Scrub Jay Pyrography Tutorial wood burning

For many years I’ve been feeding the birds and my flock, so to speak, continues to grow.  Sometimes I’m rather amazed at the number and variety of birds I get such as doves, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, and jays to name a few.   Since I’ve started the art of pyrography, Todd & I have been taking lots of pictures of the assorted birds for reference material.   One day while I was burning, I was contemplating ideas for tutorials and it dawned on me that the birds would make great tutorial subjects.  Thus was born a new tutorial series called ‘My Backyard Birds’ and Scrub Jay will be the first installment in that tutorial series.  

You can watch a YouTube video version of this tutorial by clicking on the image to the left.   



Watch the time lapse video version by clicking on the image to the left.



Reader submitted art at the bottom of the blog.

Let’s get to work.



  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • Knife tip (optional)
  • 8×10 (20.3 x 25.4 cm) piece of wood
  • Pattern (enlarge or shrink as needed)
  • White Charcoal Pencil  (NOT a colored pencil) Scrub Jay pattern
  • Ruler
  • Small fan (optional)
Colwood rounded heel (knife tip)

Note that the knife tip, as I call it, is a pen tip that Colwood calls ‘Rounded Heel.’  I like this tip because it is great for creating thin straight lines but, if you do not have one, a writing tip can be used instead.




I make mention of different pen strokes in this blog.  If you’ve been reading my blogs for a while you are probably familiar with my terminology, but if you’re not then I suggest reading ‘using the shader’ where I explain the different strokes and ways I use the shading pen tip.   The majority of the my artwork is done with the shader, so I consider it to be the most important pen tip I own. 



Smooth the wood surface by sanding it with at least 220 grit sandpaper. 

Then thoroughly wet the board by misting it with water or running it quickly under the sink faucet.  Let the board dry and then sand again.


This will produce a super smooth surface, and the smoother the surface is the better the burn results will be. 





I use the tracing method to transfer all my patterns to my projects.  It’s cheap, easy, and gives me control on what I want to include.  Print off your pattern on lightweight paper (standard copier paper is perfect), coat the back of the pattern with a graphite pencil, position on the wood, and trace over the pattern.  Make sure to check the trace results for accuracy before removing the pattern.   






With the writing pen tip on medium low, lightly burn in the trace lines.  I cannot emphasize enough about keeping the lines as pale as possible especially along the white breast and neck where dark lines will not blend in.   

After you have burned in the trace lines, rub over the surface with a pencil eraser to remove any residual graphite. 







The first thing we will work on is the scrub jay’s head.   I’ve mentioned in numerous blogs that facial features can make or break artwork, so I’m going to cover this section in great detail.






Let’s look at the reference photo to see what we will need to do.   The bird has a white streak above the eye, the eye is black with one pin point of reflected light.  The beak is dark with a point of reflected light at the end.  The crown and nape (back of neck) are royal blue in color and the rest of the face is black and/or dark navy.  The left side of the face is in deep shadows.




As usual I’ll explain the eye first.







Use a white charcoal pencil to color in the reflected pinpoint of light on the eye.  This MUST be a charcoal pencil and not a colored pencil!   Colored pencils contain wax and will melt and char when burned over.







Next, using the shading pen tip burn the eye a black color, but avoid burning on the charcoal dot.  

I’ve found that the easiest way to get clean edges while doing this is to burn a small section, rotate the wood, burn another small section, repeat until the eye is done.

By burning this way I ensure the pen tip is always in optimal position and I can easily see what I’m doing.   

Erase the charcoal after the eye is burned in.


The next thing we are going to work on is the dark left side and a little bit of the dark feathers around the eye.







First burn under the eyebrow (white streak above eye).







Next burn along the outer portion of the dark eye feathers.  I used a pull-away stroke for this starting the stroke on the outer edge and pulling it towards the beak. 








Then burn a dark line along the left side of the beak. Remember you are working on the shadows, so don’t burn on the beak.






