Arts, Play, Slide Show — January 25, 2012 12:30 am

Artistic Insight

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A Cincinnati artist doesn’t let his fading sight thwart his creative aspirations.

Illustration isn’t just a pastime for Jason Hubbard; it’s a race against time. After dedicating his life to studying drawing, the self-trained artist developed keratoconus, an eye disease that rapidly alters the shape of his corneas. It’s difficult to tell by looking at the 32-year-old comic book enthusiast’s intricate digital paintings and breathtakingly realistic pencil portraits that he struggles to see clearly, but it’s something he’s had to deal with for the past couple of years of his career as he hastily works to perfect his skills before the world fades too far into a blur.

Jason Hubbard in his Cincinnati apartment/studio. Photo by Marisa Whitaker.

Hubbard, whose art studio is located in his apartment in Cincinnati, acknowledges that his vision impairment makes his work challenging. “I lose the shape of a person, of a thing,” he says. “Colors kind of overlap sometimes. It gets really frustrating.” He describes the effect as being like light and color scattered like fireworks, making it difficult to focus on objects positioned far away. As an art student, being able to see models from a short distance is a must. Hubbard became so frustrated with his eyes that he left the Art Academy of Cincinnati after only two years, opting to illustrate from home. Cornea transplant surgery would be the only true way to cure his eyesight, but without health insurance, Hubbard is struggling to find a way to solve the problem of how to deal with overwhelming medical bills.

The cause of keratoconus is unknown. The disease makes the shape of the cornea, which is naturally rounded, morph into a cone, diffusing light and obscuring patients’ vision. Rigid contact lenses are the most common tool for managing keratoconus, but cornea transplants are sometimes necessary as a last resort. “My eyes are getting worse, so I’m trying to make up for not having as much time,” Hubbard says. “I don’t know when or if I’m ever going to get my eyes completely repaired, so, in a very small way, it’s been positive. I’ve had to overcome it.”

Hubbard, a self-taught artist, works in traditional and digital media. Photo by Marisa Whitaker.

It takes a vivid imagination to even dream up Hubbard’s fantastical digital illustrations. Using a Cintiq tablet and Photoshop-CS5 paintbrushes, he expertly captures each divot, wrinkle and reflection in the faces of grotesque zombies, evil elves and seductive nymphs. Hubbard specializes in making the mythological starkly realistic, with only the faint mark of a brushstroke to differentiate art from photograph. While local art enthusiasts have probably never laid eyes on Hubbard’s work, many of his digital pieces can be found online at deviantart.com.

Hubbard might not be the conventional exhibition-launching painter, but this comic-book buff dreams of something a little more sci-fi in his future.  “I want to get paid to do art regularly, and [create works] at least remotely close to games or concept art or illustration,” Hubbard says. “Like doing art for ‘Magic [The Gathering]’ cards or ‘World of Warcraft,’ the card game. That would be awesome to be a part of that, and that’s sort of what I’ve been working toward.”

Hubbard’s long fascination with visual creation fuels his dreams of illustrating playing cards. “I learned how to read on Spiderman comics,” Hubbard says. “By the time I was 5, I knew exactly what I wanted: super powers, and to draw comic books. I’m still waiting on super powers.”

He’s spent much of his life working late nights on perfecting his drawing technique, creating with pencil and paper, brush and canvas, until two years ago, when his girlfriend purchased a Cintiq drawing tablet for him. “There’s this huge gap between digital and traditional work in the way that you move,” Hubbard says. “I had learned the outlines of the world as a line artist, as a comic book artist. I had learned to find the contours and all that stuff. As a renderer — as a digital artist — trying to create three-dimension quickly was difficult.” He says it took him two years to become completely comfortable using a digital paintbrush on a computer screen, but the labor has paid off in the compelling texture and intricacy in his surreal landscapes and portraits.

Hubbard's work ranges from realistic renderings -- like this commissioned piece based on a client's photograph of a beloved dog -- to fantastic, mythological subjects. Photo by Marisa Whitaker.

Hubbard’s struggle to create art despite his weakening eyesight has taught him to seek opportunity in hardship. “The one thing that I’ve found difficult to come to terms with is: The more difficult, the more challenging something is — even if the end result is total butt — I learned a shit ton while I was working on it,” Hubbard says. “So, sometimes you don’t want to do the work, but you know the end result is just knowledge.”

It’s a universally applicable concept, but Hubbard internalizes it to such an extent that his artwork has evolved into detail-oriented digital masterpieces that transport the viewer to lush prehistoric tropics, mystical fairy-filled forests and hellish recreations of your worst nightmares. Hubbard leaves it all on the canvas (or screen) at the end of the day, and no matter what happens to his sight, his vivid imagination is likely to last a lifetime. 

 

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