Mountain Lake is the first in my mini project tutorial series. This series will focus on small projects that work on skill building. With the Mountain Lake, the skill we’ll be working on is using the zigzag stroke to create texture like mountains, pine trees, and, yes, a lake. The techniques I will be presenting in this tutorial are the exact same techniques I have used as background filler in some of my artwork. This tutorial will explain how to create the Mountain Lake pyrography artwork.
I had several people tell me that burning zigzags was harder than I made it look. There are three things to keep in mind: make 1) sure your board is ultra smooth, 2) don’t press hard on the pen tip as this will make the pen dig into the wood, and 3) keep the heat on your burner set to a medium or lower. The higher the heat the more the pen tip will dig or sink into the wood.
Last updated: Dec 2018
Reader submitted art is at the bottom of this blog, so please check it out.
Now, let’s get to work.
SKILL LEVEL: 1
- Writing tip
- Shading tip
- 4 x 6 inch (10.2 x 15.2 cm) piece of wood
- Pattern (enlarge or shrink as needed) Mountain Lake pattern
STEP 1 – PREP THE WOOD
Wet the wood out and let it dry. This will raise the wood grain.
After the wood is dry it will feel fuzzy, so re-sand to remove the fuzz. Now you will have a super smooth board for burning.
STEP 2 – TRANSFER PATTERN TO WOOD
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.
STEP 3 – BURN TRACE LINES
I did not burn along the tops of the hills as those lines will get covered with trees.
STEP 4 – ZIGZAG BURSTS
Almost all of the artwork in this project was accomplished using a zigzag stroke motion. I need to define some terms that I will use in this tutorial to make sure you understand what I mean. A zigzag burst is a cluster of strokes or lines burned in a zigzag motion. Zigzag strokes are literally lines burned in a back and forth motion where you move the pen tip slightly forward with each direction change. The photo shows two zigzag bursts and each burst contains 6 strokes or lines.
The majority of the zigzag bursts I burn are used to create the rough rocky texture of the mountain, but I also use them to create the shape of the mountain. By shape I mean the peaks and valleys of the mountain.
Let’s first discuss the rough rocky texture. I create the rocky texture by adding a lot of variety in how I burn the zigzag bursts. But what am I varying you ask? I vary how close or far apart the strokes are. How long the lines are and the angle at which the bursts are burned. I also vary how many lines are burned in each burst and how thick the lines are in each burst. And I vary the burst direction. The more variety you produce the better your rocky texture will look.
Stroke Closeness: Generally speaking, I tend to burn the strokes very close together. Most of the lines are almost touching and sometimes they do touch. Occasionally there are times where you could easily burn a line or two between the strokes.
Stroke Length: I usually burn each stroke or line so it is about ¼ inch long (0.64 cm). Frequently I start the stroke at one length and then shorten some or all of the subsequent strokes.
Stroke Angle: It is really important to vary the angle at which you burn the zigzag bursts. I do keep the angle very similar on all of the lines for one burst. Note that I tend to use the word angle and slant interchangeably in this article.
Stroke Number: I also vary how many strokes or lines I burn in each burst. Most bursts I create contain 3-7 lines.
Line Thickness: Another important aspect to this is varying how thick each line is. This is controlled by the angle you hold your pen. A steep angle will produce a really thin line as you are using the razor edge of the pen tip. Decrease the angle and you’ll get a thicker line as more of the pen tip is in contact with the wood.
So all of the items above are techniques to vary the zigzag bursts to give the mountain texture, but we must purposely alter the burst direction to give the mountain shape.
Example 1 forms a peak. The bursts on the left side are all slanted, or angled, up towards the peak. After cresting the peak, the burst direction abruptly changes. They are angled oppositely of the left side, but they still slant upwards towards the peak. Keep in mind that can alter how steep the peak is by the angle the bursts are burned. Lines burned almost vertically, think the letter A, will convey a very steep peak, whereas lines burned almost horizontal will convey a slope or arched hill top.
