Artist Francis Tsai passes away after battling ALS

Concept artist Francis Tsai died yesterday after suffering from the degenerative disease for five years

The concept artist Francis Tsai, who had been living with the degenerative condition ALS since 2010, died yesterday.
He was an inspiration to countless artists around the world, for his artistic skills and for his strength of character, which saw him carry on painting to the very last. Francis was a friend of ImagineFX magazine, contributing regularly in the mag’s early days. We spoke to Francis last year about his art, and his determination to create.

The story of how Frank Frazetta defied physical limitation by retraining himself to paint with his left hand has become as legendary as the artist himself.

The truth is, there are many artists out there who find themselves in situations that jeopardise their abilities, and it takes tremendous determination to defy the odds and adapt. But just as Frank proved, it can be done.

Such is true of the comic book artist Francis Tsai, who was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease) in 2010, a degenerative condition leading to total paralysis. Having lost the ability to paint with his hands, arms and feet, Francis is now able to paint with his eyes.

How this paralysed artist paints will amaze you

One of Francis's sayings is: "Fatal disease? Step aside. I have work to do."

An incredible form of eye-tracking technology translates Francis' eye movements into painting instructions, which enables him to keep on creating art.

"Drawing is such a big part of who I am," says Francis. "There are so many digital tools available today that I knew there had to be a way to create artwork, even in my situation."

Having lost the ability to paint with his hands, arms and feet, Francis paints with his eyes

The mobile setup was designed by Teddy Lindsey (see sidebar, right), and comprises a Tobii eye-tracking camera and processor, and a enhanced tablet PC fitted to a modified mounting frame.

How this paralysed artist paints will amaze you

The slogan 'adapt, survive, prevail' embodies the journey Francis has taken since his diagnosis.

"It took a little getting used to, but within a couple of weeks, I was beginning to draw. It's an exercise of patience as each shape and line has to be formed bit by bit."

Each piece is started in SketchUp, which responds well to the eye-gaze mouse emulation software. Shapes and outlines are created before moving to Photoshop for effects and tweaks, with layer styles and texture overlays added for painterly effects.

How this paralysed artist paints will amaze you

Everything you see here was created using the incredible eye-gaze technology.

To help fund the costs of medical care and research, Francis's sister Marice Pärchen set up an online store offering merchandise and prints featuring the eye-gaze artwork, which has also helped increase awareness of their cause.

"As word spread about the art, we saw people from all over the world visiting the store, sending support and expressing their appreciation," says Marice, who along with her brother, is touched by the incredible support the art community has shown. "There's so much mutual respect out there, and artists have rallied to drive traffic to the store to help us out."

How this paralysed artist paints will amaze you

Friends, art lovers and fellow artists have all shown their support to Francis and his family.

Before his condition emerged, Francis was an active member of the online art community, regularly providing feedback and advice on forums, which Marice feels may have also contributed to the store's success.

"I have seen a number of posts from people who've said he had given help or encouragement in the past that really changed things for them, and it feels like Francis is seeing it come back to him."

How this paralysed artist paints will amaze you

Francis's tech consists of an eye-tracker camera for translating eye movements into cursor movements, clicks or mode changes

No obstacles seem large enough to dampen their spirits. "All I have ever wanted to do is draw," says Francis, "and the universe has come up with a surprising number of ways to try to keep me from doing that. I find that the older I get, the less willing I am to put up with obstacles that keep me from doing what I love.

"Fortunately, in addition to the technology that keeps me alive, I have access to technology that enables me to put together line, shape, colour and value to create images. That's what I do – I'm an artist. Always have been, always will be."

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Beren Neale is commissioning editor at Creative Bloq.