brain cartoon

Astro Workshop

Most of my designs are just the central cartoon figure. This is basically laziness. I kid myself that it’s all to do with simplicity of the main image, not wanting to add unnecessary detail or just that I can’t draw backgrounds. Really though it’s because creating an effective background, simple or detailed, takes a lot more effort than just scribbling in indications or slapping on blocks of colour. I decided I wanted to do a series of portraits of glia – as if this site isn’t niche enough already – each one as an occupation in analogy to their physiological role. For this to work, it would be necessary to create a convincing environment for them to inhabit which meant committing to planning out a proper setting. Having gone to all this effort I thought I’d use this as a chance to illustrate my creative process. I realise this means going out on a limb and I’m not trying to claim this is in anyway authoritative. It’s not a good look to wax lyrical about the evolution of your masterpiece if most people’s reaction to the final work is…’meh’. And if you do find this ‘meh’ then that’s absolutely fine. Anyway here’s the background to how I did a background…

Astrocytes are the most common glia. They play many crucial roles to keep the brain healthy and neurons working efficiently. These jobs involve providing neurons with physical support, growth factors and nutrients, helping recycle neurotransmitters and repairing damage. They are so integral to how neurons communicate that, in modern neuroscience, the synapse is considered a tripartite structure: two neurons and an astrocyte acting in concert to regulate the flow of information across that point in the circuit. In practice with so many complex connections and cell types packed together in the brain the actual combination is dynamic and varied, it’s the principle of the astrocyte being required with the neurons that is important. Astrocytes can have multiple long protrusions and do look star-shaped although most look like brittlestars rather than cute pin cushion starfish. Having said that, for a cartoon it was an obvious choice to emphasise the classic five pointed star which fitted perfectly with two broad-shouldered arms, two wide-hipped legs and a pointy head. I wanted to emphasise the passivity of the neurons and the engineering role of the astrocyte in maintaining the synapse so the mechanic role was a straightforward choice.

Pencil sketch of astrocyte mechanic

Despite doing so much work in inks, the pencil sketch is probably my favourite part of the overall process. There’s something about the freedom of pencils, it doesn’t really matter if a line is a bit out of place. In fact, lots of those wandering lines end up being serendipitous and suggesting new outlines. I will only use a 2B pencil. This has been the case since school. I was lucky to have an inspirational art teacher (in the extremely unlikely event you’re reading this, thank you Mr. Clench) who said a 2B was the best grade for general sketching. At least that was how I interpreted it and I’ve never changed since, any other lead just feels odd now… There were lots of rough sketches that led up to the one above. It took several efforts until the relative sizes and positions of the three cells felt right. Even looking at it now, I wonder whether the astrocyte mechanic should be larger but I didn’t want it to dominate so much that it loses touch with the surroundings. I decided it would be strongly backlit, another departure from my usual setting of ‘stick an imaginary light somewhere up and to the left’. The stairs, shelves and walls were all designed to bring the eye into the central character.

Inked in astrocyte mechanic

Next step is to add the ink outline. For this I use a Kuretake Mangaka pen, it has a Goldilocks nib – not too flexible, not too stiff, just right. Harder nibs are great for accurate lines but when drawing biological subjects I want a bit of variation in line width. Brush pens are great for bold, flowing lines but I prefer a bit more control for the details such as the spots and mitochondria in the cell. Allowing the line thickness to change is a good way to reinforce an impression of solidity – in areas that will be brightly lit, I let the line dwindle away whereas a hefty, thick line suggests shadow and depth. This works in absolute and relative terms. Background and peripheral objects have thinner lines overall; foreground and focal points have bolder lines. This always used to be the point of no return, digitisation means that a mistake is no longer a disaster. I still try to draw it as if it’s a final, hard copy, it keeps you more concentrated on the task.

Partly coloured in astrocyte mechanic

Then comes the big challenge – adding the colour. This is at once exciting and daunting. Sure you can do preparatory colour studies but there’s still something about making that final commitment to a certain scheme. Take the astrocyte, what colour should it be? Bright yellow like a stereotypical star? Too clichéd. The mechanic needed to be grimy but too dark and it wouldn’t stand out. Plus there’s something about cartoon cells, they still need to suggest translucency so no overly bright or saturated colours (although wait until I post the myocyte one…). I plumped for mustard, it works as a dirty yellow, contrasts well with the blue of the jeans and welding and with the purples of the neurons. Neurons are always somewhere on a scale from violet to indigo, that’s just the rule I use for all my neuron cartoons. You’ll find different advice on how to build up colour. Some artists will block out all the flat colours to give an overview of how the relative colours work across the whole composition. Others will map out the shaded areas first. I do this quite often with my single figures, using blues and purples. The beauty of using Copic markers is you can do this, knowing that when you add tones over the top they’ll blend into well-matched midtones. Another tack is to work in small areas at a time building up extensive colour depth and detail in each one. With this one I did a bit of each. I worked on the main figures first, blocking out colours (see the neuron at the front) and then adding key areas of contrast, as in the astrocyte.

Obviously with that approach they jumped straight out against a white background. As I coloured in the background, gradually adding more shadow and detail, the cells were slowly drawn back into the composition. This felt under control though, there was less risk of suddenly finding an area had ended up too dark, having to add more shading somewhere else and before long finding that everything looked like a muddy mess… There were various details which I knew would be added in digitally: the lettering on the cylinders and tubs, dots on the tool board at the back, posters on the walls. If I had to create a finished piece just with inks, I think I’d spend forever touching things up and eventually ruining it or, more often, never actually finishing. I like having the security of knowing that I’ll be adding digital effects so there’s no need to overthink things. I just do that in the software instead. Sigh.

Astrocyte mechanic welding a synapse

Et voilà! The Astro Repair poster on the wall took on a life of its own that was a pleasant surprise. I’d originally planned to paste in a couple of existing Axonology glia designs. I still did that with Superglue but even that ended up being a retro version of the original. I use Affinity Designer to add the various details, especially the lighting and smoke effects. It’s a fantastic piece of software, fingers crossed it stays that way and doesn’t become a victim of its own success. The trade off is where to draw the line, as it were. Why not just create the whole thing digitally? The main reason for me is nothing replaces the pleasure of drawing with a real pencil on real paper. Even if I could afford the latest graphics tablet I don’t think this would change. I also find that going through the stages of sketching out, inking in lines, colouring in, make me constantly re-evaluate the piece and subtly readjust the position or weight of lines. I know you can do this with digital art too but there is something about having three physically distinct phases with separate media. The other reason is I spend a bloody fortune on Copic markers so I want to use them! I’ve got an Affinity brush set which does a fine job of replicating them digitally but it’s still not quite the same thing. I’m pretty pleased with how The Tripartite Synapse in the Astro Brain Repair workshop turned out. I hope it strikes a chord with some viewers/readers. Now onto the next portrait…

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