The shading pen tip is my workhorse in pyrography. Other than the gingerbread house tutorial, all of my projects so far have relied heavily on the shading tip. Just guessing I would estimate I use it at least 95% of the time if not more. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a Colwood burner (super pro II) and the shading tip I use is called a tight round. Depending on the brand of burner you are using, your shading tip might look a little different, but they all have the basic same functions. So in the blog I will discuss how I use the shading tip in my pyrography.
You can watch a YouTube video version of this tutorial by clicking on the image to the left.
*July 2018. I rewrote this tutorial to organize it a little better, provide better explanations (at least that is the goal), and to provide higher quality photos.
Normally the pen is straight (yellow arrow), but I bend the pen tip end to a 45 degree angle (red arrow). This makes it more comfortable for me to use, but note that my modification is NOT sanctioned by Colwood.
Colwood now offers to bend the pen tips to a 45 degree (yellow arrow), and you can see they bend the tip along two metal bars. If you should decide to bend your pen tip, then I highly recommend doing it they way Colwood did versus how I did it.
Below is what I’m going to cover in this blog:
1) Color Darkness Control
2) Pen Angle
3) Pen Position
4) 4 Burn Methods: Circular Motion, Uniform Strokes, Pull-Away strokes, and Zigzags
1) COLOR DARKNESS CONTROL
When I’m creating pyrography art, I can get a range of tan colors from a super pale tan to a very dark brown-black. There are three things that control the color darkness; pen heat, repetition, and hand speed.
I’m not a fan of high heat because of heat buildup. Heat buildup happens when the pen tip is not in contact with the wood. Excessive pen heat can create unwanted charred spots upon first contact with the wood. Since I often pause while I’m burning to look at my reference material, I keep the heat setting lower on my unit to counteract heat buildup. My unit goes to 10 and most of the time I have the heat setting at around 3**.
I do want to mention that you should NEVER allow your pen tip to get so hot that it starts glowing red. This is extremely bad for the pen tip! It can cause metal fatigue which can substantially reduce the life of your pen tip.
Using a lower pen heat means you don’t have to worry as much about heat buildup and instead can use hand speed and repetition to control the color or darkness of an area.
**Keep in mind that the heat setting has a lot of variables that factor into it.
What type of wood are you burning on? Hardwood requires a higher heat setting than softwoods. I usually burn on basswood (also called linden and common lime) which is a pale colored softwood.
What type of pen tip are you using? Larger pen tips require a higher heat setting than smaller ones.
Also, how many burn hours does the pen tip have? The more burn hours or use the lower the heat setting. The pen tip I use most often has over 1000 hours of burn time on it. It requires a lower heat setting than a brand new pen tip of the same type.
Don’t focus on the number. Instead focus on the color of the burn result you get.
Hand Speed is simply how fast you are moving the pen tip across the wood. The faster you move the pen the lighter the color will be. The opposite is also true; a slower hand speed results in a darker color.
This first line is being burned with my normal hand speed and my burner was set to 3.0. My goal is to have my burner set so that I achieve a nice tan color with my normal hand speed.
The 2nd line that I’m burning in this photo was done by increasing my hand speed. I did not alter the heat setting on my burner unit.
Lastly, in this photo I slowed down my hand speed to get a darker burn. Again, I did not alter the heat setting on my burner unit.
Repetition means to repeatedly burn over the same spot building up the color until the desired darkness is achieved. How many times you must re-burn over the same area before your desired darkness level is achieved is determined by both the heat setting and hand speed.
This composite photo shows another example of how re-burning over the same area increases the darkness level. I did a total of 3 re-burns to achieve the darkness level in the composite photo. Again, I want to point that that I did NOT alter the heat setting on my burner unit.
All three factors, pen heat, hand speed, and repetition, go hand-in-hand to control how dark a burn is. I truly think lower pen heat and repetition is the key to the realism I achieve in my artwork. With time and practice you will discover the speed and heat combo that works best for you.
