Thunderbird Dancer Tribal Mask Pyrography Art wood burning

Thunderbird Dancer Mask

A few years back Todd and I took a cruise to Alaska.   While exploring Ketchikan we ventured into the Totem Heritage Center; a small museum that showcases some of the beautiful work done by native artists.   It was there I saw this gorgeous and very enormous mask titled: Thunderbird Dance Mask.  I was very taken with it.  This piece of pyrography artwork is my rendition and tribute to that beautiful mask.

Mask carved by Donald Varnell

The mask, by Donald Varnell, was carved out of red cedar and it must of have been around 5-6 feet long and 1-2 feet wide! (1.5-1.8 x 0.3-0.6 meters)   I’m not sure if the carving was actually used or just ornamental, but either way it was very impressive.   I would have to be very honest and admit that my rendition doesn’t hold a candle to the original artwork.  My artwork looks flat and it doesn’t convey the width and three dimensional qualities of the actual mask very well.  




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

Please note that while I’m including the pattern for this piece of artwork, I do not consider the blog to be a tutorial.  Feel free to attempt the artwork yourself, I hope you will, and I also hope it turns out better than mine.  The pattern is at the end of the blog.


Yes, I am disappointed with how my artwork turned out, and you might ask why I’m blogging about artwork if I didn’t like that much.  One main purpose of my website is share what I’ve learned while becoming a pyrographer.  So, while I this artwork isn’t one of my favorites, I did learn from it.

What did I learn while creating this artwork?  I’m going to wait to answer that question  until the end of this blog.  In the meantime let me show you how this piece progressed.

Like all my pyrography, it starts with a sketch or pattern that has been transferred to the wood.   And, again like all my work, I burn in the trace lines. 





I don’t like to start shading in the work if there are still pencil marks as I’m afraid I might smear them.  Pyrography can be challenging enough and I don’t need to make it harder by maring up my trace lines.




In this progress photo, I have a good chunk of the mask blocked in.  As you can see there is a big “v” shaped grain line in the nose of the mask.  I had a lot of fun trying to hide it – not!  Below are some progress photos.  



















 Another progress photo and, as you can see, the mask is a lot more defined and I’ve started on the raffia that dangles from the bottom of the mask.  Mostly in this step I was darkening areas of the mask I had already burned in.  That happens a lot when I work on projects.  I’ll be going along and decide more contrast is needed, so I rework the area.  That’s okay as it is better, and easier, to darken areas up than lighten them.   While you can “erase” (to a degree) there isn’t a perfect method for large areas and/or really dark spots that doesn’t leave telltale signs, so I try to avoid it if possible.  

Below are more progress photos


















Notice the prominent “v” on the nose?  I did try to fix that, but I’ve found that the only time it seemed to disappear is by turning the wood at different angle so the light strikes it differently. (example = last progress photo in this group).   I gave up trying to hide it as my skill level and knowledge at the time I created this was lacking.  Heck, I’ll be honest, hiding grain lines is still very much a challenge!



Darkening the nose to try and hide the “v”
“v” not as noticeable with this angle



















Also, as you can see in the progress photo I’m working on the straight raffia on the back of the mask.  My interpretation of the cedar bark raffia gives the impression of raffia, but that’s about all you can say about it.  Nothing grand that’s for sure, but creating the raffia was a learning experience.

This artwork was created in 2015 (the blog was written Sept 2016), and I’ve learned a lot this past year through trial and error while doing numerous projects.  For example, I have gotten a bit better at hiding grain lines and have discovered how handy white charcoal pencils can be.  



Grain lines: I now use multiple steps to try and minimize the appearance of grain lines.  1) I try to avoid burning on them.  Instead I burn on either side of them.    2) If I do have to burn on them (most times I do) after I’m done I take an X-acto knife and scrape along the grain line to lighten it.  3) Lastly I try to camouflage it.   This only works if there is a lot going on (like fur) where I can purposely draw some dark lines through the grain line and that helps break it up.

Raffia:  In retrospect the raffia would have been easier to do if I had used white charcoal to draw in the lines, especially the top pieces.  That would have made it easier to see where I needed to burn, where I didn’t, and which parts needs to stay the lightest.  


 Now I’ve started burning in the dark background.  The really dark background made the mask really pop and stand out wonderfully.  As I look at this I can’t help but wonder if the black background contributed to the flat look my artwork has.  Maybe if I hadn’t of burned the background so darkly I could have produced a cast shadow that would have helped illustrate the width of the carved artwork.  Not sure that would have really helped though.   

One of the new things I learned while doing this project was using a word processing application to create the title I needed.   This was a huge boon as I didn’t have any alphabet stencils that I liked for this artwork. 

To create I opened up word, typed in the phrase I wanted, and the changed the font face/style until I found one I liked.  Then I copy/pasted the phrase several times in the document and changed the font size for each one.  Generally increasing each one by a factor of 2 or 4.    After printing the document I selected the printed phrase size that best fit the artwork.  

I drew guidelines on the wood so I knew where to put the printed phrase.  Notice how I cut out the printed phrase on both ends so I could line up the phrase within the guidelines I had created.  

I also drew in a second set of lines as I was going to play with the concept of a border around the title.  These photos show my progress of creating the title. 

Word of advice, if you should ever do this yourself make sure to keep your reference letters close by.  I frequently looked at the printed phrase to make sure I was shaping the letters correctly.  











In this photo I’m working on the border around the title.  I actually like how the titled turned out and it was pretty easy to do.








Below is a series of photos showing me burning in the raffia.


























Lastly this picture shows the final touches with an X-acto knife to scrape a few highlights on the raffia.  








What did I learn?   As promised I’m answering that question.  

  1. I learned how to create hanging raffia/hair, and it probably would have been easier if I had used a white charcoal pencil to help draw the top hairs
  2. Using a word document to create the lettering for the title works wonderfully.
  3. I failed on making this look 3D. How to fix?   Looking at this there are two things that immediately come to mind.  1) Darken the side of the mask more.  Especially the back of it where the mask joins the straight raffia sticking out the back.   2) Darken the straight raffia along the side to make it look like it’s in shadows.   I have a rule – once I sign a piece, it’s done.  This artwork has not only been signed, but it’s been sealed.  NEVER EVER burn on sealed or stained wood as it can produce very toxic vapors!
  4. Trying to hide wood grain is still extremely difficult.
  5. That I messed up the title of the artwork. I didn’t discover that until I was trying to confirm the name of artist who did the carving.    The actual title is ‘Thunderbird Dance Mask’



That’s it for this blog.  I hoped you enjoyed the blog and if you ever get a change to visit Ketchikan, Alaska be sure to check out the many totem poles around the city and visit the Heritage Center.  Even though it rained on us the entire time while we were there, we still thoroughly enjoyed it.  

If you should decide that you want to attempt rendering this mask, the pdf pattern is attached for your personal use.  thunderbird-dancer-mask-pattern

Lastly to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently.  This artwork was burned on basswood that measures 8 x 9 3/4 inches (20.3 x 24.8 cm).  It took me 7 ½ hours to complete the artwork.  

As always, thanks for reading.  Brenda

Sept 25, 2016

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