The World of Pixel Recurrent Neural Networks (PixelRNNs)

Pixel Recurrent Neural Networks (PixelRNNs) have emerged as a groundbreaking approach in the field of image generation and processing. These sophisticated neural network architectures are reshaping how machines understand and generate visual content. This article delves into the core aspects of PixelRNNs, exploring their purpose, architecture, variants, and the challenges they face.

Purpose and Application

PixelRNNs are primarily engineered for image generation and completion tasks. Their prowess lies in understanding and generating pixel-level patterns. This makes them exceptionally suitable for tasks like image inpainting, where they fill in missing parts of an image, and super-resolution, which involves enhancing the quality of images. Moreover, PixelRNNs are capable of generating entirely new images based on learned patterns, showcasing their versatility in the realm of image synthesis.


The architecture of PixelRNNs is built upon the principles of recurrent neural networks (RNNs), renowned for their ability to handle sequential data. In PixelRNNs, the sequence is the pixels of an image, processed in an orderly fashion, typically row-wise or diagonally. This sequential processing allows PixelRNNs to capture the intricate dependencies between pixels, which is crucial for generating coherent and visually appealing images.

  1. Sequential Pixel Processing: At its core, PixelRNN processes pixels of an image in a sequence, either row-wise or diagonally. This approach enables the network to understand and predict the arrangement and relationship of pixels in an image, taking into account their positions and dependencies.
  2. Recurrent Layers: PixelRNNs utilize recurrent layers (like LSTM or GRU cells) to model the dependencies between pixels. These layers are adept at handling sequential data, making them suitable for modeling the sequence of pixels in an image.
  3. Row LSTM and Diagonal BiLSTM: The architecture often comprises Row LSTM (Long Short-Term Memory) layers, which process the image row by row. Diagonal BiLSTM (Bidirectional LSTM) layers can also be used, processing the image diagonally, thereby capturing a larger context of pixel dependencies in both directions.
  4. Masked Convolutions: To prevent the leakage of future pixel information, PixelRNNs use masked convolutions. These masks ensure that the prediction for a pixel is only dependent on previously generated pixels, maintaining the autoregressive property of the model.
  5. Pixel-by-Pixel Generation: The network generates images pixel by pixel, predicting each pixel based on the previously generated ones. This process results in the generation of high-quality images with coherent structures and realistic details.
  6. Multi-Scale Architecture: Some PixelRNNs may employ a multi-scale architecture, processing the image at different scales to capture both local and global structures effectively.

Pixel-by-Pixel Generation

At the heart of PixelRNNs lies the concept of generating pixels one at a time, following a specified order. Each prediction of a new pixel is informed by the pixels generated previously, allowing the network to construct an image in a step-by-step manner. This pixel-by-pixel approach is fundamental to the network’s ability to produce detailed and accurate images.

Two Variants

PixelRNNs come in two main variants: Row LSTM and Diagonal BiLSTM. The Row LSTM variant processes the image row by row, making it efficient for certain types of image patterns. In contrast, the Diagonal BiLSTM processes the image diagonally, offering a different perspective in understanding and generating image data. The choice between these two depends largely on the specific requirements of the task at hand.


  • Row-by-Row Processing: The Row LSTM variant of PixelRNN processes images row by row. This method is akin to reading a text in a book, where the understanding of each row is built upon the previous ones.
  • Efficiency: It’s particularly efficient for image patterns where horizontal relationships between pixels are more significant. The sequential row processing allows the network to capture these horizontal dependencies effectively.
  • Applications: Best suited for images where horizontal features and patterns play a crucial role, such as landscapes or images with strong horizontal structures.

Diagonal BiLSTM:

  • Diagonal Processing: In contrast, the Diagonal BiLSTM processes images diagonally, considering pixels in a diagonal fashion from both directions. This approach allows it to capture a more comprehensive set of relationships between pixels.
  • Broader Context: By processing diagonally, Diagonal BiLSTM captures a broader context, considering both horizontal and vertical dependencies in the image. This can be particularly beneficial for complex images where these relationships are more nuanced.
  • Applications: Ideal for images with complex patterns and textures, where both vertical and horizontal pixel relationships are important, such as intricate designs or detailed portraits.