2) PEN ANGLE
Pen angle controls how fine of a line you can draw and how quickly you can fill in an area. This photograph show 5 lines drawn with the shading pen tip, but the width of each line is different because I held the pen at a different angle. The steeper the angle the thinner the resulting line will be since there is less metal in contact with the wood.
Since it can be hard to see the actual angle of the pen tip, I have some examples below that illustrate the concept better.
In this first photo, there is very little of the metal in contact with the wood and the resulting line is very thin. The pen tip is angled very steeply in this photo. In a lot of my tutorials I’ve instructed you to use the razor edge of the shader and either this or the next line example is the type of line I’m after.
In this photo I’m still burning in a thin line, but since the pen isn’t as steep as it was with the first line, the line is a little thicker or wider. This line result would also be a good choice for times when I instruct you to use the razor edge of the shader.
With this line I have decreased the angle of the pen even more and now I’m burning using the corner of the pen tip. Each time I decrease the angle I’m holding the pen tip, the more metal comes in contact with the wood.
Now I have the pen tip almost flat on the wood. The resulting line is a lot thicker or wider.
This last photo shows how I am using the flat end of the shader. The shader is completely resting on the wood, so I’m no longer holding the pen at an angle (or the angle is extremely small). This gives me a very wide line, especially when compared to the line created with the razor edge of the shader. In my tutorial, I would generally refer to this sort of line as a wide band of color.
Below is a composite photo of the lines being burned horizontally. This should be a little easier to see the pen angle change.
3) PEN TIP POSITION
Another important thing I need to discuss is pen tip position. How you place your pen tip in relationship to the object you are burning can alter whether or not you have sharp crisp edges or soft blurry edges.
In this photo I have the end of the pen tip right on the edge of the line. The rest of the pen should be angled OVER the area you will be burning. This produces a line with really sharp, crisp, clean edges.
Placing the pen tip on top of the line uses the entire flat end of the pen, so the resulting line is much thicker and has softer edges. This is perfect for creating an out-of-focus look.
How you place or position the pen can create objects that appear in or out of focus.
Look at this photo from my Dewy Leaf mini project. This project shows leaves that have clearly defined edges and leaves that are softer with less distinct edges. This was accomplished by strategically using both pen tip placement positions.
In this photo I am getting ready to burn in the background, so I have the end of the pen tip right on the outer edge of the leaf. The rest of the pen is angled over the background. Positioning the pen tip in this way means I can only burn on the background and the edges along the leaf will be sharp and clearly defined. I call this Optimal Pen Tip Position.
Optimal pen tip position provides extremely defined edges to an object and ensures that you burn only where you INTEND to burn. It is essential to keep the pen tip in optimal position when burning near edges and seams (where two objects touch), so that each object is clearly defined.
In this photo the pen tip is now on top of the trace line instead of being on one side of it. This results in a softer line that becomes the start of the out-of-focus technique.
I wrote a tutorial that goes into greater detail on creating art with both in-focus and out-of-focus aspects in it. Here’s a link to the tutorial: DewyLeaf Tutorial.
4) 4 BURN METHODS
There are 4 basic burn methods I use in my artwork; Circular Motion, Uniform strokes, Pull-away strokes, and Zigzags. No matter which burn method is used, the heat, hand speed, and pen angle all affect how the burn looks. For example, burning Zigzags using the razor edge of the shader will look a lot different than using the flat of the shader. Of the 4 burn methods, circular motion is the one I use most often, so I’ll start with that one.
Circular motion is what I use to transition darkness levels and create an assortment of textures. Just like it sounds, the burn method is created by literally moving your hand in a circle while burning.
This photo shows a highly exaggerated example of circular motion, but, as you can see, I am literally burning a chain of tiny circles.