Example 2 forms a valley. In this example the left side slants down towards the valley floor. After reaching the floor, we again abruptly change the burst direction as we head up the opposite side of the valley. Like the peaks, you can vary how deep they are. Lines burned at a steep almost vertical angle, think the letter V, will convey a deep valley. Decrease the angle and you can end up with a bowl or gentle depression on your mountain. Also, the darker a valley is the deeper it will seem.
Example 3 is the gradual burst direction and is used to fill in the face of the mountain as you transition from the left slope to the right slope, or vice versa. I do want to point out that most of the bursts point or are angled toward the general direction of the mountain peak.
So, with all of the information about zigzag burst, let’s put it together and burn a practice mountain.
STEP 5 – PRACTICE
I’m starting on the right face of the mountain burning zigzag bursts to define the right edge of it. This picture shows two separate bursts have been burned and I’m just getting ready to start a third.
I continue to add more burst to fill in the right slope. Now it’s important to note that because I’m working on the right slope all angles should reflect that. Right facing slopes mean the strokes are slanted or angled so they are leaning from the right base of the mountain up towards to the summit (highest point on the mountain). These strokes are also starting to create the rough rocky texture of the mountain.
In this photo I’m creating a little ridge. The concept is the same as creating a peak, but ridges tend to be longer where as a peak is often just a point. Both are created by abruptly changing the direction of the zigzag burst I burned.
With the little ridge created I went back to burning slanted bursts as I worked my way towards the mountain’s summit. Take a moment to notice the rough rocky texture that is being created during this process.
To darken up an area, just burn additional zigzag bursts. Do not try to re-burn directly over existing bursts. By adding more bursts you will allow some of the texture from the first burst to show through here and there adding to the variety. Also you can add short dark lines here and there to give the look of dark cracks on the surface.
Let me add an addition concept here. To help make something look like it is sticking out from the surface of the mountain, make it lighter in color than the immediate surrounding area.
In this photo I’m at the summit of the mountain, so I’m starting to change the direction using gradual burst. They will become almost vertical as I transition from the right to the left side of the mountain.
With the summit peak completed I’m now burning down the left side of the mountain. This, of course, means that the strokes are now slanted oppose of the right side, but they are still angled up towards the summit.
Another abrupt burst direction is allowing me to create a little valley on the left side of the mountain. I do want to point out when you add little ridges and valleys, keep them at different heights. Or put another way, if you have a valley on the right side of the mountain, do not make the same identical valley on the left side.
This photo shows how I’ve filled in the mountain a bit more and added darker lines along the valley. The darker the valley, the deeper it will seem.
In this photo I’m just continuing to burn a variety of zigzag bursts to fill in the left side of the mountain with the rough rocky texture.
Once again I’m abruptly changing the direction of the burst to create another ridge or valley.
Now I’m starting a new mountain and I’m currently burning on the right side of it.
Continued work adding zigzag bursts to give the mountain its texture.
Look at how I created a small slightly lower peak on this mountain summit. This is all controlled by abruptly changing the direction you burn the zigzag bursts. And, as this example shows, not all changes need to be large.
Working my way down the left slope of the mountain.
In this photo I’m finishing up my mountains by filling in a bit more along the base area of the first mountain.
Here are the final results of the practice mountain.
Let’s recap a few of the concepts.
- When working on a mountain slope, burn the burst so they are angled towards the peak.
- Burn the bursts with a lot of variety to create a rough rocky looking texture.
- To darken an area burn addition bursts in it, but do not try to re-burn an existing burst.
- Peaks, ridges, and valleys are created with abrupt burst direction changes.
- Ridges and valleys do not need to be huge
- Gradual direction changes are used on the front of the mountain to transition between the right and left slopes.
- Features, like a ridge, will appear to stick out from the mountain face if they are paler than the immediate surrounding area.
- Whereas dark areas look recessed on the mountain.
- The darker the valley is the deeper it appears.
- Add a few dark short lines to indicate cracks
Hopefully you have a better understanding of how I use zigzag bursts to create the texture and shape of the mountain. Now let’s work on our artwork.
STEP 6 – MOUNTAINS
A few rules first:
- Burn one mountain at a time
- The closest mountain is the darkest
- Each subsequent mountain is lighter than the one in front of it
We’ll start with the closest mountain range.
