Lightning Strike – Digital

While working on these posts during February half term, I tried a new digital drawing application called Autodesk Sketchbook. At first I doodled around on it making a doodle drawing of a dream I had. After a little practice I began to get the hsng of it a little more.

I began with a quick little cartoon sketch of a dog who ended up having very big ears. So I called him Big Ears.

Here he is…

Next I wanted to have a go at doing a more tricky multi-layered digital image. Rather than having a clear picture in my mind I just started playing around with the software. Here are the layers in the order painted them. I began with a tree…

Then after a little finishing on the final image via photoshop – here is the completed painting…

The things I enjoy most about this kind of digital art are:

1. That it is so quick to do, and

2. That the textured brushes can make such beautiful effects!

PS: I also made a gif slideshow of the painting process for this image…

The Jelly Road

At the time of writing I am recovering from flu, and it’s half term! Why do I always get ill during school holidays?

Because my temperature has been high I have had some really vivid dreams. One of these was a dream about a family of small fish who lived in a jelly-fish-campervan and were travelling down the Jelly Fish Road, which was like route 66 but for fish. As I was noodling around with Autodesk SketchBook, a drawing app, I found myself starting to draw a scene from the dream.

Now, this drawing began as a doodle so I wasn’t thinking about my blog and didn’t make any process photos until I had finished the line art. However, being new to Autodesk SketchBook, at some point I must have accidentally switched on a video recording mode. So, although I have no process pictures of the beginning, I do have a short video of part of it…

Here’s the finished line art. I was trying to get it to look like one of those fun, detailed illustrations for children’s books, a bit like a Where’s Wally cartoon but not quite as manically busy…

Next I began to tone it…

There were some super textured brushes I used for some of the jellyfish campervan structure…

Eventually, after some ultra relaxing drawing, I completed the picture. So here is The Jelly Road

And here’s a close up…

It’s not exactly high art, but it was very relaxing and quite fun to do.

The Art of Diagrams #3 – An Idea for the Origin of Consciousness

This is the last post in my series on diagrams. This diagram shows how feedback mechanisms in the brain, in conjunction with the prefrontal cortex generate both our behaviour and our consciousness or sense of self.

My idea

I think consciousness, our sense of self, comes from some simple feedback mechanisms in our brains. It comes in two parts, how we feel about ourselves and how we think about ourselves. I think, evolutionarily speaking, it develops, particularly in predators and in social animals, as a side-effect of the organism making a mental map of the world which includes itself.

Now, while I have a background in neurophysiology and worked as a neuroscientist straight after university, I want to try to explain this idea in a straight forward way. So I made this diagram to show how I think this might work at a very basic level…

Following the diagram

Starting at the bottom (and sides) of the diagram and working upwards, we begin with 4 basic types of brain input:

– Internal body sensations – sensory information which originates inside the body. This includes things like internal pain, gut sensations, bladder fullness, proprioception (awareness of the body’s position relative to itself), etc.

– External sensory input – this includes all sensory information which the body collects from the world around us and includes things like sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste.

– Feedback of thoughts – Processing information is fed back into the brain.

– Feedback of feelings – Information from the limbic system (arousal and emotion) is fed back into the brain.

These inputs come into our brains .

This pattern of information is brought together to make a mental map of ourselves and the world around us .

Various possible responses to this situation are generated . One of these is then chosen by the brain as the action the body will take.

At each stage what is happening is fed back to the cortex , so the brain becomes aware of new sensory information, updates the mental map, generates possible actions and guesses outcomes, chooses which action to take and acts. Then the cycle repeats.

There are some interesting ideas and predictions that come out of this theory:

  1. The sense of self is just another internal “object” in the mental map we create about the world. It feels like walking on shaky ground to think too deeply about this because really all we are is a figment of our own imagination, based on various cortical processing pathways.
  2. We can be wrong about our own selves. We can be unaware of things that we do. Just as our mental map can have errors, so can that part of the map which we call “I”. For instance, when I think hard, according to my son, I scowl. When this is happening though I feel perfectly happy. I love thinking hard and never thought I could have a scowl on my face when doing this but, after my son mentioned it, I checked it with a mirror and he was right! My map of myself was wrong.
  3. It is because we make our own mental map of ourselves and our environment that stories have such power for us. We can use the same processing to enjoy stories as we do to know about ourselves and our world.
  4. This model also predicts that our sense of self will become aware of something mentally after the processing is already done. Our self is part of an “after action report” if you like. So we feel like we make decisions but our brains make them and then it feels like it was us.

