Former VCU student brings Marvel heroes and villians to life

Chris Suarez
Staff Writer

May 2014 VCU graduate Jason Keith colored comics such as Marvel’s “The Avengers,” “Hulk” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Image courtesy of Jason Keith.

One VCU student has spent nearly a decade coloring and illustrating the heroes and villains from the popular medium known for action, violence and sometimes philosophical prose.

For a good portion of Jason Keith’s life, he has practiced the art of illustrating comics while contracted by high-profile comic book companies such as Hi*Fi, Next-Gen and Marvel.

Comic books are practically sketched in the rough drafts of the 20th-century American story. Its aesthetic is seen nearly everyday in advertisements, storefronts and on coffee tables. The characters of comic books are in the daydreams of many children, teenagers and adults. 

In the art world, comics have come a long way, considered by some as a respected art form comparable to the Pop Art movement which emerged in the 1950s.

While coloring best-selling comics and building a reputation for himself in the comics industry, Keith found himself desiring to improve his skills as a well-rounded artist and have greater creative domain over his artwork.

“While (coloring) is an easy job and it’s fun, it’s not fulfilling,” Keith said. “I had already gone through one four-year contract with (Marvel) and I had already worked on Red Hulk, which was the No. 1 selling comic book at the time. What do you do after selling a No. 1 selling comic book, do it again and again? I could see I would only amount to a certain degree of success in comics.”

Keith was born to a single mother in Wichita, Kansas. As a teenager, both him and his mother moved to Texas where he went to high school, and later completed a semester of community college. Motivated and self-taught as an illustrator and colorist, Keith said he became interested in the colors of comics and started following the different artists credited in his favorite comics.

Shortly after his brief stint in community college, Keith moved to Arizona after finding an online listing for an internship with Hi*Fi Design in Arizona. The instruction and experience gained at Hi*Fi led to a job with CrossGen, a comic book company which has since been bought by Disney. Developing his portfolio during that time, Keith’s experience led to a career with Marvel in 2004.

In 2008, decided to return to school to finish his degree. Months of researching universities across the country led Keith to VCU after he learned more about the university’s highly-ranked art program. 

With VCU Arts professor Richard Roth stepping down from the position of department head, Keith realized be instructed by Roth, who inspired Keith’s artwork.

“It was the perfect opportunity for me — here was this guy responsible for making the art department more popular and helped raise its ranking,” Keith said. “He was a major influence on my paintings. He opened my eyes.”

While studying at VCU, Keith refined his artistic sensibilities and started to incorporate pieces of Pop Art into his abstract style paintings, many of which have been featured at Reynolds Gallery in various exhibitions.

“In shows, the response (to Keith) has been fantastic. We’ve kept in touch and he keeps expanding his collector base,” said Reynolds Gallery assistant director Julia Monroe. “He makes really great work and makes our job really easy.” 

Included in shows such as the annual “Almost Famous” collection, featuring works of VCU students and other shows over the last three years, Keith’s mixed media submissions often are created by painting over printed pages from newspapers, magazines, coupons and newsletters. He would typically then sandblast or grind out patterns or shapes over the layers of applied paint.

“He has a good color sense and composes his painting so they evolve over time after your first look,” Monroe said. “You might first look at the color or texture, but the longer you look you’ll see things within the painting, whether it’s a geometric pattern or picking up on the layers of advertising underneath. They’re compelling.” 

Keith said having his work featured in local galleries and receive academic praise has been amazingly satisfying. Utilizing newly developed skills and traits, and Keith has been meditating on what he wishes his art conveys.

“All of my work at Reynolds has had to do with the layers on the surface of architecture,” Keith said. “It’s all so much more interesting to me now as opposed to when I got here, and it’s all being rebuilt now. It can still be seen, though, if you go down an alley, there’s graffiti that’s been painted over but still there, posters ripped off bulletin boards and street poles.”

Working toward his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and completing another contract with Marvel illustrating two books a month, Keith started a home studio and recruited a number of different artists located domestically and abroad in places like Florida, California and Korea to help color his assignments. 

After graduating from VCU in May 2014, Keith said he has thought of expanding his studio to include local artists and younger students. He is currently contracted to Marvel, doing two books a month until 2017, and hopes to continue painting and finding galleries to host his work. He is also considering whether or not to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts.

Currently, Jason Keith’s art can be found online at JasonKeithArt.blogspot.com and NoDrones.org.

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