Begin by defining the right slope or edge of the mountain summit.
Continue to burn in bursts as you fill in the right side and face of the mountain with texture.
Work your way across the top of the mountain making sure to change burst direction on occasion.
Unfortunately I bounced around a little on this one, so now I’m working on the far right side of the mountain. This does point out that there isn’t one absolute set way the mountains have to be created. My use of the word “unfortunately” isn’t because I did something wrong, but rather I think it would have probably been easier for you to follow along if I had started on one side of the mountain and burned my way to the opposite side. That said, if it’s easier for you to do that, then please do so.
Notice how I’ve abruptly changed the burst direction in this photo.
In this photo you can see the little ridge, if you will, that I created with the direction change. I do want to point out that if you want to make something seem like it’s sticking out from the face of the mountain, then make it lighter than the immediate surrounding area. On the flip side, to make something looked recessed, like a valley, burn it darker than the surrounding area.
Notice that I’m burning down to the hilltop line and I even cross over it a little bit and that’s ok. The base of the mountain with get covered with trees, so it doesn’t need to be perfectly filled in.
This photo showcases a great example of line width variation. I’m holding the pen so more of the tip is in contact with the wood and this is giving me a much wider line than the razor edge of the pen tip does.
Continued work burning an assortment of bursts to add texture and shape to the mountain.
The next mountain we will burn is the adjacent left mountain.
Continue to define the right edge and when you get near the first mountain burn the bursts a touch paler. In my mountain range, these two mountains are very close to each other, so there is some color difference, but not a lot. If you want this mountain to seem further behind the first one, just increase the contrast especially where they “touch.”
Continued work adding texture and transitional bursts on the mountain face.
Look at the ridge I created just to the right of where I’m burning in the photo. Currently only the dark side of it is burned in, but even that begins to convey a ridgeline look.
Remember, not all ridges and valleys need to be huge. Little ones add variety and visual interest too.
The far left mountain is done and this is how the artwork look so far.
Now we’ll work on the mountain to the adjacent right of the first one we burned.
Start by burning in the right slope of the mountain.
Fill in the right side of the mountain and add any valleys or ridges that you want your mountain to have.
Continue to fill in the mountain with a variety of zigzag bursts to give the mountain its rough rocky texture.
Here’s how the artwork looks so far.
Our next mountain will be the one on the far right.
Once again define the right edge or slope of the mountain.
Continue to burn along the mountain outline, but change burst direction when you crest the summit.
Fill in the left side of the mountain. Remember to keep the color a touch paler than the mountain in front of it.
Fill in the rest of the mountain with assorted zigzag bursts.
Start by burning along the right edge of the mountain.
Notice that the this mountain is considerably lighter or paler than the mountain in front of it.
Continue to burn an assortment of varied zigzags onto the mountain.
If needed, add a few darker short lines to give the impression of dark cracks. Keep in mind that “dark” is relative. Dark on this mountain would be dark tan in color. Whereas the first mountain we did would have dark brown colored cracks on its surface.
Here’s how the mountains look thus far and we only have one mountain left to go.
Let’s burn that last mountain.
Define the right slope of the mountain.
Burn assorted zigzags and gradual burst direction changes to fill in the front face of the mountain.
Lastly, if needed, add a few slightly darker lines here and there.
STEP 7 – THE HILLS
The trees are created with horizontal zigzag strokes, so first I’ll provide a short demo with larger trees to better explain what I’m doing.
First burn a straight (semi-straight) line to represent the tree trunk.
Next start at the top of the tree trunk and begin burning a zigzag line that increases in width as you travel down the trunk.
Continue to burn zigzag strokes down the tree trunk and increase the length of the lines as you work.
Do not try to burn the tree in one continuous zigzag. Burn 2-7 lines in a burst and then start a new one.
Finishing up the first tree. Let’s talk about this first tree. The tree starts out with a very obvious zigzag burst. Going forward from that point it gets harder to tell that the lines are zigzag in nature, but that is because I’m varying the length of some of the lines in each burst. Another thing I do is occasionally tap or dot along a line. The very last line of the tree is an example of this. Instead of being a solid line it looks more like a line made up of short dashes.