Rotate the wood and burn a dark line along the outer edge of the left side of the face.  Fill in the area between the two black lines using a small circular motion.






Edge along the back by burning a dark line that follows the back’s contours.










Rotate the wood and burn a dark line just behind the wing.  Fill in the area between the two black lines.






Now finish defining the outer edge of the dark band around the face.  

Yes, the dark shadowed area under the beak is burned in, but ignore that as I will cover it shortly.





Next start to define the area above the eyebrow, but leave the eyebrow unburned.







Now we’ll work on the shadowed throat area under the beak. 







First burn a dark thick line under the beak.






Next burn a dark line along the right edge of the shadowed area.  An image of the pattern shows a red arrow pointing to the right edge line which is also red.






Then start filling in the shadowed area with short dashes (lines) that range in color from brown to black.  Make sure to burn the dashes in the same direction the feathers run.





Continued work.







After filling in the area, darken the left side so it becomes black in color as you near the spot straight down from the beak point.






Next we’ll finish burning in the area below the eye.






First burn in the layer of feather next to the dark band.  The dark band was black in color, so make this layer a shade or two lighter than that.  Aim for a medium to dark brown color. 






Continued work.






Then burn in the layer of feathers next to the eye.  Again, make this layer a shade or two lighter than the last, so dark tan to brown in color.  Notice how I left a tiny pale area just below the eye.  This was done to help define the edges of the eye.  Remember when working in a monochromatic scheme, you have to use contrast to accomplish what color does in the reference photo.




Next burn in some small dashes and tiny blobs along the transition line.  The transition line is the area where the blue feathers end and the white feathers on the throat begin.






Finish filling in this area, but don’t make it uniform in color.   Like the shadowed throat area, have a variety of tonal values.  This is done by first burning in dark brown-black dashes and small blotches, then layering some medium brown dashes and blotches around that, and lastly burning over the remaining areas to a dark tan – brown color.  




Next we’ll burn in the beak.







First burn in a dark black line just under the upper beak (line where the upper and lower beak touch).








Next, rotate the wood and burn a dark line along the line just above the bottom edge of the lower beak.








Then fill in the area between the two lines you just burned a gradient black with the darkest starting at the bottom.  This means starting on the lower line you burned, start coloring the beak black but fade it a bit as you progress upward.




Almost done with the gradient black section.









Next lightly burn over the pale line at the bottom of the beak to reduce the contrast. 







Then darkly burn in the guidelines on the forehead using the razor edge of the shader.







Here’s a progress photo.







Burn in the top beak making the left side darker than the right.







Before nearing the end of the beak, use a white charcoal pencil to color in the light reflection at the tip of the beak.





Finish burning the beak and erase the charcoal.






The last thing we need to burn is the crown (forehead) on the bird.







First burn in the two tab shaped structures next to the beak a gradient black color.  They start out black and fade to brown when they reach the beak.





Next burn the left side of the crown using a small circular motion.  The goal is to burn the area to a dark semi-mottled brown; not uniform in color.






Burn the top of the crown a non-uniform brown color using a small circular motion, but avoid the ridges above the beak.






Next burn in the ridges above the beak keeping the top edge the lightest spot on them.






Continued work on the ridges.







Fine tune the crown by first re-burning above the eye brown (white streak) to make it a medium brown color.






Add some texture to the crown by burning medium to dark brown blotches on it.







Lastly, burn in the blue feathers on the neck below the dark band around the eye.








The next area to burn in is the throat and breast.









Let’s look at the reference photo for this area.  The throat (yellow arrow) and breast (red arrow) are covered with small white feathers that are a little ruffled due to the angle of the neck.  Also there are some dark blue feathers that follow along the left edge of the breast.  Look closely at the white feathers and notice all of the slight shadows in this area.  Also compare the shadows on the throat with the shadows on the breast.  Under the throat has a lot more shadows and they are darker than the ones on the breast.





