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.

The Art of Diagrams #1 – What is the Self?

(By Thomas Quine – Cave paintings, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Utility of Diagrams

I do love a good diagram. As a method of communication, art precedes writing. The earliest undisputed figurative art is dated at 35,000 years old.1 Whereas the oldest form of writing I could find in the literature is an early type of cuneiform from the Sumerian people in ancient Mesopotamia. It’s between 3500 and 3000 years old.2

So, for this week’s post, I thought I would go through the process of making a diagram for a difficult concept.

(What follows next is the concept in a written form. If you want to go straight to the artwork please click here)

My subject

I am very interested in what happens to us after we die and how the more spiritual side of life works. I think this comes from having had a heart rhythm problem when I was younger. I spent about 15 years going into hospital, under blue lights, to get my heart stopped and restarted. To do this the doctors give you a drug that temporarily stops your heart. Normally the heart restarts itself and you’re all fixed, but sometimes they have to shock you. As well as being a frightening concept, it is made much worse by the fact that when your heart is actually stopping your body sends out all sorts of warning signs which give you an overwhelming sense that you are dying. Even after many years of this issue I still found it hard to manage. You have to be very strong mentally at a time when your body is failing and you feel very unwell indeed. This gave me good reason to begin to think very carefully about death much earlier in my life than most people have to come to terms with it. Although I am now cured, thanks to the brilliant cardiac team at Barts Hospital, my interest still remains.

During my life I have practised two types of Christianity (Anglican and Baptist), Quakerism and two types of Buddhist teachings (Tibetan Buddhism for a short while and Soto Zen for about 12 years.) I have spent longer with the Quakers than any other group. In America this may be different, but in England Quakers kind of set you free to explore spirituality for yourself. I love that freedom.

At the moment I have no faith in anything supernatural and yet have found ways of looking at life and death that I find I am at peace with.

The concept of “I”

The concept that I want to illustrate this week is part of my understanding of life and death. I want to explore what I actually am.  Coming from a neuroscience research background I have thought a lot about the nature of life and consciousness.  However the more I thought and researched on this topic the more I realised how complex the situation really is.

This week I want to look at the concept of my “self” as a simple living organism and leave aside any discussion on consciousness for another week.

So, as a biological organism, what am I?  Where does the part of the universe I called “me” end and the part of the universe I call “not-me” begin?

  • For instance, is my hair me? It is attached to my body and yet I cannot control it, I cannot feel it if it is cut and the cells within it are keratinized and already dead. They have my DNA but are not living.
  • Is the oxygen in the air around me a part of me? One minute it is floating around my head and the next minute I have breathed it in and it’s part of my body’s metabolism.
  • Sometimes when I’m driving I feel like I am one with the car and the car is an extension of me. Anywhere I have agency feels like it is somehow part of myself.
  • Perhaps I am every cell in my body with my DNA? For a long time I used this as a working definition until I found out that it was wrong.

Counterintuitively, the evidence is that just over 50% of each person’s body is made up of cells which are not human. They are bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea.3  So “I” am partly my own genetic phenotype (the outward bodily expression of my genes, i.e. my body and it’s processes) and partly a whole ecosystem of different living organisms. I must admit, when I encountered this bit of research it brought me up short and I wondered if “I” exist at all, since there is clearly no real line between me and the “other”.

I began to wonder…

“Am ‘I’ just a psychological artifact? Just a pattern of thinking which helps the organism and ecosystem that thinks it is me manage itself in life?”

Although it feels a little like walking off a cliff to consider this, the more I thought about it the more it made sense. I am like the country Wales for example. I spent a lot of holidays in Wales as a child. I remember being in the car as we went over the border and being mystified as the world didn’t change at all. It was continuous, just the world. We use the concept of a country to manage our society, to govern the land and the people living there. But countries don’t really exist – they are artificial labels which are used because they are practical and help us manage our lives in different places. I think the sense of “I” each of us feels is a similar artificial label. It doesn’t actually exist. It’s is simply a part of the mental map we each make of the world and a map is not the same thing as the land itself.

So what am “I” really?

My hypothesis is that I am simply a part of everything. There is no real division between what is me and what is not me. When I came across this in my own thinking it felt like a new idea, but of course, it’s not.  The idea seems to be present in Hindu texts from over a thousand years ago.  E.g. The Ashtavakra Gita reads…

I am the unbounded deep
In whom the waves of all the worlds
Naturally rise and fall…

I am treating this new understanding simply as a hypothesis at the moment and still seeing if it is indeed a good model for the way things really are, and if it fits or conflicts with what I know about the world from a rational, scientific perspective. I have a lot more concepts which have come out of this, including how I think consciousness starts in terms of a neural net, but this post is already quite long so I shall save all of that for another day.

Diagram to illustrate this hypothesis

I began with this sketch which I drew in my personal journal when I was first forming these ideas…

The diagram worked for me at the time to show what I was thinking about and still has value as a tool to help me understand the concept.  So I decided to make a proper digital version of it.

