I have a couple of raised planter beds that I grow veggies in and I have problems with my leafy lettuce disappearing. I originally suspected the deer were eating it, but nearby plants they adore remained untouched, so that pretty much ruled out the deer. Since entire leaves would be gone and I didn’t see any slime tracks I ruled out slugs. One day I happened to look out and saw a squirrel sitting on top of the ‘berry patch’ eating my lettuce. The little bugger would steal a leaf, run up to the top of the berry patch, and sit there in the sun while leisurely eating my lettuce. While I wasn’t thrilled about it, at least the thief was found. I took a picture and decided that I liked how the squirrel looked, so I turned it into a piece of pyrography art. This blog is going to talk about the creation of that artwork.
I do not consider this to be a tutorial blog, but I included a pattern if you are so inclined to try it on your own and I hope that you will. Garden Thief Squirrel pattern
Much to my delight, a reader did create this artwork. At the bottom of the blog I posted the art, so please scroll down and check it out.
This picture shows a piece of beautifully streaked poplar. Todd had bought some really wide poplar boards for a project, and he had a sizeable chunk left over that he gave to me. Todd’s been encouraging me to use the beauty of the wood to my advantage, but that is a lot easier said than done. At least for me it is, so when I originally looked at the board I thought that there wasn’t any way I could use this. The streaks are too predominate and cover too much of the board, but I took the board anyway. The board got added to my stack where it sat for a bit.
The picture I took of the thieving squirrel ended up in my ‘possible projects’ folder. This folder is a literal folder that I put pictures, sketches, and written ideas into. When I’m ready to start a new project I dig through this folder and see what catches my eye. I encountered the squirrel and liked how she/he looked. I knew I would have to alter what the squirrel was really perched on, but that wouldn’t be a problem. I dug through my boards, saw the streaked poplar board and envisioned the streaks as a tree trunk.
I took my photo and placed it on the board to see if it would work. My big concern was to make sure the streaks didn’t go through one of the eyes and it didn’t, so I decided that I could make this work.
In this photo I’ve got the eyes done. I almost always work on the eyes first when doing portraits; animal or human. The right eye still has a white charcoal highlight on it.
One challenge I had with this piece of poplar was that one of the streaks ended up going right through the squirrel’s head. I knew this ahead of time, but figured I’d be able to hide it. My plan was to make the fur on either side of the streak darker and it would balance out. In this photo I’m still applying the first layer of fur, and doing a little contouring for the brow.
This photo shows continued work on the face. I’m using a zigzag stroke for the fur. Zigzags are awesome for quickly rendering realistic fur, but it works best on short fur. I detail the process in my Bobcat tutorial, and in my blog about Using the Shading Pen Tip.
Here’s a progress photo. I mentioned that I had done a little contouring on the brow. When I contour and/or darken fur, I just burn over it again using zigzag strokes.
In this photo I’m starting to work on the base of the tail. The tail is really dark where it is close to the squirrel’s body and that makes the body stand out. What I like about the dark tail base is that it provides great contrast and I think artwork needs contrast. I’ve viewed some artwork that is really good, with lots of detail, but it doesn’t stand out or keep my attention because everything is too close in hue (similar darkness level).
To help you visualize what I’m trying to explain, I reduced the contrast on the final artwork (left) and placed it next to the unaltered photo (right). It still has lots of detail, but it’s not as eye grabbing as the unaltered photo. When you create your artwork try to incorporate contrast in it as I think you’re going to end up with a piece that is much more visually interesting.
Back to my thieving squirrel. In this photo I’m working on the face again. I’ve found that I often rework areas several times to build up the color and I think this is one of the reasons my artwork often looks very realistic. It also means that it takes me longer to finish, but I think the results are worth it.
In this photo I’m working on the leafy lettuce. The reason I put this picture in here was to show how I work on the dark areas first. After the dark areas are done then I can determine how dark the pale spots can be and still look pale. Tan will look white or at least very pale if it is surrounded by really dark colors. Plus it’s easy to darken, but not near as easy to lighten things back up.
Here I’m back to working on the tail using a method I call reverse coloring. I call it reverse coloring because I’m using color to define the edges of a non-color area (the body). Fur has rough edges, so to speak, as some hairs are longer than others, some are out of place, etc., and these hairs tend to stick out. With the squirrel’s body those hairs are sticking out against the dark area on the tail. To create that look I’m burning dark lines that protrude slightly into the squirrel’s body. This does two things: 1) creates a rough edge, and 2) it leaves a few pale lines in the dark area of the tail. Because the pale lines follow the direction of the hair growth on the body, they form those wispy hairs that stick out.
With the dark area along the edge of the body/tail defined, I’m burning in the rest of the fur on the body as this photo is showing.
Here I’m working on the thicker fur along the squirrel’s arm. To convey the look of thicker longer fur, I burn individual long thick lines that flow in the fur’s direction. I start pale and re-burn a few times building up the shape and color.
In this photo I’m working on his furry little hands. I didn’t do much more than color them an overall tan, add a few darker dashes, and lastly shaded the bottom portion of each finger.
This photo shows me re-burning the fur on the side of the squirrel’s body.
Continued work re-burning and contouring.
In this photo you can see that I’ve lightly burned the outer edges of the squirrel’s tail. The problem I was having with the tail is that it is edged with long white hairs and for white hairs to show they need contrast. I really didn’t want to burn in the background as I’d lose my ‘tree.’