First burn in the blue feathered band along the left edge of the breast.  Use the razor edge of the shading pen tip to draw lines that start in the blue feather area and extend slightly into the white feathers.






Continue burning in the edge of the blue feathers.








Next fill in the blue feathered band, but make sure to keep the left edge jagged or irregular.  You do not want a straight line along here.

Also you need to keep the pen stroke direction going the same as the feather direction.   The stroke I’m currently working on started above and slightly to the right of where the pen tip is currently.  As I finish the stroke I will angle slightly towards the left to get a curved line.





I’ve painted red lines with arrows to indicate the direction the strokes should take.







Lastly, burn in the couple of thin dark lines near the bottom of the breast where the band fades out. 








IMPORTANT – – we’re going to start on the white feathers, but before you do make sure your pen heat is set on low.  To keep the feathers looking white the shadows need to stay in the light tan to tan hue range.  This is best accomplished with a low heat setting on your burner unit.  For reference, my Colwood unit goes up to 10 and I had the heat setting on 1 – 1.5. 


First burn the pattern lines a tan color using the razor edge of the shading pen tip.  These lines mark where a shadow starts and they are the darkest aspect of the shadow.







Working on the breast start adding pale tan shadows.  Place the pen tip on a line and pull the pen down a little.  The shadows need to fade quickly from their starting point.








Continued work on the breast.








Start adding some light tan shadows to the throat.








Continued to develop the throat by adding more lines and shadows.  The color darkness increases the further left you work.








Continued work.









Add light tan shadows along the transition zone between the throat and the head.







I slowly built up the throat area.  I would work for a little bit, leave, and then come back to work a little more.  One thing I should point out is that before I begin burning again I always checked the reference photo first.  This is done to evaluate what I’ve done and figure out what I think still needs to be done.






Lastly add pale tan shadows to the lower breast area.




Now we will work on the coverts.  Coverts are the feathers that cover the base (origin) of the primary wing and/or tail feathers.   Normally I would have called this the ‘shoulder,’ but I’ve been trying to be better about using the proper anatomical terms.   But I must warn you that I’m not an ornithologist, so don’t count on the information being 100% accurate since I Googled it. 






There are several layers of coverts, but I’m going to keep it simple and call it median and primary coverts.  Median are the top coverts and I marked them with a yellow arrow and the primaries with a red arrow.  The median coverts start out grey and shift to a deep navy or light black color, but they are very blotchy or irregular in color.   The primary coverts, on the other hand, are royal blue and fairly uniform in color.  Also, there are some wispy white feathers from the belly that infringe a little along the right.





First draw in the wispy white feathers along the right side with a white charcoal pencil.








Next burn along the left edge of the white pencil lines with the razor edge of the shading tip.  The goal is to avoid the charcoal, so burn brown lines between the white pencil lines.








The median has two bands, as I think of them.  The first band is the top one that is pale grey and the second one is the navy and/or black band.   Define the lower edge of both bands, but keep the edge irregular as it’s not a smooth straight line.





First fill in the lower section of the bottom band with lots of zigzag strokes to begin the texture foundation.  I’m mostly using the razor edge of the shader while doing this.






Continue to add more layers of zigzag bursts to build up the color and texture.







Define the edges of the first group of feathers in the primary coverts on the wing.  






Color in the first layer of small feathers.






Define the edges of the next row of primary coverts on the wing.







Continued work defining the edges.






Color/burn in the primary coverts.

Take a moment and notice the lack of contrast between my median and primary coverts.   Oops. 






Here I’m fixing the contrast by re-burning along the lower edge of median coverts. 






Finish burning the primary coverts.






Almost done with the coverts.








Add some dark shadows below the coverts.

Erase the charcoal as we’re done with this section.






In this step I’m going to cover the wing and tail.