With the first tree done, start a new tree by burning trunk a short distance away. Don’t start it on the same horizontal line as the first tree. I burned my trunk slightly higher than the first trunk was burned. This will make it seem as though the tree is growing farther up the hillside.
Again, do not burn the tree limbs in one continuous zigzag burst. I burn 2-7 lines in a burst, lift the pen up from the wood, and then start a new burst in a slightly different location. This will give you some slight gaps here and there. Even with your trees, you need variety just like the mountains do.
Starting a new tree. I tend to burn two trees and then put a one between them creating a triangle of sorts, if you will. And I burn the third tree higher up on the hillside.
Continued work on the new tree. I consider these trees to be main trees because you can see their entire shape.
After the main trees are done, I add filler trees. These trees fill in the rest of the hillside and you don’t see a good portion of them. Each new filler tree I usually burn between two existing trees.
Adding another new tree, and, again, I’m burning it between two existing trees. Don’t always burn the filler tree in the exact center between two other trees.
Notice that when I start to burn near the limbs of existing trees, I shorten my pen strokes so I don’t overlap the limbs of the filler tree onto the other trees.
Here’s how the 5 trees look. Now let’s fill in our hills with trees.
- Burn the tree trunk
- Starting at the top of the tree, start burning horizontal zigzag bursts.
- Increase the width of the bursts the further down the tree you go
- Don’t burn the burst in one continuous line
- Vary where you start a new tree – don’t burn them all on the same horizontal line
- Main trees are in the front and we can see all of them
- Filler trees are the background trees that we only see part of
- Don’t let the filler trees overlap onto the main trees
Armed with the tree creation guidelines, there are a few rules to follow with the hills.
- Always work the closest hill first
- The closest hill has the palest trees
- Each hill farther back has darker trees than the hill in front of it
Start burning in small trees near the starting or beginning point of the hill. I think of these trees as the baby offspring or forerunners that grow to increase the forest edges or boundaries.
The trees increase in size the further inland you go.
Burn the main or front trees first as you work the hillside. The main trees are located along the edge of the forest and are the trees that we see all of their branches on.
You can add main trees if you have large gaps you want to fill in.
Here’s how my forest looks thus far. Notice how the trees in the front are a touch paler than the ones in the back.
Continued work filling in the hill with trees.
Rotate the board and burn a dark line along the bottom edge of the hill. This line is the dirt or mud of the hill and becomes the transition line between the land and the water.
Extend the color a bit up the hill.
Next burn the hill so it is a tan color. This will represent the grass growing on the hill. Don’t worry about making it uniform in color as any variations will just add to the look.
Add slight shadows under the trees, but don’t make them too dark.
Now we’ll burn the left front hill.
This hill is barely in the frame, so it has a few baby trees and the start of the thicker tree grouping.
Finishing up the bigger trees.
I decided to add one more baby tree.
Rotate the board and darkly burn along the bottom edge of the hill.
Burn the hill so it tan in color.
Here’s how the artwork looks thus far.
Pick a place and start burning in main trees. Since this hill didn’t have a obvious beginning to it like the previous two did I choose a spot that I could create a few main trees and then work from there.
After the main or front trees are in place, then start adding filler trees behind them working your way to the right edge of this hill.
Continue to add filler trees so the entire hilltop is covered.
Remember trees burned behind first hill trees are still considered filler trees, so shorten the lines and only burn between the trees on the first hill.
Here’s how the second hill looks so far. Notice how the trees are a little smaller and darker than the trees on the first hill.
Now return to our starting point and begin adding trees as you work your way to the left edge of the hill.
Burn a dark line along the bottom edge of this hill.
Then burn the rest of the hill so it is tan in color and a few subtle shadows on some of the trees.
Here’s how the artwork looks thus far.
The last hill to burn is the distant hill. If you look at pictures of mountain forests some of the distant hills are very dark and all you see are the tips of the tree tops. That’s the look we will create on this last hill.
This is done by burning dark vertical zigzags. Or, if it’s easier for you, just burn lots of dark vertical lines. Make sure to vary the burst line thickness and line closeness.
Make sure to extend the tree tops into the base of the mountain to cover any unburned gaps along the base of the mountain.