First I made a better sketch and scanned it into Manga Studio 5…

Then using, this as a guide I redrew the diagram digitally. You can set the reference layer to a lower opacity so it looks very pale. Then you can clearly see your new drawing over the top…

Here’s the new drawing…

After that I needed to colour this line art two different ways. I began with a more standard way of looking at things…

Then I went on to the second picture. I made a swirly pattern in Photoshop and used this to colour an altered version of the line art. Here’s the pattern I made…

And here is the finished second drawing…

So the final diagrams look like this…


Putting them together with some text and arrows you get…


1. M. Aubert et al. “Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia” Nature volume 514, pages 223–227 9 October 2014.
2. G. Leick The A to Z of Mesopotamia Scarecrow Press 1 March 2010.
3. J.

Detailed drawing – step by step

This week I made a detailed drawing of a Dragonfly. Here’s my step by step process of doing this…

1. First I draw the basic shapes very lightly. Here I’m just looking at the bigger shapes of things. (I have a tendency to jump ahead and include some more detail in this but I try to stop myself from doing that because I need the basic big angles and connections to be right.) So here I was looking at the size of the body compared to the wings, the angle the body was on and the angles of the wings. When I do this basic layout I try not to think about a 3D object in 3D space at all, rather I think about the shapes and relative sizes in 2D only. So, in a way, I never draw an animal or whatever my subject happens to be, I just drew a group of basic shapes. Doing this I don’t have to push my mind through the shape transitions needed for forshortening, I just deal with flat shapes.

(I forgot to photo this stage when I’d finished it, so this is taken just after I’d started to put in a little more detail on the abdomen and wing joints but before I went over all of my lines more accurately.)

The pencils I used for this are two mechanical pencils (I can’t find my Graphgear at the moment.) and a mechanical pencil sharpener to keep things tight.)

2. Once I’ve got my basic shapes looking right, the next stage is to look more carefully at the line directions and angles and redraw all of my outline with greater accuracy and add some more obvious details like the wing joints and abdominal sections.

As I go I use three types of eraser – a thicker pencil eraser, tiny detail pencil eraser and putty…

3. Next I add more of the major details to the wings and refine my linework even more. I quite enjoy this stage as I can see really accurate lines coming out clearly for the first time.

4. Then I went to work on the detail. I began with the wings which have gorgeous patterns in them…

Then finally I added my shading to the body…

My final step was to add a shadow which was a bit tricky because my reference was a cut out digital image and didn’t have one.

Here’s the final drawing…

A tribute to the Hollow Knight

Ok, I admit it, I’m a massive gamer. It helps enormously to manage my pain and keeps my mind very active. I recently bought a Nintendo Switch Lite which is a handheld games machine by Nintendo (who have a superb reputation in this area). That way, I can play wherever I am. One of the games I’ve recently got is called Hollow Knight by Team Cherry. The game is set in a fictional land of bugs. It’s beautiful. The artwork in the game just blows my mind away. Here are some examples..

They use a simple cartoon style for the foreground objects and then a digital watercolour / gouche style painting effect for the backgrounds. It’s a lot like Studio Ghibli.

So I decided to paint a tribute to them in traditional media. This post details my first try at this. It’s quite difficult to make a traditional painting look like a digital design since all of the tools of the trade are different.

I began with a basic watercolour wash on which I pencilled in my basic drawing…

As usual I used several pictures as reference and combined different parts of them. Then I added my lineart…

And then finally I painted the foreground. I used watercolour for almost all of it with some white gouache mixed in in places and used on it’s own for highlights.

Little Acorns


This is a small pencil sketch of some oak leaves and their little acorns.  It was done with Fabre-Castell watercolour pencils and a small watercolour brush.  I wanted to see how small I could go and still put in some textural detail in the acorn cups.  The actual drawing is two and a half inches across.

Here’s a slightly enlarged photo of the drawing…

Quick Comic Practice Studies

This week I ‘ve been very busy with the end of term so here are the final panel art practice sketches I made in the summer. I had been doing really quick 10 minute sketches from TV to speed up my ability to draw comic panels. For this last section of the exercise, rather than sketching from a video, I tried to draw 3 sketches of real comic panels by artists I enjoy as quickly as possible without them becoming unrecognisable.

I began with Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto. I studied two original panels by Kishimoto and then tried to draw and tone them really quickly.

The first one was a picture of Naruto’s sensei Kakashi in a classic ninja pose. This one took about 10 minutes in total…

The second was also from Naruto and has Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura sitting together. This one had a lot more detail in it and took me 15 minutes. I blew my time limit on the background details…

The final study I did was from a comic series called DMZ written by Brian Wood with artwork by Riccardo Burchielli (and sometimes Wood himself). The panel is of the moment a nuclear device is triggered in New York during a fictional future war in the US. It’s an amazing panel. My study took about 15 minutes. Here’s what it looked like…

So, that’s the end of my quick practice studies

(NB: All three panels here were drawn and inked by me, but they are not my own original work – they are studies of the comic art of Kishimoto and Burchielli.)