This second line I’m burning on in this photo is how circular motion really looks. I’m still burning a continuous chain of tiny circles, but the circles are much smaller, closer together, and they don’t have the big gaps in the loops. Notice that while the line is fairly solid looking it’s not uniform in color.
Transitioning darkness levels means that I want to gradually increase or decrease darkness levels in an area. Using circular motion is one of my most commonly used methods to do this because it doesn’t create lines. Instead it can produce very soft gradient color.
First an area is burned in to give it a base color. Burn over the area, but burn a few more circular motion strokes at one end of the area. In this example, that spot will be the top of the area. With each re-burn, burn more circular motions along the top than any other place. This process will gradually build up the color at the top, and the color gradually fades away near the bottom.
There are a lot of textures that can be created with circular motion. The general process of burning circular motion tends to create a little texture, or, put another way; it doesn’t tend to be solid or uniform in color. Keep in mind that the texture can be very subtle or extremely bold, as this photo shows; it just depends on how it’s burned.
Most of the textures are created very similarly, but the big difference is usually how much contrast is in the area. This example produces a bold texture with lots of contrast. Start by using circular motion to burning a patch of irregular color. Continue to re-burn over the area adding more irregularities each time. The irregularities come from altering your hand speed and this changes the resulting darkness level. For a bold texture, a few areas are burned really dark to provide high contrast.
The portrait of Maggie & Matthew relied very heavily on circular motion to give really smooth transitions. Subtle and very smooth transitions were very important on the kid’s skin. With circular motion I could slowly build up the color or tonal depth to contour, give a 3D appearance, their faces. Matthew & Maggie
My BBQ chip ornament was another piece of artwork that I used a lot of circular motion in. The dark bag was created using almost nothing but circular motion. I can use repetition to build up the color and retain smooth transitions between the really dark areas on the bag and the reflected light. BBQ Chip Ornament
The out-of-focus background texture on the Tree Frog was created using circular motion. It was a perfect match since the texture was a large patch of roundish shapes that had soft edges and circular motion is created by burning in a roundish motion. When I was working on the background I kept visualizing a big pile of large fluffy round cotton balls. Tree Frog.
The background texture on the Ranunculus was also created used circular motion. I burned small roundish spots and some short squiggly lines using only 3-4 colors or brown hues. The colors should be within a few shades of each other. For example the color or hues could be: dark tan, light brown and dark brown. This gave me a dark background with a subdued texture. Ranunculus Tutorial.
With the petunia, I used the same method that I did in the Ranunculus, but I increased the number of colors. I also needed to have a really light color and a really dark color for contrast. For this example I included light tan and medium brown to the mix. The results are richly textured and highly varied in color. I actually love how it looks. Petunia Tutorial.
My last example is the rocks I created in the Christ of the Mines artwork. Each individual rock gets several layers of circular motion. The first layer covers the entire surface and each layer after that adds irregularities and random darker spots. The crevasses between the rocks are burned in very dark and this gives each rock very defined edges.
Uniform strokes are my burn method choice for smooth looking surfaces that are solid or uniform in color with little or no texture. They are created by burning wide bands of color that have the same tonal hue or color throughout the entire burn.
Begin by burning in a slow and controlled manner to get a stroke that is one solid color. The next stroke should be touching or slightly overlapping the first one. Continue to burn addition strokes adjacent to the previous one. Each stroke should be solid in color and match those burned before it.
The dark sides of the fishing trolley in my Misty Marina were created with a lot of uniform strokes. The boats’ side needed to be uniform in color with no texture in it, so uniform strokes are perfect at creating that look. Misty Marina.
The seats and a lot of the dark metal on the Old Truck were also created with uniform strokes. Again I use this method because it can produce a very smooth and solid color. Old Truck.
My last example is the bow I did in Wrapped Up. Each loop in the bow is made up of several bands of uniform solid color. Wrapped Up Tutorial.
