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Monday, January 21, 2013

Pyrography/Woodburning Tutorial Part 3. - by Erik Brush Portfolio

An in depth woodburning tutorial by Erik Brush. Part 3.

Continuing on with our discussion on techniques that we started in part 2 we will look at more ways to get the image to appear as you want it to look in the final product. So first let’s cover some art fundamentals before we jump into doing trickier natural elements like water, clouds, smoke, fire, metal, etc.

As you may or may not realize all visual art that is photo-realistic is an illusion. We are fooling the eye of the viewer into seeing shapes, textures, and images that (ideally) look 3 dimensional, but on a very one dimensional surface. Unless you are sculpting and using pyrography to enhance this, our artwork is a dimensional illusion. So forget David Copperfield or Chris Angel! If you want to see a real illusion look at the best photo-realistic art and you will be seeing the masters of the art of illusion.

But our magic is in understanding the way that the eye sees light, shadow, and form. I am not going to focus on teaching you perspective, scale, balance, values, and other art essentials. This is pyrography and for a more extensive art lesson you will need to find other resources.


However one of the primary things that ALL pyrographic artists should have a good basic understanding of is light and shadow. Know that light may illuminate in what appears to be an omnipresent radiance or it could be in a narrow focused beam. But no matter what, light always moves outward from its point of origin.

This means that if you wish to have good shading you will need to have two skills. The ability to create a tonal or value gradient, AND a continuous awareness of the direction that the light source in your image is coming from. If you think of this with a mental arrow that can hover or float anywhere around the image, the shadows will always appear on the far side of an object away from light.

When doing drops of water however light is refracted and often a shadow can be seen on the same side of the drop as the light source is coming from. Water and other clear 3 dimensional sources can and do reflect and refract light within them causing the normal rules to be thrown out the window. Light will often seem to bend or appear in unusual places as compared with other surfaces.

A good way to get better at doing such elements is to make a transposition of drops of water and practice doing these in a uniform way. The more that you practice the better you will get. Then try doing a still life of a clear crystal sparkling in the light.

Basic art exercises have students use a form to draw a perfect circle and then ask students to draw an arrow outside of the circle which indicates the direction of the light from its source. The students then start on the opposite side of the arrow inside the circle and begin to practice shading in and building an even value scale as they fade the shaded areas into those that are illuminated until they have created a sphere. Easy right?

But afterward the students are checked to see if they really understand the way light moves and the arrow principle. The student is asked to now add an oval hard shadow (hard meaning dark) directly under the ball shape that they have created with their shading. Now this student has to make a visual estimate as to where the light would cause this shadow to fall. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Try it some time.


So let’s discus Water. Water is often touted as the most difficult element of all to draw or woodburn properly. I disagree. I think that we are setting ourselves up with the expectation that it will be tough or even worse than it is when we start a project with that mindset.

Water is all about hard and soft contrast. Still water for example has no surface tension distorting it in the form of waves. This means that reflections from the sky or anything that overhangs the water or appears neat it will be seen on the surface of the water. To burn this you will only need to use an image with such a reflection or imagine it in your mind.

Using a low heat setting and a shader tip/wire or in my case the flat of the universal point make soft circular motions to leave a light tone when creating a base value for the water surface.

Once you have evenly covered this then turn up the heat a little and burn a slightly darker value in the reflections. If the water is clear and shallow like a pond or still pool, add whatever debris, substrate, animals, and plants you are going to have in the water first. Then add the initial surface area, and then the reflected images over this.

It is not easy to simply describe water and how to burn it, but a strong and helpful tip is to make sure that the image you use for your transposition and even when you burn it is black and white if possible. You will see the true soft and hard scales of the water surface in this manner. Colour can confuse the eye, which is why I emphasize this point so heavily.


Smoke and clouds. These are very easy to do though to hear many beginners lamenting the addition of clouds or a smoking chimney or fire one would think that the world had come to an end. This is because many folks like to try to make a hard edge to define their clouds or smoke and then fill it in afterward. But this makes it appear cartoony.