How I made the diagram

I began by making the four main assets I needed in my diagram – the picture of a person, the picture of an environment, the picture of a brain and the picture of a mental map.

I made the person and the brain assets by doing ink drawings of each, scanning them in, cleaning them and colouring them. Here are the original ink drawings.

I made the environment image by re-purposing an image from a previous diagram I made about the self…

… and did a similar thing for the mental map picture which I put inside a comic style thought cloud to show it was a thought-based picture…

Once I had these made I just arranged them and drew on a lot of notes and arrows. It was fiddly but fairly easy to do. The hardest part of this was working out my theory of how the brain works!

So here’s the final diagram I came up with…


(PS: This post was written in half term but I haven’t been able to do my usual checking and polishing.  I am currently in isolation due to a cough and a temperature.  I think I’ve probably got laryngitis which is causing the cough and temperature rather than coronavirus but I’ve been advised by my GP to isolate anyway so that’s what I’m doing.  Unfortunately I’ve also got a splitting headache so I apologise if there are any mistakes in this post as I haven’t checked it.)

Anubis in Ink

This week, having been incredibly inspired by the wonderful art produced by the children at school, I had a go at drawing the ancient Egyptian god, Anubis. (We are studying the Ancient Egyptians in Year 3.)

I started with a basic sketch of the main shapes…

Then I improved my sketch, making it more detailed and trying out different shapes and patterns…

Once I had all of the main ideas in my head I drew over my pencil in ink and then removed all of the pencil with a putty eraser to make an outline drawing…

At this stage I decided to get rid of the eyebrow as it detracted from the traditional ancient Egyptian eye shape. My next job was to fill in all of the solid black areas. I like to do this for the whole drawing as solid black has a strong effect on the final balance of the picture, so if I do it all at once I can feel something of how it will turn out. Here’s the drawing with the solid black areas added…

You can see where I used different inks. The detail and outer edges of each area were done with my trusty Pigma Microns but I used my Pentel Brush Pen to fill in larger areas. You can’t see the difference by eye but the scanner picks it up. Finally I worked on the details and textures to create my finished drawing…

This was a lovey piece to draw. It was incredibly relaxing and fun!

An Ant – watercolour pencil


This week I did a bit of a challenge.  I painted an ant using a single watercolour pencil.  The idea of this kind of exercise is to try to use the full tonal range of one colour or shade.  I chose black because it’s traditional for ants and has the strongest tonal range.

I began, as usual, with a basic sketch…


Then I worked on getting a detailed outline which was fairly accurate to my reference…


Then I began painting with my single black watercolour pencil.  I used a water brush to activate the pencil I laid down.  Here’s how it looked when I was a little way into it…


After some very pleasurable concentration I finally got it finished.  Here is the finished piece…


I have to give some credit for this to my cat, Leia.  She helped me rely less on looking at reference since, in her eyes, the reference photo was more of a cat toy which she felt the need to own…







This week’s art is a pencil sketch of the wonderful Patrick Stewart in his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation Starship, Enterprise.  (Oooo, I just got goosebumps from using that full title!)  I didn’t intend this drawing to go onto the web – it was just something I was doing while watching a few episodes of Star Trek The Next Generation in preparation for the new series Picard which has just come out.  After playing around with a couple of sketches I pulled up this rather dashing portrait photo from the web (All rights to Paramount / Viacom)…



…and made a proper sketch of it.  Apologies about the lack of process photos – I just got really involved with the drawing.

There is an odd intimacy which comes with painting anything.  Usually I really like it – especially with animals and plants.  It seems to strengthen my bond with other living things.  But when I do a portrait of a person I find I’m quite mixed about this “close” feeling.  Although I know, and very much value, Patrick Stewart’s excellent work, I don’t know him, the real person behind the actor, and so the intimacy feels odd and out of place.

Anyway, here’s to a smashing new series from a superb actor, Picard




It was done with graphite HB and B mechanical pencils on watercolour paper.  (Looking back it would have been better on Bristol Board but I used what was to hand.)  I do love drawing more mature faces – the beauty of the person seems to come through more.

Chrome, Chaos and Effortless Action

Today I’m going to explain how I think early Taoist ideas, as represented by the Tai Chi (above), can be explained via a mathematical pattern which models nature in lots of places. Then I want to go through the process of making a realistic chrome effect in Photoshop (PS). (I use Photoshop 6.0 since I can’t afford the monthly payment options of their Creative Cloud products.)

