made of hair. (Not to mention the time it was confused about whether, in “Goldilocks and the three bears”, Goldilocks was also supposed to be a bear.)

The deficits with the “edit” mode and “variations” mode also seem to me like they reflect the model failing to neatly track a set of objects-with-assigned-traits. It reliably holds the non-highlighted areas of the image constant and only modifies the selected part, but the modifications often seem like they’re pulling in context from the entire prompt – for example, when I took one of my room-with-objects images and tried to select the computer and change it to “a computer levitating in midair”, DALL-E gave me a levitating fan and a levitating box instead.

Working with DALL-E definitely still feels like attempting to communicate with some kind of alien entity that doesn’t quite reason in the same ontology as humans, even if it theoretically understands the English language. There are concepts it appears to “understand” in natural language without difficulty – including prompts like “advertising poster for the new Marvel’s Avengers movie, as a Miyazaki anime, in the style of an Instagram inspirational moodboard”, which would take so long to explain to aliens, or even just to a human from 1900. And yet, you try to explain what an Otto bicycle is – something which I’m pretty sure a human six-year-old could draw if given a verbal description – and the conceptual gulf is impossible to cross.

”advertising poster for the new Marvel’s Avengers movie, as a Miyazaki anime, in the style of an Instagram inspirational moodboard”