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Colorblind Airman overcomes hurdles to succeed as artist

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Juan Hernandez, 731st Air Mobility Squadron air terminal operations center senior information controller, shows some of his artwork on Osan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2015. Hernandez is partially colorblind, so he taught himself to identify multiple shades of colors using their assigned numbers. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristin High

Tech. Sgt. Juan Hernandez, a 731st Air Mobility Squadron air terminal operations center senior information controller, shows some of his artwork on Osan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2015. Hernandez is partially colorblind, so he taught himself to identify multiple shades of colors using their assigned numbers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Kristin High)

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Juan Hernandez, 731st Air Mobility Squadron air terminal operations center senior information controller, looks through his sketch book on Osan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2015. Hernandez learned early on that he could not see many colors on the electromagnetic spectrum, but he still became a self-taught artist. U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Senior Airman Kristin High

Tech. Sgt. Juan Hernandez, a 731st Air Mobility Squadron air terminal operations center senior information controller, looks through his sketch book on Osan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2015. Hernandez learned early on that he could not see many colors on the electromagnetic spectrum, but he still became a self-taught artist. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Senior Airman Kristin High)

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Juan Hernandez, 731st Air Mobility Squadron air terminal operations center senior information controller, describes the color identification system he uses to compensate for his colorblindness on Osan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2015. “I would have to ask people, if I was drawing a comic book character, what colors to use for each area,” he said. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristin High

Tech. Sgt. Juan Hernandez, a 731st Air Mobility Squadron air terminal operations center senior information controller, describes the color identification system he uses to compensate for his colorblindness on Osan Air Base, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Kristin High)

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Ludwig van Beethoven once said, "Don't only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the divine." In other words, he might've said limitations shouldn't impede success.

That's something one Airman at Osan Air Base understands. Tech. Sgt. Juan Hernandez, a 731st Air Mobility Squadron air terminal operations center senior information controller, is colorblind. He's also a self-taught visual artist.

Hernandez said he's been drawing "literally as long as I can remember. I specifically remember when I was 4, I painted a wolf sitting on a log, looking at a cabin with three pigs poking their heads out," he said. “My mom left it on the bathroom wall and we had it there the entire time we lived in the house."

Numbers for colors

Hernandez said he learned very early that he wasn’t like most children and never would be.

“I remember being in school; the teacher was showing us a red and a green light, but I wasn’t interpreting anything correctly,” he said. “We conducted a test and quickly learned that I was indeed colorblind -- not completely but enough to make everything challenging growing up.”

He said he still created art regularly, but it took time to learn the colors. “I would have to ask people, if I was drawing a comic book character, what colors to use for each area,” he said.

Hernandez said he learned to read colors by the labels or numbers embedded on each pencil and marker, and over time, he eventually memorized them and saw his accuracy improve.

“It doesn’t affect my job, but it does make being an artist difficult,” he said. “I feel like everyone else has an advantage over me because they can make their work look more realistic and create gradients that I have such a hard time putting together. People never notice, but I always feel like I can do better.”

Colorful self-expression

To cope with his own difficulties, Hernandez said he found other outlets to show his vibrant personality.

“I randomly dress up as (a superhero) and visit children’s hospitals,” he said. “It gives me a great sense of purpose to see the children’s faces when I walk into the room, in-turn, filling a void I think I’ve been missing all these years."

Those alternate expressions, he said, also inspire his art. "I put a lot of passion and emotion into my art, and if you pay attention to the details, you can see various elements of intelligence, formulas, different languages and cultural symbols," he said. "It’s all very abstract.”

He added that his favorite piece is a self-portrait in his superhero costume. “I love the portrait because it reminds me of why I started wearing the costume,” Hernandez said. “I feel like I have to. It’s my way of giving back.”

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