The Barn Owl Pyrography wood burning

Barn Owl wood burning

I love owls.  They are probably my favorite type of bird.   We were at the High Desert Museum in Oregon a few years back and discovered this stunningly beautiful barn owl there.   We took many pictures of him, or her.    Fast forward to the present and I was searching through pictures trying to find one that called to me for my next pyrography project.  Much to my delight I found the barn owl pictures and decided to challenge myself with a pyrography rendering of one.   Challenge myself I did!

You can watch a timelapse YouTube video of this artwork being created. Just click on the image to the left.




I knew immediately that I wanted the owl to seem as though he was getting ready to fly out of the barn (or into it depending on your perspective), so reference photo in hand I got to work sketching.  It didn’t take me long and I was ready to wood burn.   My first step is to evaluate my base values; what has the be the darkest area, the lightest, etc.   With this project it was very easy to determine the base values; window area had to be the darkest and the owl’s face the lightest.   This arrangement would also provide a high level of contrast that I have come to want in my work. With a general plan determined, I started burning.

Owl Outline burned In

I know the pictures to the left aren’t the easiest to see, but I wanted to point out that I do not burn my outlines very dark.   My pen is around heat setting 3 and it goes up to 10.  Burning the lightest of lines allows me to build up the shape of the bird with tone and shading to get a more realistic look.   Using dark lines results in more of a coloring book style art and while there is nothing wrong with that, it is not how I like to do things.

Usually, when I start a project that involves animals or people I always begin by working on the eyes and face areas first.  

Since the eyes and face are very key parts if they aren’t rendered well it can completely ruin the art.   On this project, however, I did something a little out of the ordinary for me.   I only put in the very basic features of the face.  The reason for this is that I wanted to get the background done first – for two reasons:  1) it’s a bit tedious and boring to work on and 2) it dictates how dark the owl can get.  I wanted the owl to really stand out, so that meant he couldn’t be as dark as the background.



The dark window background was my first experience burning really dark.  With such a large surface to fill in I got lots of experience burning dark.   I tried an assortment of tips and would have to admit that there wasn’t one that I thought was perfect for the job.   The window is not smooth and uniformly black as my tip would unexpectedly burn into the wood much deeper than I wanted.  This was due to several factors: inexperience, high pen heat (around 7), being impatient, and not having a tip that seemed appropriate.   I did discover a not so wonderful side effect of burning at such high heat – lots of smoke that discolors the nearby wood.   Look at the tail feathers in the picture to the left and you can see some smoke browned spots.   They erased easily with my sanding pen, but I try to keep my use of the sanding pen to a minimum as it can abrade the wood.

I highly recommend having a little fan to suck the smoke away as it’s very irritating to the eyes.  At least to mine.   I have a little clip on fan that runs on batteries and has foam blades, so I never have to worry about damaging anything if it should come in contact with the blades.   I angle the fan so the air is blowing away from me and this sucks the smoke away from me.


Once the window area was blackened in, I got to work on the window frame.  Since I liked the ‘wood’ texture I created on the Heart Box I did a few months back, I decided to use that here.  





Close up of wood texture

With the pen heat on medium (5) I altered my hand speed to create light and dark streaks.  I’ve used this particular wood pattern on several projects and it looks good and is easy to create.   My husband loves to laugh at me for ‘burning something to look like wood when it’s made out of wood.’   He’s lucky I have a good sense of humor and a high tolerance for criticism otherwise I might have to use my Ronda Rousey moves on him.  Ok, I haven’t actually tried using any Ronda Rousey moves, but I’ve watched her do it so that counts.  🙂



Back to the subject at hand; the pyrography owl.   With the window frame being mostly done I started back in on the owl. Most of my work was done on the head region defining the features, adding tone, and putting in some of the patterns that make owls so intriguing to look at.   Using my medium ball pen tip I put lots of dots on the chest and head.  The dots on the chest and “chin” area were dark and infrequent, but on the back and top of the head I placed lots of light colored dots.  After dotting in some texture I switched back to my shader tip and toned (colored) in the back and top of the head.  To finish the area I also put in bigger blotches with the shading tip.



The next area I went to work on was the wings.   First I concentrated on putting in the dark banding and defining the area between the feathers.   Part of the process of defining between the feathers was to add lots of little ragged edges to the feathers.  I have read that the reason owls fly so quietly is because the leading edge of their feathers are serrated which reduces the noise associated with air passing over them.   The long and short dark feathers on the wings went pretty easily and quickly.



Putting the texture on the short dark feathers was an easy matter of using my ball pen tip and placings lots and lots of light dots on the wings.  I didn’t want the dots to stand out like they do on the chest, instead I wanted them to provide the foundation for the texture.   After applying  the dots, I went over the feathers with my shader tip and applied an overall light tone.





As I wasn’t sure how to create the white dots that appeared on the bird, so I worked on other sections as my brain pondered how to handle the dots.   I got the tail feathers done pretty quickly.  They didn’t have a lot of color or banding, so not much to do there.   When I started defining the owl’s legs I had to get a little creative as the original owl picture showed him with jesses on that I didn’t want to show that.   I did a quick google search and determined they should be medium furry in nature.   I wasn’t too worried about the legs as I figure most people won’t look that closely (I hope).    Lastly I added a bit of shadow, cast from the wing, onto the tail feathers and the window edge.   In retrospect I should have made the shadow on the back feathers a bit darker.

