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Rotting Paradigms

Updated: May 13

Colorful art of giant skull wearing Egyptian pharaoh headdress

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 toxic masculinity. I've resisted using that term for it, since I feel it's a bit of a cliché (but probably a cliché for a reason), and I also really wanted to believe that my own personal circumstances and those of my family were unique and somehow didn't fit the mold.

But if I'm honest, it's really just toxic masculinity.

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 everything. And although I loathed weakness in others, I was an incredibly weak man. I had never learned how to process or move through anything in a healthy way.

I would say those same things are true of every other guy I've known in my adult life who was infected with this 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 and fears 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 and deeply negative impact on my quality of life from this point forward and nearly made treatment impossible. My steadfast denial of any vulnerability in life up to that point also rendered me emotionally frail 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 a failed romantic relationship and the realization that I'd been a shitty partner to someone very special, and it was later catalyzed by the complications with my mouth and jaws that left me feeling incredibly 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 toxic masculinity from my family and mainstream conceptions of what "manliness" looks like in the US, and I had exhibited those traits throughout my life. 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 horror art was made during a period of dawning awareness last year about how steeped in that ugly mindset I have been, how (and from where) it came into my life, and my ability to finally embrace something new and better for myself.

Illustration of skull wearing tattered egyptian headdress

Let's start with the most prominent imagery in Rotting Paradigms. The pharaoh-like headdress on the giant skull represents multiple things for me: it marks something ancient, something that was considered powerful in its time but now lies in ruins, and it represents 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 here, 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 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.

Artwork of skulls and impaled bodies in outer space

Of particular significance for me in this image is the row of male bodies in the upper-left-center. The figures carry pods in their bellies, similar to a pregnant woman, which reflects the merging of my masculine and feminine identities. I'd even say that row of bodies is the death of my own past masculinity, as the figures 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 through a distinctly female process.

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 as well as 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.

Illustration of hawks guarding egg-like objects in outer space

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 and emotional trauma around my mouth and the ways it has affected my appearance and the functionality of eating and speaking. Difficulties which, as I detailed in Pillars of Affliction and Invocation of the Seraph, spurred rapid change in my life and ultimately led to realizations about the rotten and malformed sense of masculinity I'd carried most of my life.

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/horror fiction.

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 struggles with toxic masculinity got sidelined for a long period of time while I wrestled with that exact thing in my personal life.

The Process for Rotting Paradigms

Pen and ink drawing of a large skull with machines, hawks, and egg-like pods

I'll mostly chat about color here, because ooof, the color for this one was savage. I am 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, haha. Here's where I left off with the green colors.

Green and blue artwork of skulls and hawks

For better or worse, I switched over to the contrast between blues and oranges/yellows. Here's what the flat colors for the final art look like:

Orange and blue art of skulls, hawks, and moons

I really 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, for example 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 on that piece which 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 super 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.

Digital painting of skull wearing egyptian pharaoh headdress

I also pushed myself to make certain objects feel shiny or shimmering, and studied images of marbles and various other round, reflective objects to try to replicate that look. I hoped to give the big skull's eyes and orbs the shiniest look, while the big blue pods have a more muted, foggy style, as though there's an opaque liquid within.

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 half-hearted after I finished it. Adding stars to the sky is strangely difficult for me though, and required a ton of trial and error to find something that I felt wasn't totally out of place with the art.

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 – I have no idea how I feel about it. I know I am already in a much better place with my actual drawing skills than I was here, and I think the big skull with the headdress turned out pretty well, but as for color overall... I don't know. I can't tell if it's alright or if it's terrible, haha.

What I do know is that I did the best I could, I pushed myself and labored over this one, 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. Cheers.

Surrealist pencil drawing of skulls, hawks, and machinery

Surrealist ink drawing of skulls, hawks, and machinery

Orange and blue art of skulls, hawks, and machinery

Surrealist horror art of skulls, hawks, machines, and alien pods

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