The mathematics of “Pushing the River”

In Taoism there is a principle called Wu Wei. It’s hard to fully define but we could call it “effortless action”. In the west we most often come across it when people talk about being “in the zone” while playing a sport, or when people say they experience a “flow” state. In both instances this is where a person gets so involved in an activity that there is no effort needed to continue – the activity flows entirely naturally. I used to feel this at school, sometimes when playing hockey or badminton in school teams and sometimes when playing in various school bands and orchestras. Nowadays I feel it most often when drawing and when I am practicing mindfulness.

The opposite of this flow state is what Taoists call “pushing the river”. This is when you have to fight hard to get anything done. It feels a bit like trying to make good progress while driving in very heavy traffic, or sailing close hauled to try to head windward in a sailing boat. In both instances you have to push hard to the limit of what is possible to get anywhere.

This morning I saw a brilliant video explaining the basics of Chaos Theory and I realised that the Chaos equations really accurately describe Wu Wei and it’s opposite.

(If you would like to watch the video, I’ve linked it here.)

The easiest way to see this is to look at something called the Logistical Equation. This is a pattern which fits so many real world situations that it’s really striking. It describes the way a dripping tap goes from a slow drip, to a fast drip, to a random fluctuation in water flow. It describes the ways populations find equilibrium in their environment with a range of different growth rates. It describes how fluids flow when driven by convection currents. It is clearly a really common pattern in nature and, I think it shows where the ancient Chinese found their ideas of Wu Wei and it’s opposite in the world around them.

The maths of this is involved but not difficult. If you want to look into it, there is a good explanation here by Larry Bradley. The basics of this maths is that as we push the system more, (r increases), then x gradually goes up and then bifurcates into 2 stable levels which oscillate. Then they bifurcate several times more until the system breaks down into chaos. Graphically we get a pattern that looks like this…

(Image by Morn [] used via Creative Commons.)

What occurred to me is that the idea of flowing action and forced action that we get from Taoist thought fits this pattern. Like this…

Thinking about it, it’s not that surprising. We find this pattern all over the place in nature and Taoist thought comes from watching nature so it’s no wonder that this idea found it’s way in their thought.

Making a Chrome Tai Chi

A couple of weeks ago I was looking at how to make a diagram of a tricky concept. In making this diagram I reworked the standard Tai Chi symbol from a simple black and white symbol to a full colour realistic chrome version.

So I started with the black and white symbol…

Making a selection that will look embossed and 3D later on.

The first thing I needed to make was a very specific selection. I did this using Photoshop’s channels tool.

  1. I created a selection of the Tai Chi and turned this into a channel. This was called “Original” in the screenshot above. (Using a channel is a good way to save selections in PS.)
  2. I copied that selection into a second channel and ran a gaussian blur over the top. This was called “blur” above.
  3. Finally I copied the blurred channel into a new channel and called it “trim”. Then I selected my “Original” Tai Chi selection and trimmed off anything in the blurred selection which fell outside the original selection.

This gave me a selection which looks like this…

Where the selection (above) looks grey it is only partially selected. I used this later to give the object a 3D embossed look. Next I made a glass layer and a metal-styled layer.

Making a glass layer of a photograph.

  1. I made a displacement map file using the channel called “trim” (I did this by copying it to a temporary layer and then copying and pasting that into a new file. I called my file “Texture Tai Chi.psd”.
  2. I imported part of a photo into a layer and then ran a glass effect on it using my custom “Texture Tai Chi.psd” file.
  3. Lastly, I used the “Original” selection saved as a channel to trim off all of this layer except the Tai Chi area.

This gave me this part of my new image…

Making a metal effect Tai Chi

  1. I made a white layer above the glass texture layer I had just finished.
  2. Then I ran a lighting effect over it using the “trim” channel with about 4 or 5 omni lights around it. This makes an embossed shape with a metal-like finish. I just fiddled with the intensity and colour of these until I had the effect I wanted…

Once this was done, I added some more specular highlights using the Plastic Wrap filter to give the shine a bit of a boost. Here’s what that looked like…

Once I had it looking good the last job was to trim it using the “Original” channel.

Merging these effects and adding a shadow

Finally these two layers could be merged using the opacity tool on the top layer to make my final chrome effect. I just played around with it to get it to looking how I wanted.