Pull-away strokes are used in places where I want the color to start out much darker than it ends. The stroke is always started on the darkest end and is pulled in the opposite direction. How quickly the stroke is pulled away will determine how fast the color fades. One of the benefits to using pull-away strokes is that they can provide color and contour an object at the same time.
Think of how a metal tube or a straw looks. In art, to create the look of a rounded tube, the sides need to be darker than the center. Dark areas retreat into the background and pale areas seem closer. To finish the look, the color needs to transition or gradually decrease in intensity from the edges to the center. Pull-away strokes accomplish this without a lot of work.
Pull-away strokes are generally started on the edge of an object. The pen tip is pulled away from the edge and lifted up away from the wood. The strokes are easier to do if you pull the pen tip towards you, so rotate the wood, if needed, to make this happen.
Like all things, re-burning over the strokes will darken them up.
My first example is the body of the Dragonfly I did. I wanted the body to look round like a metal tube or straw. Pull-away strokes accomplished this very well. As I mentioned before, it’s easier to do this burn method by pulling the pen tip towards you, so I’ve rotated the wood to accomplish this. Dragonfly.
Anaconda is the next example of pull-away strokes. The water was created by burning pull-away strokes along the curving lines to help give the water the look of movement and light reflection. Anaconda.
Flower petals are a frequent place I use pull-away strokes. Not only will the burn method give the petals a curved look, but it can also provide a ruffled look. The ruffling is created by burning strokes that have different color. The contrast is what provides the ruffling. It’s important to keep the colors within several shades of each other otherwise the petal will look like it has streaks instead of ruffles. For example, I often use tan, dark tan, and light brown as my color range. Purple Iris Tutorial.
Zigzags are used to create the look of specific textures like short fur, distance evergreen trees, and rocky mountains. The burn method is created by burning a literal zigzag that is 3-7 lines long. I call each group of lines a zigzag burst. New bursts should always be offset from previous burst.
Zigzag burst guidelines: Vary the number of lines it has. Offset where you start it. Vary the gap between the lines. Vary how long the lines are.
When using zigzags to create short fur texture, it’s VERY import to burn the zigzags in the growth direction of the fur. This composite photo is showing how I’m altering the direction of the bursts to change the direction.
To darken up an area, use repetition or re-burning, and apply the same basic zigzag guidelines.
The throat on the Nuthatch is a place I used zigzags. The reason is that the throat looked like it was covered with lots of little hairs, so I used zigzags to quickly replicate the look. To me this is much faster than burning in each hair individually. Nuthatch tutorial.
Another example is the Bobcat that I created. In fact, every animal I have burned thus far I used zigzag bursts to create the fur texture. Venison, Yellow Lab, Meerkat, Bengal Tiger, Paige’s Cat, and the Garden Thief Squirrel all have fur that was created with the zigzag burst fill-in method. I haven’t written up the bobcat yet, so I’ll provide a link to the deer. Venison Deer Tutorial. I’ll update the link to the bobcat after it gets written.
I also use zigzags to create the look of distance evergreen trees. The trees start out as a vertical line that represents the tree trunk. Then, beginning at the top of the tree trunk, I start burning horizontal zigzags that increase in width the further down the tree trunk I go. Trout Lake. I wrote a tutorial that covers this in depth, so here’s a link: Mountain Lake Tutorial.
Lastly, I use zigzags to create the look of distant mountains. With mountains the zigzags are burned in the general slant of the mountain and abrupt direction changes create fissures and crevasses on the mountain. Here’s a link to a tutorial that I wrote about this: Mountain Lake Tutorial.
Combinations happen when I use more than one burn method in the same area. It is very common to use combinations in pyrography to create an assortment of looks. While I use several different combinations on a regular basis, there are many more out there. It is pretty much limited to your imagination as to how you combine burn methods to create different textures and effects. I will share with you a couple of the combinations I use on a regular basis.
