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Unleashing the Cataclysm (Color)

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

(Check out the ink version of Unleashing the Cataclysm here.)

I mentioned last year in my post on "The Color Problem" that color has been the major obstacle for me in creating complete works of art in the darker, more detailed style I often lean toward. I don't seem to have a problem with drawings that are relatively straightforward, for example Moonlight, Vessel, or Stinker, especially since those are also meant to be a little lighter in mood. But it's been a very different story when I try to tackle my dark fantasy surrealist pieces.

That said, I've been steadily chipping away at the process over the past year and half and getting closer to something that I feel makes sense. Symbiotic was really the first dense surrealist piece I've ever done in color where I felt I was at least on the right track, and that was enough to convince me to keep going and take on an even greater challenge.

After countless hours separating the flats, tweaking the color palette, and rendering every inch of this one, I'm happy to finally share the color version of Unleashing the Cataclysm.

(Visit the gallery to see a full-res image)

I'll unpack some of the inspiration and symbolism behind the art first, then get into some details about the coloring process.

The Inspiration

As is often the case with my personal art, the visual style is rooted in comic books, metal music, and sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies, while my personal life experiences provide the creative spark and underlying emotional energy.

The initial drawing for Unleashing the Cataclysm was done late last summer and into the early fall during an inflection point in my life. I was experiencing what I would consider to be an existential crisis: I'd grown miserable at my desk job and was simultaneously struggling to come to terms with an intense situation involving my teeth and jaws – one that would require years of jaw surgeries, orthodontics, and implants (as well as a mountain of out-of-pocket costs) in order to avoid debilitating jaw pain and catastrophic tooth loss.

Finding my way through that existential pain and learning to grow from it involved listening to my emotions (a process that was quite new to me), and the first emotion to really hit me was anger. Unleashing the Cataclysm was born in that moment, and it represents two things for me: a sense of feeling heavily bound or trapped, and a need to tap into my inner anger to unleash rapid and powerful change in my life.

There's some specific symbolism here that reflects these feelings.

The giant human figure appears physically strong but is restricted in his freedom of movement. The health concerns that had emerged in my life weighed heavily on me, and so some of the wires that weave in and out the figure suggest tubes from medical equipment. (Incidentally, while in the hospital following my first jaw surgery in March, I was raising my arms over my head for light exercise, and the IV tubes and god-knows-what-else sticking out of my arms would drape around me and hang down in a way that felt very reminiscent of this image.)

Meanwhile, I'd grown deeply unhappy working from home on a computer, and I felt physically bound to a machine all day, my mind trapped in an intangible web of increasingly meaningless apps and messages. Some difficult interpersonal dynamics at my job had also caused me to feel ineffective and redundant in my role, more like a ventriloquist's dummy than an autonomous human being with my own voice. Agonizingly, this sense of being trapped and unable to express myself at work had begun spilling over into my personal life.

These feelings are expressed in the human figure's arms and hands, which hang like those of a marionette. The small corpses dangling from the giant figure's veins are closely related: I felt my life energy was being squandered at work, and so the imagery literally represents my blood flowing into dead ends.

At this time, I'd begun reading a book called Emotional Agility by Susan David and seeing a therapist for the first time, and both of those people's words were strongly encouraging me to get in touch with my emotions for guidance. This turned out to be profound and essential advice that I had overlooked for most of my life. (I believe we fellas in particular need to hear this advice much earlier and more often in our lives.)

I personally tend to get lost in my thoughts and overthink each aspect of life, and that has rarely ever been a source of useful guidance. On the other hand, I was suddenly discovering the immense power of listening to my emotions (my metaphorical gut), which I believed was leading me toward something much clearer and more important, urging me to tear down my existing circumstances and chart a new path for myself on my own terms.

To represent this, there's a difference in how the human figure's mind and body appear. The head is bound by countless tubes and wires moving in all directions, while the intestines are exploding outward in a unified direction, untangling themselves as they take form and advance.

Similarly, the cybernetic, demon-like creatures have only one eye, and without depth perception or strong peripheral vision, they’re necessarily focused on what’s immediately in front of them.

Those creatures and the inferno around them represent the turbulence and disruption of that moment in my life, burning down their existing environment to create space and fertile ground for a new beginning.

Incidentally, the idea of starting over ties directly into the art piece that followed this one, , called Gaia, which is a sort of twin to Unleashing the Cataclysm but with themes of calmness and rebirth. I will share the line art for Gaia next month.

The Process

Color work began by capturing a hi-res scan of the ink drawing, converting it to a digital file, and laying out the flat colors in Photoshop. "Flat" in this case simply means there's no shading or highlights yet, it's just solid colors.

Separating the flats can be very time-consuming, which is why in comic books it's common to see two or more colorists credited, with one of them listed for "color separations" or "color assists,“ which refers to this part of the process. Although it’s somewhat tedious work I actually find great satisfaction in it.

Once everything was separated I had to choose a color palette. This involved tweaking the flat colors to find some kind of balance where the major pieces of the art would “pop" and some of the less important elements could recede and serve as a complement to the big picture.

Here's a look at the final flats.

The place where I've always run into trouble with this type of art is that it's very easy for all this to start resembling a children's coloring book. If I go wild with blues, greens, reds, etc. it becomes overloaded with color very quickly. On the flip side, I've also overcompensated and ended up with desaturated art that isn't as expressive as it could be.

The key for me has been to really limit the number of colors I'm including and just stick to variations of two or three colors. I can then make a few select areas more saturated, keeping in mind that the final image will be warmer and more colorful once I do all the rendering and lighting effects.

Here's a detail of the flats:

Once I had the color palette worked out, I went through and rendered each object individually. I maintained the basic color process I've used on other recent color pieces, including Symbiotic, where I begin by adding a gradient to the object to give it a subtle sense of lighting and shadow, then select specific areas for highlights and shadows.

The final steps are to add lighting effects and glows (for example around each of the blue lights) and actually change the color of the line art to add warmth, highlights, and a sense of atmospheric perspective.

Other Art Stuff

It's been an intense and amazing spring. I ended up unplugging from the blog and socials for awhile and took the time to get really clear on what I want my art (and this blog) to look like.

I had become distracted with doing portraits, writing blog posts about artist mindset, etc., and had really lost sight of what I need my focus to be, and that's making dark fantasy surrealist art.

The good news is that I have several new drawings in the works that I'm excited about. The new ones are shifting toward a much darker, hatch-heavy drawing style and the flat colors are coming together in a more powerful way.

I’ve been tempted to jump ahead and just focus on color for the new pieces, but I want to gain as much color experience as I can with my older drawings to sort of “catch up” on that end of the creative process.

That's it for this one, leave me a comment below with thoughts, questions or anything else on your mind.




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