So how does one make clouds? Again using a flat on a universal tip or a shader tip or wire you can make clouds (depending on the type and dark or lightness of the clouds by FIRST doing the non-cloudy areas of your sky. Make this in a nice even tone. As dark or light as the black and white transposition image or your imagination (if you are working without an image) dictates.

Once you have added the areas that are NOT containing clouds you can lightly shape the cloud edges with the burner on a low temperature. It will take some time and patience but you’ll be able to lay down an even tone this way.

This works well IF your clouds are white puff cumulous clouds and you texture and shade them sparingly. Remember that the wood itself is your “white” or lightest colour. Therefore places that must be light will need you to refrain from burning there.

Now let us suppose that you are making storm clouds or smoke. The same technique is applied but turn the temperature up. (But not too high! If the wood burns too fast it will ruin the effect so be patient and take your time.) Using small circular motions build up the cloud layers until they have the tone or value that you need or wish.

If you are doing fog remember that the more thick the fog is the more blurred or distorted background images are and the further away that they get the more blurry they become. Avoid hard lines for anything in the background. Far away = less definition.


Fire is done by using wisps of smoke along with negative spaces in the appropriate shapes such as “C” and “S” curves. You may wish to lightly sketch a faint guideline from a French curve ruler. My best advice on fire is to remember high contrast with layered shapes, and use a photograph as a guide to borrow elements from.

A VERY good cheater, even though it is not pyrography at all, is to go to youtube and look at airbrush techniques for what is called “real fire” painting. As you watch the way that airbrush artists apply these layers, you will get the idea for how a pyrographer may do similar artwork using the method applied for clouds and smoke.

I always suggest looking at photos and using photo references when you work. Because you cannot beat nature for realistic textures, use what others or you have captured on camera to practice perfecting your art with.


For doing wood you will want to emphasize hard edges. Use a knife-edge to outline your wood first. Remember that VERY little wood grows in a straight line. Most wood twists and branches into all sorts of forms. Bark creates a variety of fun and interesting textures. Keep the point of your burner moving and fidget it a bit as you move to create uneven and irregular edges and marks into the wood. If you hold the burner at a 45-degree angle and move the knife edge of a universal tip or flow point or detailer tip along the bark edges you can build up texture in the wood.

Do yourself a favor. If this is a tree or a log first shade the trunk or log to accomplish its shape. THEN start adding wood bark and texture to bring it to life. This will allow the natural indentation process that woodburning leaves on the surface of your project as a raised relief whereas if you shade afterward it will compress the fibers of your burn surface reducing detail for the viewer.

Again photos are a great resource for both practice and the final project.


This brings me to an interesting discussion on the use of photographs as a source for artwork from a legal standpoint. Now the very first thing that I will tell you is that it is ALWAYS a really good idea to contact a photographer first and ask their permission to use their photograph as a basic model for your pyrographic art.

Many photographers are more than happy to let you use their photos. In fact many have dealt with people hijacking or trying to steal their images or use their images for advertising or profiteering purposes without any royalties or recognition for the photographer. Asking for permission to do a one-time piece from one of their photos will flatter them in many cases. Some may even wish to buy your artwork when you finish it if it looks similar to their photograph.

Others will flat out refuse! Sorry! No! No way! Get lost! Etc. If they do so it’s best to just move on and find another image that you can do with permission of the photographer, or without their condemnation.

So what if you can’t find the photographer? Let’s say that the image has been shown on many websites and appears in many search engines under many different sources. You can go and try to hunt for the source of origin, or simply shrug it off and use the image anyway.

In such cases where an image is widespread and an originating source difficult or impossible to find the image is considered in legal terns to be “common domain” meaning many people have access to it and are using it for many purposes. Therefore you may also use it as a transposition reference. The original photographer cannot legally go after you without also going after every single person using the image. Though it is unlikely to happen anyway.

So what about the old “change the image” discussion? An image that is not a trademark may be transposed from one medium to another if the image undergoes a 10-15% change from the original and IF the image is not being mass marketed.

You may not take a photo of a photo and call it your own work. That is illegal. You may however take a photo and make a sketch or a painting of the photo if you omit or alter the image by a small margin. This is easily done and it invalidates legal complaints regardless of National or International laws. Copyrighted material is not protected from media shifts with this alteration or what is called “Fair Use” which allows for material to be reproduced from any copyrighted material in part, provided that it is being used for educational purposes.