Conditional Generation

A remarkable feature of PixelRNNs is their ability to be conditioned on additional information, such as class labels or parts of images. This conditioning enables the network to direct the image generation process more precisely, which is particularly beneficial for tasks like targeted image editing or generating images that need to meet specific criteria.

  1. Use of Additional Information: PixelRNNs can be conditioned on external information, such as class labels or specific parts of images. This additional data acts as a guide, influencing the image generation process.
  2. Targeted Image Generation: With conditioning, PixelRNNs can generate images that adhere to specific criteria. For example, if conditioned on a class label, the network can generate images that belong to a particular category, like generating images of ‘cats’ or ‘dogs’ when provided with these respective labels.
  3. Enhanced Precision and Relevance: Conditioning allows for more precise and relevant image generation. The network tailors its output based on the provided conditional information, leading to outputs that are closely aligned with the desired criteria or characteristics.
  4. Applications in Image Editing: This feature is especially useful in targeted image editing tasks. PixelRNNs can modify or complete images based on conditional inputs, such as filling in missing parts of an image or altering specific features while maintaining overall coherence.
  5. Customized Image Creation: Conditional generation enables the creation of customized images that meet specific requirements, making PixelRNNs versatile for a variety of applications, from artistic creation to practical image synthesis in fields like advertising or design.
  6. Improving Image Diversity and Quality: By conditioning on different types of information, PixelRNNs can produce a diverse range of images, each reflecting the nuances of the conditioning input, thereby enhancing the quality and variability of the generated images.

Training and Data Requirements

As with other neural networks, PixelRNNs require a significant volume of training data to learn effectively. They are trained on large datasets of images, where they learn to model the distribution of pixel values. This extensive training is necessary for the networks to capture the diverse range of patterns and nuances present in visual data.

  1. Large-Scale Data Training: PixelRNNs are trained on large datasets of images. This comprehensive training allows the network to learn the distribution and variations of pixel values across diverse image types, which is crucial for effective image generation [1].
  2. Handling High-Dimensional Data: Since images are high-dimensional data with a vast number of pixels, the training process involves understanding and processing these numerous pixel values, which demands a significant amount of computational resources [2].
  3. Capturing Pixel Value Distribution: The goal of training PixelRNNs is to model the distribution of pixel values accurately. This process requires the network to learn from a diverse range of images to capture various patterns, textures, and nuances present in visual data [5].
  4. Importance of Diverse Training Set: To ensure that the PixelRNNs can generate a wide variety of images, the training dataset needs to be diverse. It should include images from different categories, styles, and with varied features to enable the network to learn a comprehensive representation of visual data [3].
  5. Time-Intensive Training Process: The process of training PixelRNNs is time-consuming due to the pixel-by-pixel generation mechanism and the complexity of the image data. Each pixel’s prediction is conditioned on the previously generated pixels, making the training process intricate and computationally intensive [1].
  6. Continuous Learning and Improvement: Ongoing training and refinement are necessary for PixelRNNs to stay effective. As new types of images and visual data emerge, the network needs to be continuously trained to adapt to these changes and improve its image generation capabilities.

Challenges and Limitations

Despite their capabilities, PixelRNNs face certain challenges and limitations. They are computationally intensive due to their sequential processing nature, which can be a bottleneck in applications requiring high-speed image generation. Additionally, they tend to struggle with generating high-resolution images, as the complexity increases exponentially with the number of pixels.

Creating a PixelRNN for image generation involves several steps, including setting up the neural network architecture and training it on a dataset of images. Here’s an example in Python using TensorFlow and Keras, two popular libraries for building and training neural networks.