Here’s how the artwork looks thus far. Now it’s time to work on the lake.
STEP 8 – LAKE
And, just like the mountains and the hills, there are a few rules to follow:
- Follow the curve of the land.
- Burn really short lines and super small horizontal zigzags
- Keep a thin pale un-burned lined right next to the bottom of the hill to represent the water line.
- Burn a thin semi-dark line below the pale un-burned line. This helps the pale line stand out and helps the viewer clearly see where the shoreline ends and the water begins.
- Water is darker near the shore.
- The lake is lighter in the open or center of the lake.
- Reflections need to be broken up as mirror reflections don’t look that realistic in artwork; especially black and white artwork such as pyrography.
Start burning in the lake using short lines and small zigzags. Leave a thin line un-burned next to the hill edge and also burn a slightly darker line next to the un-burned line. With the short lines and small zigzags my goal is to create the look of a lake whose water is choppy due to the wind blowing.
This is one of the times I like to use Colwood’s E spade shader as it has long metal edges. The long edges allow me to quickly fill in the lake texture. Notice how my lines are following along the contours or edges of the land. I’m not trying to burn perfectly horizontal lines next to the curved edges of the shoreline.
For me I find it easier to rotate the wood to burn along the top of the hill. Make the water a touch darker here so there is good contrast between the hill and the water.
Again, for me, I find rotating the board makes it easier to create the water texture along the bottom of the board.
Burn the water slightly darker next to the unburned thin line next to the hill’s lower edge. I’m not comfortable enough with the E spade tip to do detail work like this.
The water near the hills will be darker than the water in the middle of the lake. Also add the suggestion of tree reflections in this darker zone of water.
Finishing up the reflections.
I said in the beginning that the techniques I used in this tutorial are the same that I used in other artwork and that is true.
Ok, so maybe you’re wondering when would you use a background like this?
What about this idea I’ve shown in the photo. I’ve written several bird tutorials and you can easily add a mountain lake background to them.
Add some tree branches and leaves in front of the mountain scene. Yes, I know my photo painting skills are amazing, but I won’t write a “how to” on it, so don’t ask. 🙂
You could also add a bunch of leaves around the border of the board to give the impression like the viewer is peeking through an opening in the trees to see the mountain. Sorry, but I’m not going to create another photo painting masterpiece for this idea, so you’ll just have to use your imagination.
HELPFUL HINTS (added 12 2018):
I stated this at the beginning, but I’m adding it again.
1 – Make sure that the board is sanded until it is very smooth. Rough spots on the wood can cause the pen tip to snag and interfere with burn results.
2 – Use a light hand pressure when burning zigzags. The razor edge of the shader has a tendency to want to sink into the wood, and a firm hand pressure will cause it to sink even more. I keep a very light pressure when burning. I just let the pen tip glide over the surface.
3 – Keep the heat on medium or lower. Higher heat settings will also cause the pen tip to sink easier into the wood, so try lowering the heat setting and see if that helps.
That’s it for this tutorial. I hope I was able to clearly explain the concepts without the need for watching the video. But that said, the video for this is my first tutorial video, so please watch and let me know what you think? Did it compliment the written tutorial? Where there things you wished it showed, but didn’t?
Now to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently. This artwork was burned on die-cut birch plywood that measured 4 3/4 x 6 1/2 inches (12.1 x 16.5 cm) and it took me 2 1/2 hours to complete. That said this is not a race or contest. I only put how long a project takes me as it is a very common question I get asked.
Until the next blog,
Feb 23, 2018
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Reader submitted art:
This art was created by John in Virginia. I thought John did a fantastic job with the artwork. The mountains have character and the trees look great. John did inform me that burning zigzags was harder than I made it appear. John’s comment is the reason I added some “helpful hints” to the blog. Thanks John for sharing your work with us and letting me know I needed to add some hints to try and make the tutorial easier!
Karen Dotson submitted this beautiful Mountain Lake. I love how Karen used the tutorial as I starting point and then added her artistic take to the work. The distant mountains look like they were painted on and she did a fantastic job with the foreground! Thank you for sharing with us Karen.