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…

4 thoughts on “Chrome, Chaos and Effortless Action

  1. Many thanks!

    With respect to the maths, your question is a great one – difficult, but really interesting! Entropy is the tendency towards disorder whereas a natural system which becomes chaotic becomes random at a certain point. The two concepts seem related but are subtly different as far as I can tell by reading up on it. Here’s some basic info… And if you feel like deep diving into it, here’s what the Stack Exchange physics people think of it… .

    (PS: Sorry for the late reply, I have flu at the moment so I’m not functioning on all cylinders.)


  2. That’s a lovely final image, and I also liked some of the intermediate images along the way. My Photoshop skills are really extremely basic, so I would never even know how to think about creating something like this.

    On the subject of the math, would the randomness of the Wu Wei cycle fall into the category of “entropy”, (not in the popular interpretation of randomness, chaos or disorganization but more in the scientific definition)?

    Liked by 1 person

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