Once again let’s look at the reference photo for this area.  The left side of both the wing and tail are in shadows.  The wing is made up of royal blue feathers, but there are a few feathers along the lower edge that are darker and more pronounced.  White feathers are found on the tail in a couple of areas and the tail has this bit of a reflected light meandering down most of its length.   Also there are some more of those wispy belly feathers overlapping onto parts of the wing.






First things first, draw in the wispy feathers with a white charcoal pencil.







Then burn in the shadowed area along the left edge of wing.






Next define the feathers on the wing.







Then burn in the feathers on the wing.






When you start burning the darker more defined feathers on the lower edge of the wing, it’s important to keep your pen tip in optimal position.  This means that the edge of the pen tip is right on the edge of a feather seam (where two feathers touch). 

One more thing, angle the pen so you are using the upper end of the tip vs the razor edge or the entire flat of the tip.  This produces a semi-thick line with two features; 1) the pen edge side is crisp and sharp, and 2) the other edge is a little fuzzy.   The combination of this one stroke defines the seam and provides a touch of a shadow on the lower feather.



Next burn a dark shadow line below the wing feathers.






Burn in the dark shadowed area below the wing on the tail near the wispy belly feathers.  Remember you want to avoid burning on the charcoal pencil lines.





Define and burn in the feathers below the first white patch (triangular area) on the tail.  







Burn along the right edge of the blue tail feathers.








Rotate the wood and burn along the left edge of the blue tail feathers.







Fill in the right side of the blue tail feathers.  This is the area between the reflected light and the right edge.








Continued work.








Do the same for the left side.  Avoid burning on the reflected light area at this time.








Here’s a progress photo of the entire artwork.








Let’s finish and/or fine tune the wispy feathers. The purpose is to burn the wing features through this area, but avoid burning on the charcoal.  This means drawing short lines to continue the seams of feathers, adding little shadows, etc., and it might be easier to switch to a writing pen tip for this step.




Next, if needed, burn the lower wing feathers a shade or two darker and increase any shadows.







Now for a little fine tuning of the tail.  First add a shadow where the wing overlaps the upper tail.







  Next add some dark lines at the bottom of the tail to give the impression of multiple feathers.







We’re going to start working on the white feathers, so turn down the heat setting on your burner.



  First burn in the tan shadows along the bottom of the tail.






Next burn the light tan shadow along the right edge of the tail. 





Continued work.









Next start adding the light tan shadows in the triangular area under the wing.







Continued work.






Very last thing to do is to dot along the light reflection line to break it up a little.  Also reduce the contrast by lightly burning the reflection to a pale tan color.






This step covers the belly of the bird.  That’s probably not the technical term, but then I already said I’m not an Ornithologist.  Feel free to Google if you want to know the technical term.







Let’s look at the reference photo for this area.  Notice how the belly isn’t as bright white as the breast above it.  Also there are lot of bands, if you will, of tan running through the belly.  







Working just below breast, burn in the tan lines and pale shadows.  The work on the belly is going to be done very similarly, if not the same, as the throat and breast.






Burn the very edge of the belly a tan color to define its shape and make it stand out from the background.






Continued work.







Draw some charcoal lines along the lower part of the belly where some wispy feathers fall down over the darker shadowed area.  Then carefully burn around them to darken up the lower belly by the leg.




Continued work on the belly.








Most of the wispy feathers need to be lightly burned over due to the fact that most of the belly feathers are pale tan in color and these have blue feathers behind them. 





Finishing up the belly.






This step is pretty easy and quick as we’re going to burn the branch the jay is perched on.






The actual bird is perched on the power line going to my house.  As I didn’t care for the look of it, I changed it to a branch and a very simplistic one at that.




First outline or edge the branch by burning a brown line along the top of it.






Rotate the wood and burn along the bottom of the branch.







Then fill in or color the branch so the top edge is the lightest and the bottom darkest.







Continued work.  Notice how the area of the branch under the bird is darker conveying the fact that it’s in shadows.

While I’m almost done with the branch, I didn’t like how pale it was. 




