Despite starting the pencil drawing for Rotting Paradigms last year, I only just now completed color. I'll get into more detail about why it took so long in the Process section below, but first let's chat about some of the specific imagery here and my motivation for making it.
The Concept for Rotting Paradigms
In short, Rotting Paradigms expresses my own personal struggle with some shade of misaligned masculinity. I'm not sure it would fall into the category of "toxic" necessarily, but it was also not super healthy.
Examples for me include aggressive verbal posturing with an emphasis on criticizing other people, especially those who are different or perceived to be "weak" in some way. Long tirades designed to sound smarter and more competent than others. Language suggesting violence toward other humans or animals, often without any justifiable context (though mercifully in my case, no physical violence). And a general inability to recognize or express a full spectrum of human emotions. Particularly neglected by me were compassion, kindness, sadness, and fear, and in their place were truckloads of anger and hostility.
The profound irony of my own experience with this is that although I strongly believed I feared nothing, I was actually afraid of a host of life inevitabilities. And although I loathed weakness in others, I was a fairly weak person, at least in terms of navigating truly challenging life circumstances. I simply hadn't learned how to process or move through painful events in a healthy way.
I would say those same things are true of every other guy I've known in my adult life who carried this same mindset. The men I know who are the most interested in sounding strong and dominant are, beneath the veneer, actually the most painfully fragile and insecure.
Incidentally, the complications with my mouth and jaws were made worse by this mindset, which rejects any weakness, including health-related problems. I inherited a "ignore it and hope it goes away" approach to my own health, which of course only makes things worse. Eventually, it even straight up kills dudes who refuse to acknowledge the presence of complications and seek treatment. Ignoring my own situation in this case had a permanent impact on my quality of life and nearly made treatment impossible. My steadfast denial of any vulnerability in life up to that point also rendered me emotionally feeble once I was forced to finally come to terms with reality.
By the time I started this drawing, I had been escalating my efforts to become a kinder, more optimistic, and more peaceful person over the past four or five years. That effort was initially fueled by the realization that I'd been a shitty friend, partner, and co-worker to people in my life, and it was later catalyzed by complications with my mouth and jaws that left me feeling broken and vulnerable for the first time in my life.
My trajectory of self-exploration and transformation over those years abruptly gave me enough distance and clarity to recognize that I had unwittingly inherited a culture of misaligned masculinity, partly from my family but certainly also from mainstream conceptions of what "manliness" looks like in the US. I was suddenly able to perceive not just how this had affected my own behaviors, but also my choice of partners, my sibling's choice of partners, and what the two of us understood as acceptable behavior in our relationships.
So this particular piece of surrealist horror art was made during a period of dawning awareness around that mindset, how (and from where) it came into my life, and my ability to finally embrace something new, better, and much stronger for myself.
So how does all this come through in the actual art for Rotting Paradigms? Let's start with the giant skull and its pharaoh-like headdress. This represents something ancient, something that was considered powerful in its time but now lies in ruins, and it marks the inheritance of an often-abused and ugly conception of strength passed down across bloodlines.
The headdress – as a symbol of power and authority – is notably decayed and falling apart, now occupied by egg-like pods that inhabit it as a host for new life. The eyes at the center peak of the hat symbolize a third eye (in this case third, fourth, and fifth eyes!) and illustrate a rapidly growing awareness of myself and the end of a profound blindness I'd had toward my own behavior.
The pod-like imagery is pervasive in this imagery, more than anything I'd made before it, and as always, these pods symbolize birth, growth, and most importantly here, incubation. With hindsight I can say that this was a massive turning point for me in the understanding of my own identity, and so these pods are large and numerous, ready to give birth to something new and stronger.
Although visually smaller, the row of male bodies in the upper-left-center has significance as well. The figures carry pods in their bellies and have no ability to move – no arms, no legs, completely immobile and impaled in place – and as with the pharaoh's headdress, their corpses provide nourishment and a host body for something new.
Rotting Paradigms also has animals in it for the first time since I began making art seriously again in 2021. In this case, hawks. They are watchful and alert, indicative of my strong discomfort around people I perceived to be steeped in the behavior I was seeking to grow out of. At the time I made this, it had become extremely difficult for me to be around family members and co-workers who exhibited the same traits I had carried for so long, and I was actively distancing myself from those people in order to maintain clarity and momentum toward something better for myself. So the hawks in this image are literally guarding the egg-like objects to allow the incubation and birth of something new.
And although it's not necessarily a central component of the image, Rotting Paradigms also contains some familiar imagery of crooked and misshapen teeth, reflecting my ongoing struggle with physical pain and the various procedures I'm moving through with my mouth and jaws. I talked more about those thing in the posts for Pillars of Affliction and Invocation of the Seraph, and they were key instigators in the rapid changes which ultimately led to realizations about my malformed sense of masculinity.
All this, of course, is expressed through my usual approach to cosmic horror art: surreal and alien imagery marks the presence of fear and uncertainty in my life and indicates a sense of my own fleeting humanity, while the literal visual lens pulls strong influences from comic books, heavy metal, and sci-fi, fantasy, and horror art.
Incidentally, this piece was put aside for months, partly because I was dumping so many hours into the color (more on that in a sec) and needed a break from it, but also because things really hit the fan for me with my family relations last fall and I shifted my life priorities away from art for awhile. So it's interesting that a piece of art about my changing masculine identity was sidelined for a period of time while I wrestled with that exact thing in my personal life.
The Process for Rotting Paradigms
I'll mostly chat about color here, because ooof, the color for this one was savage. I'm still fairly new at doing digital color for the type of dark fantasy surrealism I enjoy making, and as these drawings have become more detailed and complex, I have pushed myself to evolve the color as well. And this one really challenged me.
For some reason, just finding a suitable color palette for it was a long, uphill climb. I originally landed on a green and blue palette that I liked, and even began the rendering for it. After I switched to the newer palette and got deep into it I kind of wished I had stuck with the green approach instead. And actually, when I opened up the green version just now for this blog post I kind of felt that way again... Here's where I left off with the green colors.
For better or worse, I switched over to the blues and and oranges/yellows that ended up in the final art. Here's what the flat colors look like for that:
I wanted to do more painterly work on this one, particularly on the central skull, and for that part of the image I incorporated some color variation in the shades and highlights such as purple tones near the eyes. Also, for context, this one followed in sequence after Invocation of the Seraph, and I carried over the new rendering approach I'd started there that adds a kind of granite texture to the color.
Something I've meant to share on past images is what the art looks like with the lines removed. So this is the "painting" underneath, and besides looking weird and kind of cool on its own, I also think this shows the amount of lassoing, gradients, and actual digital brushwork I put into this.
A couple final notes about the actual art: I pushed myself to make certain objects feel shiny or shimmering in a way I hadn't before, and the sky and stars also got more attention here than they did on Invocation of the Seraph, as I felt that one looked a little under-cooked after I finished it.
So, despite starting color for Rotting Paradigms last fall, I just recently finished it, and I'm in that place I always am after finishing a piece – which means I have no idea how I feel about it. What I do know is that I did the best I could, I pushed myself, and I believe I learned and grew as a colorist through that process. And for me at this point in my life, that's really all that matters.
Thanks as always for reading. If you enjoyed it, share it with a like-minded friend or family member. Cheers!