Matthew & Maggie Sibling Portrait Pyrography art wood burning

I received a commission to do a portrait of a two siblings; Matthew & Maggie.  Even though I don’t consider portraits as one of my strong suits, I enjoy the variety and the challenge portraits provide so I agreed to do the artwork.  This blog is going to talk about the creation of Matthew & Maggie Portrait pyrography artwork that I did.

Watch the time lapse YouTube video by clicking on the icon to the left. 





Click on the image to the left to see a tutorial on how to create the braided hair.

When I received the photo of the kids I was very happy as the photo was in focus and the details were easy to see.  Sadly, I’ve received several commissions and the supplied photo was so blurry I had to request a better photo before I agreed to do the project. 


Like I said, the photo of Matthew & Maggie was in focus, so that wasn’t an issue.  Looking at the photo you can see there is a lot of clutter in it though.  Part of my job as being an artist is knowing when it’s time to simplify the subject matter.  One thing that helps me when I do this is to use a photo editor and draw a circle or oval around the subject matter.   The image contained within the circle or oval will be what I use in the artwork.


Looking at the image within the oval it was evident that the happy birthday headbands wouldn’t fit, so I was going to eliminate them.  Plus the headbands were very distracting to me because everytime I looked at the photo they were the first thing I noticed.   Since I want the main subject to be the kids and not the headbands, that further cemented my decision to remove them.  Also there is a lot of distracting stuff in the background that I was going to completely ignore.  Lastly, I decided the writing on Matthew’s shirt needed to go.   All of this is part of my simplify the image and emphasize the subject matter process.

In this photo I’ve traced the necessary guidelines from the reference photo onto the wood.   With the guidelines in place, I started burning in the trace lines with the shading pen tip. 





If you’ve been reading my blogs for any length of time, you know that I usually burn in the trace lines with the writing pen tip.  With people I prefer to use the shading pen tip as it produces a softer line.  Or maybe a better phrasing would be that the shader doesn’t embed into the wood as much as the writing pen tip does.



With the traces lines burned in I started working on the facial features.  I started with Matthew as his image was the more difficult of the two as he is facing the camera more.  Maggie’s face is almost a silhouette as only the side is visible, so that will make it much easier to burn in.





Continued work on Matthew’s face.








In this photo I’m working on Matthew’s arm to help determine how dark I need to make the skin.  Some artists work out the tonal values before starting a project, but not me.  Instead I will reburn over an area to build up the color need to keep contrast and tonal relationships.

Didn’t that sound impressive?  More importantly is what I mean by that phrase. I’ve mentioned before that all artwork needs contrast.  The combination of light and dark in artwork helps grab and keep the viewers’ attention. With this artwork my dark areas are going to be Maggie’s hair and Matthew’s clothing.  Those two areas will provide the  contrast with the pale skin the kids have.

A tonal relationship is my way of saying that the objects need to have consistent color.  For example, both kids need to have similar skin color as they are related.  Speaking of skin tone, it needs to be dark enough to stand out from the background, but light enough to be distinguished from their clothing.  Another example is hair.  Hair can have a variety of hues/colors in it, but the colors need to stay within a few shades of each other.  So with Matthew’s blonde hair I can range from light to dark tan colors, but if I burn in black strands it won’t look right.  I will have ruined the tonal relationship.  

Back to the artwork.  With Matthew’s face partially done, I switch to Maggie’s face.  I tend to work back and forth building up the color, adding the details, and the whole time keeping the tonal relationship of the skin between the two kids similar.





In this photo I’ve rotated the wood to keep the pen tip in optimal position while working on Maggie’s face.  I mention the need for this in most of my tutorials as this is how I keep my lines clean, so it’s important to do.




I’m continuing to work on Maggie’s face and you can see that I’ve also started determining the tonal values of her hair.







With some of Maggie’s features rendered, I’m back to working on Matthew.






Continued work on Matthew.









Even though Matthew has pale skin, I burned over all of it so it was at least light tan color or darker.  I do want to mention when working on subjects that are pale, it is best to keep the heat setting on your burner low because it is so much easier to build up color than try to remove it. 