To finish it off completely I made a shadow. This is quite easy to do . Just take your original black and white Tai Chi symbol and run a gaussian blur over it to make a shadow layer. Deepen the shadow if you want by making a couple of copy layers and then merge those layers together to make one darker shadow layer. Then offset the shadow towards the darker edges and Voila! It’s done. I also tweaked my final chrome effect layer using the dodge and burn tools to give it greater tonal variation.

Here’s the final image…

A Fantasy Firebug

I was looking through Wikipedia at various invertebrates when I came across the Firebug (Pyrrhocoris apterus). Here is a link to the page. I really liked it’s striking colours and decided to make a sketch…

At first I planned to use the real bug as a basis for a more fanciful “line and wash” painting. I began this by adding the kind of comb like antennae which are usually found on moths. Once that was done I had a go at adding similar patterned protrusions to parts of the creature’s legs but this seemed to unbalance the picture and I worried that they might reduce the striking nature of the colours later on, so I rubbed them out and just kept the moth antennae.

Next I made a simple ink outline drawing…

After that I went over this in detail as if I were making an ink drawing…

My final step was to paint the wings and body with watercolour and then touch up the black once the paint was dry.

Here’s the final image (I added a shadow in photoshop)…

I like the final picture but feel a bit sad that I didn’t find more fantasy changes to make to my insect. Sometimes I just get caught by the weirdness of reality!

The Art of Diagrams #2 – Good, Bad and Inbetween

This week I picked another concept which I find difficult to clearly verbalise and decided to make a diagram to illustrate my meaning.

Last summer I re-read the Tao Te Ching. I read one or two chapters each day in 4 different translations and made notes on what I thought the main themes of each chapter were. It took me two months to complete and was a very enlightening exercise. Some themes seemed to be repeated many times. One of these themes challenged the idea of trying to be good.

Like many people I grew up seeing the world in a simplified, black and white way. There was good and there was bad. In line with this thinking I used to try with all of my might to be good in every action I did, all of the time. It took me half a lifetime to learn that this was neither helpful for others nor good for me. And it was the Tao Te Ching which pointed it out.


Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.

If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;

a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

(Translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Now I think this is quite a subtle thing to understand, or at least, it is for me. Basically, if you push too hard to be good your actions will begin to be worse.

For example, if you are trying to be a good parent and help your child to grow and become a basically happy, decent adult. If you neglect them or harm them this is obviously bad and will not help them, but if you do everything for them and never say a bad word to them you also harm them because then they cannot grow and learn to deal with the world. In the developmental psychology literature this concept was first written about by Winnicot when he came to realize that babies and children actually benefit when their mothers fail them in manageable ways.

Another example might be in keeping exactly to speed when playing a musical instrument. While keeping good time is essential to good playing, having no flexibility at all and keeping rigidly to the exact time of each beat can often make a piece of music sound mechanical and lacking in life and emotion.

It’s easy to see the same principle at work when people study for exams. Obviously studying helps and is important for success but if a person pushes too hard they can impact their mental and physical health and frequently then do worse in their exams.

So how could I go about illustrating this idea?

Well first I thought that it might be useful to make a diagram which shows a morality scale. To illustrate this I first thought of a Star Wars analogy – Jedi (for the good side) and Sith (for the bad side).

I even looked up some brilliant Jedi and Sith artwork by one of my favourite artists Iain McCaig who worked on concept art and storyboards for Star Wars Episodes 1, 2 and 3…

(Kenobi by Iain McCaig)
(Maul by Iain McCaig)

However, a good diagram is something that should be easily understood by many people and since not everyone is a Star Wars fan (sadly) a different illustration might serve me better.

Then I began to think about common ideas of good and evil. One of the most common in my culture is the idea of devils and angels. So I made a drawing of the wing of each.

Then I used these drawings to put together a basic morality scale…

This works as a general scale of good and evil but doesn’t show why extreme good might end up being bad (apart from the fact that an extreme altruist’s actions would obviously be bad for the person themselves). In the Tao Te Ching, the problem with extreme goodness that it forces the system, it tries to push the river. It is the opposite of Wu Wei, which is “unforced action”, or “natural action”.

So then I began thinking about how to illustrate the benefits of Wu Wei. My sketches and diagrams got more and more complex (and more and more useless) until I remembered this simple well-known symbol which captures it perfectly…

I worked on the basic diagram to make it more visually interesting by making one side chrome and the other white, added my explanation and it was done!

The week after next, I’ll explain the process for making realistic chrome in Photoshop as I did here.