Here I’ve wetted out the wood (sprayed a little water on it) to see how badly the tail would disappear when the final artwork was sealed. The lacquer sealant Todd uses creates a very hard durable finish, but it also darkens the wood a little just like the sprayed on water does. This means soft subtle colors don’t stand out as much; i.e. I lose some contrast. By wetting out the wood, I get a better idea on whether or not I need to increase the darkness. This photo show that the edges of the tail pretty much disappear, so I’m going to have to do something to correct that.
While I pondered how I wanted to handle the tail, I switched to working on the squirrel’s belly. The white fur on the belly is very thick, so I’ve started a few longer thick curved lines.
Continued work on the belly fur.
I’m still working on the belly fur, but in a different area. This picture shows the area I just completed. Look at how the lines in that area are long, curved, and thick. Not the thin short lines I get with the zigzag method.
Here’s another example of reverse coloring. I want the white long hairs that hang off of the arm to stand out, so I have to color the area around them.
After pondering my tail problem, I decided to try drawing the white edges with charcoal. This would make them easy to see, so I could do the reverse coloring to help define them.
I tried out my idea on a small section to see if it would work and what I thought of the results. I should have done this on a practice board, but I never think of that while I’m working.
Having decided the charcoal would work, I drew white hairs along the right edge and proceeded to burn in the rest of the tail.
Continued work on the tail.
I still needed to create a perch for the squirrel to rest on, so I draw a couple of lines to indicate a branch and started burning it in as this photo shows.
This photo shows the continued work on my branch, but if you look at it I chose a bad spot to put the edge of the branch. I drew the branch edge right next to the squirrel’s foot. Branches are round, so the bottom edge is the point where the branch curves out of sight. The squirrel should be sitting along the peak of the branch top.
At least that’s an easy fix as all I needed to do was burn a new line further away from his feet.
I started added dark curving lines to start giving the bark some texture. Looking at the pencil line for the other edge of the branch I can see I still have a bit of a problem. The branch is enormous and the squirrel still isn’t sitting on the peak.
The great thing with pencil is that it erases easily, so I erased and redrew a new one and the width of the branch looks much better. In this photo I’m using one of those box cutter knives to scrape in some highlights in the areas that I burned really dark.
Now the only thing I have left to do is finish the tail. This photo shows me back working on it. I’ve erased the charcoal and burned in some pale tan lines along the area.
Continued work on the tail.
Here I’m finishing up the tail.
The last thing I did was use a colored pencil to draw in the white long hairs on the tail. I really debated about doing this as, for some reason, I view it as cheating. After I drew in the hairs, I let it sit on a shelf for a week and tried not to think about the artwork. When I took it back off of the shelf I decided that the colored pencil had to stay. Either that or I had to darken up the background as I wanted ‘white’ hairs along the edge of the tail. Since I wanted to ‘use the beauty of the wood’ and not loose my tree I kept the colored pencil marks.
You might ask why I used colored pencil instead of white charcoal to draw the hairs. Charcoal smears really easily and since Todd brushes on the lacquer finish there was a very good possibility the lines could smear. Plus I don’t know how charcoal and lacquer would react with each other. I had already tested out colored pencil and lacquer, so I knew I wouldn’t have a problem.
Before I gave the artwork to Todd for sealing, I did one final wetting to make sure my squirrel didn’t disappear. The only thing that happened was that the streaks in the wood became a little more prominent, but my idea of burning darker on either side didn’t work out well. No matter how much I tried, the streaks were always a bit darker and I didn’t want the squirrel to be black in color.
Here’s how the artwork looked after Todd sealed it with many coats of lacquer. I lost some of the contrast along the tails edge as the white colored pencil doesn’t pop as much as it did before. Plus the streaks got even darker and more beautiful looking.
You know, I’m looking at a picture of the final artwork as I write this blog and I keep asking myself if I like it. I really can’t decide if I do. Looking at it I see things I wished I had changed and I see the streaks through the head wishing they were paler, but I can also see that overall the squirrel was rendered artistically well, so I remain undecided on how I feel about this one.
As I was writing up this blog I kept circling around the thought that this artwork pushed me a little bit out of my comfort zone. I tend to prefer a super pale, streak-free, minimally grained wood to work on as my ultimate goal is to create pyrography that looks exactly like what I can do with graphite pencils on paper. I didn’t get close to that goal with this artwork as there’s no mistaking this wood for a piece of paper. Maybe my artwork isn’t the problem and instead my goal is. Regardless we all need goals in life, and I’m not ready to give up on this particular goal.
Back to my thoughts about comfort zone. Getting pushed out of my comfort zone made me use colored pencil to achieve the look I wanted on the tail, and I like how that turned out. How many of us stay within our comfort zone and never venture out? If you are one of those people, then I say to you get out of your comfort zone and try something new or a little different. You will learn a lot in the process and that’s always a good thing, and you might discover something you love.
Lastly to answer a few commonly asked questions. The artwork measures 11 ¼ by 12 inches (28.6 x 30.5 cm), was burned on poplar wood, and it took me 13 hours to complete it.
Until the next blog,
June 24, 2017
Want to subscribe?
- Click on the “Leave a Comment” field at the end of any post (blog) and a subscribe option will appear.
- Put something in the comment field (if you put “test” or “just subscribing” I won’t make your comment public)
- Fill in the sections for your email address and name, and then click on the “notify me of new posts via email.”
- You will get a confirmation email from WordPress confirming you want to subscribe.
- Click on the confirm button in that email and you’re done.
Please note that I do not send out emails. If you have a WordPress account there is a way to subscribe within the WordPress system, but I cannot provide specifics on how it works as I don’t know.
Below is reader submitted artwork: