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Traversing Illusory Sequences

Updated: Apr 24

blue and yellow cosmic horror art depicting zombies and ravens

So...the final art for Traversing Illusory Sequences has actually been done for a while now, I'm honestly just behind on posting here. I love writing these in-depth posts but they do take a while to create.

That said, I'll do my usual thing here where I chat about the concept for the art and then dive into some details about the actual process for creating the image.

The Concept for Traversing Illusory Sequences

I think I was having a bit of an identity crisis when I made this one.

For about a year and a half prior to this I felt I'd had a clear direction in life for what I was trying to accomplish and who I was trying to become. I was immersed in self-improvement and higher consciousness books while constantly trying to implement new and better habits in my life. However, at some point in that process I started to feel untethered from myself, and I was struggling to regain a clear picture of who I was as a person.

Much of the uncertainty I was feeling was due to the fact that I'd been using my own past self as the standard for who I didn't want to be anymore. But I suddenly felt so disconnected from that past self that it was becoming difficult to use him as a reference point, and I began to lose the vision for where I was trying to go.

(Quick note on this point: Traversing Illusory Sequences was made immediately after Rotting Paradigms, and a lot of the feelings I'm describing here stemmed from the personal circumstances I described in the write-up for that piece.)

I was even struggling with the possibility of personal change in general. I'd read and listened to so much information on the topic, and everyone from psychologists and neuroscientists to reformed felons insisted it was possible to make fundamental changes to our thinking and actions in life. But I'd more or less always felt like myself, and after several years of work – specifically a year and a half of concentrated effort – to not be that person anymore, it wasn't entirely clear what the results had been.

Was I actually changing? Was all the work having any meaningful impact on my life?

I found myself telling people close to me about all the things I was learning and working on, and I started to question if the chatter spilling out of me was just empty rhetoric designed to convince other people of something that maybe I didn't fully believe myself.

Because if they believed it, then I might be able to believe it as well.

I suddenly felt suspended in a state of restless motivation. I was reaching out and grasping all around me for the next step in the sequence of my personal growth, but I couldn't find a clear purpose or even belief for that work.

dark fantasy illustration of zombies integrated into machinery

The art reflects that feeling for me. The human-like figures appear agitated, stretching out and grasping at the air without a clear purpose for what they're reaching for. A vital life essence spills out of them, reflecting a sense I had at the time of feeling drained, of losing energy in pursuit of this ideal I'd had. I'd been pushing so hard and using all my resources to reach a place I'd perceived in my mind, but I wasn't sure I'd actually gone anywhere.

To that end, it's significant that these figures lack legs or any kind of mobility. They are bound together and are almost like puppets positioned out in front of the machinery operating behind them. The multiplicity of the figures represents a deeply felt sense of being fractured, like there were several possible versions of myself rattling around inside and I was struggling to even understand which of them was the "real" me.

surrealist horror art depicting large cyborg skull

The big skull-head in the back is a mastermind of sorts, the brain part of myself directing my body in different directions, often with a critical voice and a lack of forgiveness for slips in effort and progress. It's a relentless taskmaster urging the figures onward without rest or an opportunity to reconsider their purpose.

dark fantasy art of blue crows and ravens

There are also ravens in this one, which is a little more mysterious to me. At the time, I'd been learning that ravens are highly adaptable to different environments, and they will eat nearly anything for sustenance from fruit to garbage to carcasses. Something about this resonated with me and my own place in life at the time, not having a defined existence but sort of shifting around and consuming any piece of information I could find to move me forward in life.

It's interesting to look at this one now with a bit of hindsight (I think I started the pencil art in late 2022), because I have a much clearer – and much weirder – sense of personal growth and change than I did at the time.

The weirdness comes from the fact that I now believe we perform many of our actions in life without the presence of free will, and much or all of the changes I've been through in recent years have been motivated and directed by things outside my conscious control. (I talked about a specific aspect of this in my last work-in-progress post on August 28, 2023.)

Fortunately, I'm able to see without a doubt that the changes I was experiencing to my mindset and behavior at the time were, in fact, quite real, and much of the doubts I've had about those changes were simply growing pains. However, I still wrestle with some confusion about my precise identity, and this theme has carried over to work I've done since then. This is especially true for the piece I worked on immediately after this one called Epistemic Machinations.

The Process for Traversing Illusory Sequences

As always, this one was first drawn in pencil on Bristol paper. I used a 2H wooden drawing pencil for the initial roughing out phase, then a few mechanical pencils of varying widths – each with an HB lead – to hammer out the fine details. Here's a look at the finished pencil art.

pencil art depicting zombies and machines with large skull behind them

From there, I inked the image using a crow quill 102 pen nib and round brushes with Winsor & Newton Indian ink. Here's the result of that.

black and white ink artwork of cyborgs floating in front of landscape

I then scanned the art into Photoshop and proceeded to do color separations while also shifting the hues around to find a color palette that felt right for the art. This is what the final "flat" colors look like. (At this point I'd decided on the color palette I liked and all the little bits are separated out and given their own color in the image, but I hadn't done any shading, highlighting, or lighting effects yet. So all the colors appear "flat.")

blue surrealist art depicting zombies with ravens

And the big final step in the process is to go through and fully render the image. This happens one object at a time. I copy the flat color for each object onto its own layer in Photoshop, then add a gradient to shift it from light to dark in reference to the light source (in this case an unidentified source off to the right). I then use the Dodge and Burn tools with a speckle brush to go over the full object and give it a granite-like texture.

Using the lasso tool, I make a selection of the area of the object I want to appear lighter and use the Hue/Saturation slider in Photoshop to raise the lightness so the remaining area forms a shadow. I also shift the hue to a slightly warmer color. I then lasso out portions on the edge of the object I want to be even brighter and fill the selection with a light blue color to really emphasize the lighting source. I did the same again with that sweet, hot yellow color acting as a second light source from below, and then tinkered with the opacity of that yellow highlight to have it be stronger in some places than others (ie brighter on the figures' arms than on their torsos.)

illustration of cybernetic zombies attached to machines

The background once again took way more time than I expected. I'm moderately happy with the atmospheric perspective on the hills, and I think I'm slowly getting better at painting the stars, but there's definitely struggle there. However, there's been a steady shift from Invocation of the Seraph to Rotting Paradigms to Traversing Illusory Sequences in terms of how I'm handling the stars, so I like to think I'm making progress.

blue and yellow surrealist art of zombies and ravens bound to machinery

As always, I'm not sure how I feel about the piece overall. While I was working on color I felt I was doing too much, particularly over-rendering the shadows and adding too many highlights, which I think makes the contrast feel a bit too stark.

But I'm just trying to follow the advice of Seth Godin, Rick Rubin, Elizabeth Gilbert, and anyone else who's ever shared insight into their creative practice, which is that it doesn't matter what I think. I did my best, it is what it is, and I'm on to the next one. (Several next ones by now, actually...)

As always, I'll add a high-res image of this piece to the Gallery, go check that out to see the fine details more clearly. And as always, thanks for reading. If you found this interesting, please subscribe and consider sharing this with a like-minded friend or family member.


pencil art of large skull with cybernetic zombies

black and white ink artwork of angry cyborgs and large skull

blue and yellow illustration of cyborg zombies connected to machines

blue and yellow illustration of restless cyborgs and large skull


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