Here is the actual statement for “Fair Use” from its source.

Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.

So how does this apply to our using a photograph? If you create the image and first post it in an area dedicated to teaching someone something about the image such as on a wildlife site if it is an animal, or in a historical discussion forum if it is a steam locomotive image, you have just fallen under the protection of “Fair Use.”


Now understand that there is a very big difference between copyright law and trademarks. A trademarked item is a logo, mascot, symbol, or other representation that is specific to a particular business or entity. You may NOT use Trademarks without permission under any circumstances or you are subject to the full weight of the law should the trademark holder come after you for using their trademark without permission.

Years ago NBC Nabisco Corporation tried to create a mascot in their “Drops guys” to represent their Oreo cookies brand. This company is one of the largest and most powerful food conglomerates on Earth. They began showing commercials on TV featuring the “Drops guys”. But shortly after this Pillsbury Dough Company complained that the “Drops Guys” looked too similar to their “Pillsbury Dough Boy” and they sued NBC Nabisco who refused to stop using the “Drops guys” as a mascot. Trademark laws are VERY stringent and intolerant of any infringement or unauthorized acts and NBC Nabisco lost this case and their attempted counter suits to the much smaller Pillsbury franchise.

So, Copyrighted images may be used even without permission provided you either 1). Do an alteration and do not use digital or photographic copying to reproduce the image, and alter it by 10-15%. OR 2). Make the image and first share it in an educational capacity as allowed for under the fair use act.


Another source for images is what is called "Clip art" or copyright free images. Many resources exist that do not mind you using their images for whatever you wish to do with them. Clip art photos are generally copyright and royalty free images that you may wish to look into.

Free wallpaper is another way to use a royalty free image, as there are many sites that offer great photographs that are free to use.

You can also use images that are taken from historical archives or out of print books or magazines. You can find such sites online and download images from there.

Sometimes an artist will allow you to use a photo IF you are willing to either pay them a small fee or to buy a print of this image. If you truly love the image and the cost is reasonable this can be a great way to get a permissible nod of approval from the artist.

Always ask first whenever possible. Courteous and polite behavior will get you far and you would be surprised how many photographers not only say yes, but wind up purchasing the very image of theirs that you burned.
By the way that is another way to bargain with an artist if they happen to have several images that you would enjoy doing, offer them a trade.

“Hey Photographer ________, I really love these great landscape shots you take! I’m a pyrographic artist and I would like to use some of your images to make woodburned art. But in trade for you allowing this I will do my first burn of any image that you would like and give it to you. What do you think of this?”

“What a wonderful idea artist _________! I know just the piece that you could do for me. Then feel free to use my other images as you see fit.”


This brings me to a technique called “Split shot” transposition. It is another way of MASSIVELY altering an image so you can use it without any permission of worries. Te way that the “Split shot” method works is that you take major elements of 2 or more photos from 2 or more different photographers and combined them. Remember you only need a 10-15% alteration or omission to be legal when transposing an image.

Let’s say I see a wonderful landscape by photograph Joe Shmoe. I love the landscape and think to myself, “This would make a scenic backdrop for an image.” So I copy the image down for making a transposition. But I have no intention on JUST using this image.

You see I saw a picture of a bull elk standing in a low ridge by photographer Jane Schmane. I love that elk and the foreground. Again I copy the image for a transposition. Now I lay down the elk and foreground ONLY from the image that Jane Shcmane took. Then I add the background landscape from Joe Schmoe’s image as the backdrop for the elk.

This new image is 50% of one image and 50% of another. Very simple.

The bottom line when you are dealing with art and photography is always try to respect others and avoid legal issues or conflicts. If you are courteous, and creative, and know what you can legally do or not do you will never incur any problems and will have a wealth of images and subjects to work with. If not you could just get into some very hairy situations where it really should never have happened. So think and act accordingly.

More to come in Part 4. We will be covering colourizing pyrographic artwork, mixed media, stippling, and correcting errors, also sealing and protecting Pyrographic art. Portfolio