In this photo I’m just starting to work on Matthew’s hair.  My goal was to make it slightly darker than his skin tone, so it would appear to be blonde in color.






Continued work.









I’ve got Matthew’s flesh mostly done, so now I’m starting on his shirt.







His shirt was actually a pale grey color, but I made it a medium to dark grey so it would contrast better with his skin.







Continued work on the shirt.








There was enough of the shirt colored in so I could determine how dark I could make the arm and still have it look pale compared to the shirt.  This allowed me to finishing coloring the flesh on the arm.








Back to working on the shirt.









Almost done with the shirt.  I do think I did a good job of making it appear as though the sun was over Matthew’s right shoulder and his head was casting a bit of a shadow.







In this photo I’m adding super thin lines along the neck collar to replicate the texture found there. 





Here’s the shirt after I was done.  The texture is not super noticeable, but I like to add subtle details that lend to the realistic look of the art.





With the shirt done, I’m back to working on Matthew’s head or more specifically the flesh around his ear.







Now the only thing left to work on is his hair.









Continued work.







Since Matthew is mostly done I decided to work on Maggie again.






Continued work on Maggie.








Like Matthew, all of Maggie’s skin was colored to at least a light tan.







Maggie had a bright pink shirt on and I decided to make it brown in color for contrast.







Continued work.








I wasn’t close to being done with Maggie, but I wanted to send the customer a progress photo and make sure they were happy with it.  I decided to finish Matthew before I sent a progress photo, so I’m working on his hair.




Continued work on the hair.









I do want to point out that the hair is not burned as individual strands.  Instead it was burned like thick spaghetti noodles and each noodle represented many strands of hair.







With Matthew completed and the customer updated, I went back to work on Maggie.





I’m working on her shirt.








And the end of her braid that rests on her right shoulder.









Lastly I had to color the little bit of flesh that showed on her arm.









Now it’s just a matter of completing Maggie’s hair.








Like Matthew’s hair, I didn’t burn in individual strands.  Again I’m burning in thick lines that represent many strands of hair.  With Maggie’s hair I would burn in a section so it was light to medium brown in color, but I made sure the thick lines or streaks were not all the same color.





Then I would continue to burn in darker streaks as I built up the color and texture of the hair.






Continued work.








Continued work.







Finishing up.







With the kids done, I started working on the oval band frame.  I first burned dark short pull-away strokes along the inner edge of the oval band.




Then I repeated the process along the outer edge of the band.  My goal was to make it look like it was a raised up rounded-over band on the wood.








Next I added some streaks on the wood to give the background outside of the frame texture.







Finishing up.





As I mentioned before I wanted to create the illusion that the oval band was raised up from the surrounding wood.  To help facilitate this illusion I burned a shadow under the oval band along its lower edge.





And the very last thing I did was to burn a shadow under the band along the underside of the upper edge.



Below are the final artwork and the reference photo side-by-side for comparison.

Notice how much cleaner and less cluttered the artwork looks compared to the reference photo?  You know, I love the look on Matthew’s face.  He’s too young to really understand what is going on, so I just keep imagining him thinking something like, “Why are you staring at me like that? Do I have a weird thing on my head too?”


Just a few more words before I sign off.  I liked how uncluttered the artwork is and how the focus is the kids.  Also I like how the hair turned out on both kids.  Creating the look of hair is a lot different than animal fur, so it’s a nice change of pace.  The worst part of this project was presenting it to the customer.   

Presenting the final product for payment is always a very tense moment for me.   My stomach fills with butterflies as I dread they will be disappointed or, even worse, hate it.  Fortunately that didn’t happen and I’m happy to report that the customer loved the artwork.  Yay!   

Lastly to answer a few commonly asked questions.   The artwork measures 7 1/4 x 11 1/4 inches (18.4 x 28.6 cm), was burned on basswood, and it took me 9 1/4 hours to complete.

Until the next blog,


Jan 12, 2018

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