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Can we shrink the artist’s studio down to the size of a tablet?

Technology has replaced the artist’s studio with a small, portable, and affordable tablet computer. Not only can digital artists produce high-quality publishable work, they can be more productive than with traditional media. When I landed my book contract with Greg LeMond for The Science of Fitness: Power, Performance, and Endurance, I was tasked with writing the scientific content, researching and referencing (240 citations), passing peer review, corresponding with authors and editors, compiling the index, and marketing the book.

In addition, it was my responsibility to simultaneously self-illustrate the book with original art in the form of illustrations, anatomical sketches, diagrams, and portraits. I am also a full-time physician with a busy clinical scheduled and I was denied academic time to write the book. Our publisher, Elsevier/Academic Press, is the largest science book publisher in the world with high standards for both the writing and artwork.

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With modern print and online publishing, words are no longer enough and there is a high demand for image content to grab attention and to get the message across. However, traditional artistic media would not get the job done.

Pencil sketches are not bold or colorful enough for publication, ink sketches cannot be easily corrected, and painting would take too long. The solution was digital art. I purchased the following hardware and software:

  • Wacom Intuos Pen & Touch graphics tablet (for use with my existing desktop computer)
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablet computer (Windows)
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet computer (Android)
  • Kent Displays Boogie Board LCD writing tablet
  • Xara Photo & Graphic Designer software (Windows)
  • Autodesk Sketchbook Pro software (Windows and Android)
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements software (Windows)

Although some of my digital equipment was redundant, it allowed great flexibility. I could draw anywhere at any time. With a Wi-Fi connection I could transfer image files as well as research and write the scientific text anywhere in my house or at a coffee shop. The virtual aspect of digital art allows for editorial correction without needing to start over, which greatly speeds up production. Here are a few examples of published digital artwork with descriptions of how the work was done.

Portrait of Clint Eastwood by Mark Hom.

I used the Boogie Board LCD tablet which has a pressure sensitive surface and a stylus. Lines are monochromatic white on black which meant I was drawing areas of light instead of areas of shadow (as done with traditional ink). This is a more natural way to draw as you are sketching positive light reflecting surfaces instead of negative voids. The result is a bold woodcut or scratch board look that reproduces well in a book. The image is electronically erased with the push of a button. No software is needed, but the image must be captured with a digital photograph for further manipulation. More examples can be seen at the Kent Displays website where I am a featured artist.


Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, 26th US President, by Mark Hom.

I used the Intuos tablet plugged into my desktop home computer and Xara software. Each of the thousands of lines is a vector object that can be edited in regards to shape, length, and thickness. An overlay tracing technique can be done digitally in layers by importing a public domain photograph, drawing the lines on various top layers, and then removing the photograph. The old time newsprint/woodcut look makes it look antique yet is far easier to correct and modify. The Theodore Roosevelt Association has access to every image of Roosevelt, but they have used the above image to announce their annual meeting for two years running.


Portrait of Wilhelm Roentgen, discoverer of X-rays and the founder of my profession of radiology, by Mark Hom.

This was my first practice sketch with the Intuos/Xara system as I learned the eye hand coordination (you draw on a tablet surface with a stylus and see the results on your computer screen). This image did not make it into the book, so I offered it for free to the major radiology journals. Some of the journal editors wanted to know how and why I created this image which later resulted in my writing two scientific journal articles and a blog post for the UNESCO International Year of Light organization. This throw away sketch did wonders for my academic career.


Back Muscle Anatomy by Mark Hom.

Using the Intuos tablet and Xara I used several digital tricks to create clean-looking anatomical sketches. One side of the skeleton was drawn, copied, mirror-imaged, and pasted for a perfectly symmetrical outline and bone structure. Then each muscle fiber was drawn individually, grouped in bundles, and shaded for a 3D lighting effect.


Wet Apples by Mark Hom.

The green apple was the first sketch drawn on my Samsung Galaxy Note tablet computer using Sketchbook Pro software. The light reflected off the table and the water droplets make this image pop. The green apple was color-shifted to red using Photoshop Elements. The direct stylus to screen input was more natural than using a separate graphics input tablet.


The Human Eye by Mark Hom.

I achieved this photorealistic effect using the Surface Pro 2 tablet and Sketchbook Pro software. A “noisy” digital brush created the skin texture and a gloppy mascara effect. A fine digital pencil was used to draw the individual fibers of the iris. Note how some light penetrates the upper eye lid using a digital airbrush. The zooming feature allows you to draw at a higher image resolution than the tablet screen resolution. The Surface Pro 2 was capable of running full versions of Microsoft Windows software.


Phylogenetic Evolutionary Tree by Mark Hom.

This diagram was drawn using the Surface Pro 2 tablet, Xara software, and the data from multiple mitochondrial DNA studies. The background, branches, leaves, and text were drawn in separate layers and then combined for a seamless effect. This diagram shows how all of life on Earth is connected by mitochondrial ancestry. I placed humans at the center but not at the top of the evolutionary tree. Although we have large brains, an eagle has better vision, and a dog has a better sense of smell.

By creating digital artwork instead of traditional art, the writing and illustrations for our book were completed ahead of schedule, in time for last year’s holiday book buying season. For two months our book was the Elsevier Store’s top featured title out of the 25 000 books they sell. For authors and artists tasked with producing publishable illustrations, digital art is the solution. It allows great accuracy, freedom, flexibility, and collaboration while greatly increasing productivity.

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