This example will focus on a simple PixelRNN structure using LSTM (Long Short-Term Memory) units, a common choice for RNNs. The code will outline the basic structure, but please note that for a complete and functional PixelRNN, additional components and fine-tuning are necessary.

PixRNN using TensorFlow

First, ensure you have TensorFlow installed:

pip install tensorflow

Now, let’s proceed with the Python code:

import tensorflow as tf
from tensorflow.keras import layers

def build_pixel_rnn(image_height, image_width, image_channels):
    # Define the input shape
    input_shape = (image_height, image_width, image_channels)

    # Create a Sequential model
    model = tf.keras.Sequential()

    # Adding LSTM layers - assuming image_height is the sequence length
    # and image_width * image_channels is the feature size per step
    model.add(layers.LSTM(256, return_sequences=True, input_shape=input_shape))
    model.add(layers.LSTM(256, return_sequences=True))

    # PixelRNNs usually have more complex structures, but this is a basic example

    # Output layer - predicting the pixel values
    model.add(layers.TimeDistributed(layers.Dense(image_channels, activation='softmax')))

    return model

# Example parameters for a grayscale image (height, width, channels)
image_height = 64
image_width = 64
image_channels = 1  # For grayscale, this would be 1; for RGB images, it would be 3

# Build the model
pixel_rnn = build_pixel_rnn(image_height, image_width, image_channels)

# Compile the model
pixel_rnn.compile(optimizer='adam', loss='categorical_crossentropy')

# Summary of the model

This code sets up a basic PixelRNN model with two LSTM layers. The model’s output is a sequence of pixel values for each step in the sequence. Remember, this example is quite simplified. In practice, PixelRNNs are more complex and may involve techniques such as masking to handle different parts of the image generation process.

Training this model requires a dataset of images, which should be preprocessed to match the input shape expected by the network. The training process involves feeding the images to the network and optimizing the weights using a loss function (in this case, categorical crossentropy) and an optimizer (Adam).

For real-world applications, you would need to expand this structure significantly, adjust hyperparameters, and possibly integrate additional features like convolutional layers or different RNN structures, depending on the specific requirements of your task.

How can Pixel Recurrent Neural Networks (PixelRNNs) be used for Generative art?

Pixel Recurrent Neural Networks (PixelRNNs) offer significant potential in the field of generative art. Here’s how they can be utilized:

  1. Image Generation: PixelRNNs can generate images by sequentially predicting pixels in an image along spatial dimensions. This capability allows them to create detailed and natural-looking images from scratch, making them ideal for generating unique digital artworks [3].
  2. Image Completion: Beyond generation, PixelRNNs can complete images with remarkable accuracy. This aspect can be particularly useful in generative art for creating or completing artistic pieces, especially where parts of the artwork are missing or need enhancement [2].
  3. High-Quality Outputs: By modeling the discrete probability of pixel values, PixelRNNs ensure high-quality outputs. The resulting images are often indistinguishable from natural images, lending a high degree of realism to the generated art [6].
  4. Natural-Looking Images: Combining various techniques, PixelRNNs are able to generate images that look natural. This feature is particularly advantageous in generative art, where the aim often is to create artworks that resonate with human perception of reality [5].

Recent Developments

Over time, the field of PixelRNNs has seen significant advancements. Newer architectures, such as PixelCNNs, have been developed, offering improvements in computational efficiency and the quality of generated images. These developments are indicative of the ongoing evolution in the field, as researchers and practitioners continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with PixelRNNs.

Pixel Recurrent Neural Networks represent a fascinating intersection of artificial intelligence and image processing. Their ability to generate and complete images with remarkable accuracy opens up a plethora of possibilities in areas ranging from digital art to practical applications like medical imaging. As this technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see even more innovative uses and enhancements in the future.

🗒️ Sources

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  5. – Pixel RNN
  6. – Recurrent neural networks can explain flexible trading of…
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  14. Towards Data Science – Auto-Regressive Generative Models (PixelRNN, PixelCNN)
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