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Artist takes inspiration from skin


Dermatologist Hector Franco believes there's more to skin images than mere diagnostic value. His son, Nick Franco, an artist living in Chicago, has brought his father's thinking to life in a collection he calls "inskin."

El Paso, Texas, dermatologist Hector L. Franco, M.D., looks at images of skin biopsies for histopathological changes that might indicate skin disease.

But there’s more to those images than their diagnostic value, he says.   

Dr. Franco“…one finds that many of these images contain patterns and colors that offer potential artistic value,” Dr. Franco says. “Many of the histopathological images seen in a skin biopsy are pleasing because they have a recognizable pattern to them and, therefore, represent a diagnosis to us, as dermatologists. On the other hand, some histopathological images are just pleasing unto themselves because, whether you know what the diagnosis is or not, they are pleasing to the mind’s eye. In essence, that is what abstract art does, it pleases the eye without necessarily giving you a recognizable image.”

Dr. Franco’s son, Nick Franco, an artist living in Chicago, has brought his father’s thinking to life in a collection he calls “inskin.”

Nick FrancoAn abstract artist in his late 30s, Franco graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has a master’s in art education. He has exhibited his paintings Colorado, Texas, Arizona and Illinois.

Franco had been working on his previous collection the Thread Paintings for more than a decade and was ready for a change. His father’s recent suggestion struck an artistic chord, bringing back memories from when he was a kid and looked through Dr. Franco’s journals and dermatology books.

Union of Outsiders, 2014. Acrylic & digital print on canvas, 1 ft 8 in x 2 ft.

The digital print (above) is of the diagnosis dermoepidermal junction. Layers of a fluid acrylic paint have been applied to areas of the canvas - some in a very thick application, others very thin to allow the original print to show through. For the title, I likened dermoepidermal to living outside the norm, and junction to a bond between people. 

“They’re quite beautiful, as far as the color, patterns and overall design. The imagery effect is actually quite interesting to look at, especially for an abstract artist,” Franco says.

Skin meets expressionism


Skin meets expressionism

His inskin collection includes a handful of paintings that combine abstract expressionism with dermatology.

It all starts with a search for the right image - one which Franco says offers something that can be brought out or emphasized. Once he finds the image, he’ll alter it slightly, digitally. That might mean changing color or tone, or turning the image to a different angle. Franco then sends the digitally enhanced image to a printing company, which puts it on canvas. That’s when Franco reaches for his paintbrushes, using acrylics to manipulate the image into a work of art.

Pairing Shields without Protection, 2014. Acrylic & digital print on canvas, 2 ft 6 in x 1 ft 8 in.

The digital print (above) is of the diagnosis parathyroid adenoma. Blue-green acrylic stains multiple areas of the print, with thicker color applications for the circles & organic shapes. For the title, I began to see an aerial view of a battle. Shields are paired, or joined together, but they are doing little to protect their soldiers. 

“I want to be respectful of the image that I have digitally displayed on the canvas. I don’t want it to look like paint on top of a digital print. I don’t want the two to read as separate. I want them to read as this cohesive design,” Franco says. “So, what I’ll do is really examine the style, the composition, the patterns as a design on the digital print, and also the colors. [I’ll] use acrylic paints to mimic it, to bring out some areas and maybe push some areas back or take them out altogether, just to create a new design.”


Physician partnership


Physician partnership

Dr. BerneChicago dermatologist Ron Berne, M.D., hired Franco, who also designs websites, to redo the practice website and create a practice logo. The logo is an artistic three-dimensional cross-section of skin.

“I wanted a clean, simple logo that left no doubt that we are all about skin health,” Dr. Berne tells Dermatology Times.

The staff was so pleased with the logo’s image that staff members recommended a larger, more detailed mural for the office. The result is a canvas painting of an anatomically precise three-dimensional cutaway of typical skin anatomy.

“…much like the famous drawings of the medical artist Frank Netter, the lighter blue surrounding the cube makes the detailed anatomic version 'float'!” says Dr. Berne.  

Patients and staff have only had positive feedback about the painting, according to Dr. Berne.

The image in Dr. Berne’s office and those of histopathology are different from an artistic perspective, however. Painting the cross-section of skin requires that Franco remain specific and true to the original design. Whereas, he can play more in the paintings originating from histopathology, Franco says.


An eye for skin


An eye for skin

Franco says he likes the idea of collaborating with dermatologists on pieces.

“When you’re an artist and are working in your studio, you’re really operating off your own inspiration, but, by incorporating the histopathologies and especially the input of other doctors, it would be interesting to reach this collaboration between the two,” Franco says.

The paintings range in size from small (about a foot by a foot) to larger images. Prices in the collection he has now range from $700 for a smaller painting to $1,400 to one that’s larger.

Too Many Ships at Sea, 2015. Acrylic & digital print on canvas, 2 ft 6 in x 3 ft 4 in.

The digital print (above) is of the diagnosis for mastocytosis. This work is gestural, with fluid acrylic outlining the cells in burgundy and layers of white creating new shapes within the composition. Like the other inskin paintings that incorporate a digital print, the image for the diagnosis has been altered digitally. The hues have been changed and the original composition turned upside down and cropped. For the title, I considered the condition: too many mast cells in the body. The term “mast” made me think of ships. When I looked at the finished piece, it reminded me of a storm at sea, with ships crashing into each other. I began to see various objects, possibly cargo, floating in the water. 

Franco says his focus for the foreseeable future is on inskin.

“I would like to keep pursuing this because it’s really a challenge for me to have to work into something that has kind of already been created,” he says. “I like the idea of combining these mediums. In the Chicago area, as far as the art scene is concerned, I haven’t seen a whole lot of that - where there’s something that combines art and medicine.”

Dr. Franco says his son has successfully taken an image that is simply clinical and transformed it into something pleasing and artistic.

“It is something that can be admired on a wall,” Dr. Franco says. “When a dermatologist or dermatopathologist looks at these paintings, it can feel a little bit like double dipping…. On the one hand, they can recognize the mast cell infiltrate of mastocytosis or the derma-epidermal clefting and epidermal necrosis of T.E.N. On the other hand, they can sit back and simply appreciate the colors and patterns that the artist has put on canvas.” 

To see the inskin collection, visit Nick Franco’s website at www.nickfrancoart.com.

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