Combo 1 is using circular motion and uniform strokes in the same area. This is probably my most used combination. I often use uniform strokes along edges and then switch to circular motion to finish up. With the robes on the Christ of the Mines statue I used uniform strokes along the seams and folds of the robe and then switched to circular motion to transition or fade the color away. Christ of the Mines.
Combo 2 is using pull-away and uniform strokes in the same area. This is another combination I use a lot. I burn pull-away strokes around the edges of an object to give the edges a rounded look. Then I fill in the object with uniform strokes. The hearts in the Valentine Plaque are a perfect example of this. Valentine Plaque Tutorial.
Combo 3 is using circular motion and zigzags in the same area. This creates a unique texture that reminds me of fallen rotted logs and tree branches that are dying. I don’t use it very often, but I think it produces realistic results. I work in small sections fill it with circular motion and then burn some zigzags over it. I don’t burn zigzags over the entire surface, just a few here and there. Douglas Squirrel.
With the knowledge of the different techniques I use to fill-in an area, let me talk briefly about shading or contouring that area. Contouring is what gives an object its shape or makes it look three-dimensional. My first example is a circle.
Fill in a circle with a uniform tone and it will look flat. Uniform tone is just another way of saying a solid color (like the paint on a wall). It does not matter what method you use to fill in that circle if it is uniform in color (or mostly so) it is going to look flat.
Yes, even a zigzag fur fill-in will look like a flat patch of fur if it is fairly uniform in color.
Whereas filling in the circle with a gradient tone will make it look like a globe.
Gradient tone progresses in color going from light to dark or vice versa. So with the globe the edges are dark and gradually lighten at the center. This makes the center look elevated and since the object is round, the mind turns this shape into a globe/ball/sphere or whatever you want to call it.
The key to gradient tone is to have smooth uniform strokes that gradually increase or decrease in color.
Creating either smooth uniform or gradient shading takes time and practice.
Another thing I need to tell you about is how easy it is to alter objects look just by changing how you shade it.
These three flowers have almost identical shapes, but they look very different from each other because I shaded them differently.
With this this flower, the center of each petal is the darkest area on it, so the petals look like they curl up from the center, or that they have a crease in them. To create this effect I burned a uniform stroke down the center of each petal (a tan stripe). Then using a very small circular motion I burned along the stripe. The circular motion will extend a little beyond the stripe and this will darkened up the stripe a bit more and shade the area around the stripe. The area around the stripe won’t be as dark as the stripe though (unless you have the pen heat too high).
This flower, on the other hand, was shaded in the opposite manner as the first. The results make the petals look like they are curving downward instead of up. For this I burned a dark uniform stroke around the edges of each petal and then filled in the center of the petal with a circular motion. I filled in the petal with more of a gradient tone.
Lastly, this flower was done in such a way that each petal looks like it arches up from center and then bows downward at the ends. This flower was actually the easiest to burn as all I did was use pull-away strokes at the end of each petal. So I did pull-away strokes that started at the outer edge of the petal and headed towards the flower center. I used a quick hand speed, so the color faded quickly during the stroke. To get the really dark petal ends I just repeatedly burned over them with shorter strokes. I also did pull-away strokes on the opposite side of the petal (near the flower center) and pulled them towards the outer edge of the flower.
That’s it for this blog. If I accomplished my goal then this tutorial provided you with useful information that helps explain terminology I use in my tutorials. Heck, it might even help you understand what’s going on when you watch a video. For example, if you see someone’s hand move in a circular motion you’ll have a better understanding of what they are doing.
Just remember that with practice (continued creation of art) you will discover the heat, angle, and hand speed that works best for you.
I said this before, but I’ll say it again. I believe that my success with creating smooth shading and achieving highly realistic artwork is by using low heat and make multiple passes (going over the same area) to build up the color. It’s not a fast process, but I think the results are worth it.
Until the next blog.
Mar 14, 2017
Last updated July, 2018