Now the only areas I had left to work on were the areas that had the white dots; the areas I had

been avoiding since I wasn’t sure how best to render them.   Not knowing how things would turn out, I decided to work on the back first since I figured any problems wouldn’t be as noticeable there.  At first I tried putting the dots in with my white charcoal pencil and then burning over the dots, but that just left impressions of faint irregularities like I wasn’t burning smoothly.  (see picture to left)  Not exactly the look I was after.  Then I tried making holes or divots for the white dots and burning over that, but my divots weren’t that deep so again I was left with faint blobs.    With some more experimentation (my sanding pen got a workout) I discovered a three-step process to accomplish the look I was after.

Step 1

Crochet hook, embosser, ceramic pick

Take a sharp pointed instrument and make small indentations where the white dots will be.  I tried a very small hook crochet needle (9/1.40mm), an embossing tool, and a ceramic pick and they all worked.  The crochet hook & embossing tool worked better than the ceramic pick; as they both had rounded tips.   The nice thing with those two, you can find them at any craft store and/or fabric store.   The crochet hooks will be in the yarn section and the embossing tool will be in the scrapbooking area.   The ceramic pick I bought years and years ago when I was into painting ceramic figurines.  I’ve never seen once since but I also haven’t gone into a store devoted to just ceramics.





Step 2

Go over the dots with a white charcoal pencil.  This accomplishes a couple of things.  First it’s very easy to see where you want the dots to be, so you can burn more carefully around them.  Secondly the charcoal provides a bit of a barrier from the pen heat, so helps keep the dot lighter.

Step 3

Go around each dot with the writing tip to really define the edge of the dot.  Plus it increases the contrast which also makes the dots pop more (stand out).  By that I mean it makes the dots look whiter and brighter because the area around them is darker.

Now that I had the white dot problem solved, I didn’t have any more reasons to avoiding working on the upper part of the wing.   This area still seemed a little intimidating to me and, I won’t lie, it was probably the hardest section for me to do.    I think it was because there was a lot going on with that area with texture and assorted colors.  Not to mention lots of those lovely white dots.  I spent quite a bit of time working, and reworking, this one little section.   I’d have to say that it’s my least liked area of the bird and looking critically at it now, as I write this blog, I see things I should have done differently.   One thing that stands out to me now is the fact that the upper wing should have been darker.  There’s not enough contrast between the head and the wing.   I also think that I lost the look of feathers in this section.

Despite the flaws I now see, I still think that this is one of my better pieces of pyrography art to date.   I might be biased because of the subject matter; I do love owls.  I have a great horned owl that likes to perch in a tree close to my house and hoot the night away.  I keep telling him that I would gladly supply him with fresh pet store rats if he’d just hangout where I could get a picture or two.   Thus far he refused to comply and instead continues to wait until after dark before perching in the tree to hoot.

barn owl wood burning pyrography bmj

In conclusion, I ended up spending almost 18 hours on this project and used 3 different tips on the owl; writer, shader, and ball tip.   It measures 15 x 16 ¼ inches and was burned on basswood.   Overall I think it turned out well, but my one huge regret is not making the owl much larger in comparison to the window opening.    It seemed great while in sketch form and even seemed fine while I was working on it, but once it went up on the wall all I noticed was how small the owl seemed.   There are also some areas that, if I were to break my own rule, I would re-work.    My rule is, once I sign my name it’s a done deal.   If I were to work on it again, I’d darken up the upper wing section and put a little more tone on his face.   On the flip side, when I did this particular piece I had been burning for less than a year, so it could have been a lot worse.   Todd tells me that I’m my worst critic and sometimes I almost believe him.



Here is the source photo I used for the owl and my final artwork is below.  Obviously not an exact match, but I think I got the general features done. 








Barn Owl wood burning

I’m providing the pattern I used for this project free of charge, so download it and give it a try.  Click on the link below to open the pdf file for the pattern.

Barn Owl pattern


Jan 23, 2016

4 thoughts on “The Barn Owl Pyrography wood burning

  1. This is absolutely incredible. I study barn owls a lot because I use them as a motif in some of my own work (I am not a pyrographer—mixed media fiber art), and quite frankly I think the act that you did not make the upper wing as dark as you might have is a design strength, not a weakness. I pulled this photo up on random web search for barn owl images and it was the variation in shading —the lights and darks on the overall image— that attracted me to your work. Your workmanship is outstanding; maybe trust your eye a little more, too!

    1. Hi. thank you for the comments. I hadn’t made that observation before, but you’re right it was paler than it is in real life. I’ll have to claim ‘artistic license’ on this one. 🙂 I did the owl a few years back and I would definitely change a few things if I were to re-do the artwork. For example, I would definitely increase the size of the owl or decrease the window opening! Thanks again, Brenda

  2. This project is breathtaking.. Seriously. I also adore barn owls and this guy you did is SO lifelike and so beautifully detailed. I just love looking at this pic! It must be a little bit hard to part with each of your projects – kind of like sending away a little wee bit of your heart?

    1. Thanks! I appreciate you very kind words and positive feedback. I really like owls too, so while this was very much an experience gaining project for me I enjoyed every minute of it. Ok, almost every minute of it.

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