To fix that I’m re-burning the branch to make it much darker in color.   Also I’m burning the area under the bird a very dark brown to give it that shadowed look.








Add a slight shadow on the branch on the left side of the jay.






Continued work.








Lastly burn in some small, short, dark brown-black dashes on the branch for texture.






Continued work.






Below are before and after pictures of the texture being added.  It’s a subtle texture, but I think it gives the branch a bit more of an authentic look.  



The last things to burn on the jay are its toes and tarsus (legs). 








Again let’s look at the reference photo.  I’d have to say that I was surprised at how bumpy they look.  Besides the bumpy texture, there are a couple of shadow areas especially on the left side.




Using a writing pen tip, darkly burn in the edges of the tarsus.






Burn the outer edge of the right tarsus a brown color.








Burn in the claws that show below the branch.







Burn in the markings on the tarsus.








Switching to a shader pen tip, burn the shadows a dark brown-black color.








Continued work.









Now finish the left foot/toes by burning them a light brown color and burn darker next to the branch.







Next start on the upper right tarsus burning it a light brown color.  It’s okay to burn over the lines made with the writing pen tip.






Define the area between each ridge by burning with the razor edge of the shading pen tip.  






Continued work burning in the right tarsus.







Rotate the work and burn the backside of the right tarsus a medium to dark brown color.






Next burn the toe a dark tan color.






Add any needed shadows.





In this step we will burn the background and define the ‘frame’ edges.  









First burn a dark tan line along the edge of the belly.






Next using uniform vertical strokes start filling in the background a tan to dark tan color.   I let the color fade the further from the belly I got.








Continued work.









It was at this point I decided to put ‘frame’ around the edges of the wood.  Use a ruler to mark 3/4” (1.91 cm) from the edge.






Use a straightedge to draw the frame lines.




Using the knife pen tip to burn a darkly along the drawn line.









When burning long straight lines it helps to keep your hand fixed (not moving) and to move your entire arm instead of keeping your arm tucked against your body.






To further the ‘frame’ look, burn in a line along the frame joint to the outer point on the wood.







With the edges of the frame burned in finish burning the background.








Almost done.




Last thing to do with this project is burn in the frame.  









Pick a side and burn darkly along the inner edge of the frame.     Keep the stroke direction the same as you fill in the area.








Rotate the wood and burn the next piece of the frame.






It was during this step that I found the use of a fan very helpful.  This photo shows the blade of the fan I’m using.  I’ve got the fan angled so it is blowing up and not on the artwork.  This means it sucks the smoke up and away from me and it doesn’t impact the heat of the pen tip.





I bought a little battery powered fan on e-bay for around $10.  It has foam blades, so I don’t have to worry about getting hurt or damaging anything if I accidently touch it. 








The very last thing I did was burn the sides of the wood to complete the ‘frame’ look I was after.




Below are the reference photo and final artwork side-by-side for comparison.  Obviously they are not identical, but my artwork is easily recognizable as the jay so I consider that a job done well.  

Scrub Jay reference photo
Scrub Jay (7 2017)




We’re done.    I hope you enjoyed the first installment of ‘My Backyard Birds’ series.  More importantly I hope that I obtained my goal of providing easy to follow instructions and useful techniques that you can use in your own artwork. 

Having said that please note that I welcome feedback as that is the only way I will discover how I’m doing and what improvements I can/should make.

Now to answer a couple of usual questions.  This artwork was burned on Basswood that measures 8 x 10 inches (20.3 x 25.4 cm).  It took me 10 1/4 hours to complete the artwork.   That said this is not a race or contest.  I only put how long a project takes me as I get asked that question a lot and I do mean a lot.  You may get this done faster or slower, but there’s no prize for the least time taken.  What you should be looking to get is experience and the satisfaction of a job done well.

Until the next blog,


Sept 3, 2017

This beautiful Scrub Jay artwork was done by Trish.  She is creating such beautiful art and I’m thrilled she’s sharing her work with us.  

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