Todd and I were camping up in the Olympic National Park last fall as I wanted to get some pictures of elk during the mating season. Unfortunately the elk were extremely camera shy, so we didn’t get any worthwhile photos. During one of our numerous hikes, we spotted this Douglas squirrel eating the nuts from pine cones. He was very calm and only left his perch to retrieve another pine cone before returning. We took several photos and I used one of them to create this artwork. In this blog I will discuss the creation of the Douglas Squirrel pyrography artwork.
I did a YouTube tutorial on how I created the tree bark on this artwork. Note that this blog is not a tutorial, but if you want a better understand of my tree bark method then click on the image to the left.
I had this piece of two-tone basswood sitting in my pile waiting for a project.
I was sorting through the photos from the camping trip and this picture of the Douglas squirrel stood out to me. What I liked about the photo was the assorted textures and the orange of his belly fur.
Digging through my boards, I found the two-tone board and figured I could use it for the squirrel. I transferred the image to the board and started burning in some of the trace lines.
I burned in some of the lines around the face and then switched to my favorite pen tip, Colwood’s Tight Round J shader, and began burning in around the eye area.
I know I’ve mentioned before that the eye and face of the subject are the most important part when doing animals and people. That’s because the face is almost always the first thing we look at. If the face is wrong, then the artwork just made a bad impression.
I burned in the squirrel’s fur using the zigzag burn method. This method is exactly like it sounds. I literally burn zigzag lines. I only burn a few at a time and then move to a different spot and burn a few more.
Zigzags produce excellent short fur texture and the process is pretty quick to do. I stipulate that it is perfect for short fur as the burn method doesn’t work near as well on medium length fur. On long fur it doesn’t work at all.
Generally speaking, I burn in features or the distinguishing marks first.
Doing this helps me compare my artwork to the reference photo; it’s sort of like having a map with landmarks to navigate by. The more features, or landmarks, I burn in the easier it becomes to navigate or compare with the reference photo.
One of the most important things about burning in fur is to burn the strokes in the fur growth direction.
To darken an area is just a matter of burning more zigzags over the existing ones.
In fact, before I’m done with the artwork, I will have burned a minimum of two layers of zigzags over ALL of the fur. It’s not uncommon that I burn four layers of fur before I think it looks right.
I really think that multiple layers give wonderful tonal depth and amazingly realistic results.
The reason for this is that additional layers will never be burned exactly the same. Or, put another way, I’m not darkening up the same zigzag lines. Instead the new zigzags intersect and overlap different lines.
Another thing that can be done is to slow down your hand speed. This will produce a much darker burn result.
Zooming in on the band I’m burning, you’ll see that there is a lot of tonal variation. I had already burned two layers of fur, and with this third layer I slowed down my hand speed and got a much darker burn. Since I’m using a zigzag stroke, some of the underlying color peeks through.
As I debated about the belly fur darkness, I went back to burning in the fur along his back and sides.
This photo shows an area where I’m burning additional zigzag layers to build up the color and tonal depth. Again, I want to mention that I do not turn up the heat setting on my burner when I do this. Instead I’m just burning additional layers of zigzags to get a darker look and slowing my hand speed down a little.
I already mentioned that the zigzags need to be burned in the fur growth direction. Sometimes it is easier to do this by rotating the board as I have in this photo.
In this photo I’m using the shader pen tip to burn in some of the trace lines on the squirrel’s feet.
Continuing to burn in trace lines.
I’m burning an additional layer of zigzags along the squirrel’s arm.
Yes, when I’m working on personal projects I tend to bounce around a lot as I’m burning. Since I’m constantly comparing my artwork to the reference photo, I will see something that needs fixing or adjusting and off I go.
In this picture I’m burning a light layer of pale fur. There are some artists who map out what shade or tone of brown they will use in the different areas before they start burning. I’m not one of those.
Instead I pick a spot and use that as my color control. In this photo you can see a dark band of color that I marked with a yellow arrow. Excluding the tail, this band was the darkest area on the fur, so everything needed to be paler in relation to it. As I worked on different areas of the squirrel I would determine how much lighter the area should be in relation to my color control.
The squirrel had these little white things on its ear. I’ve never seen this on any other Douglas squirrel, so I suspect it was some sort of parasite or tumor.
One of the great things about being an artist is the ability to add or omit details. I chose to leave the white things out.
Along the back of the foot, the shadows got pretty dark, so the color gets pretty close to the dark band.
In this photo I’m starting to burn in the pine cone. The pine cone had an interesting pattern or shape to it. I don’t think I had ever seen one like this before.
Where I’m burning is a small area that you could see the tree. The darkness of that spot was perfect for contrasting with the pale belly fur.
I’m burning the jagged area on the branch end where it broke off.
As the squirrel dismantled pine cones to get at the nuts, he would drop pieces of the cone. Some of the pieces landed on the jagged branch area. That little pile of debris added textural interest.
I burned up to and around the debris, but decided I’d finalize the area later. Instead I started working on the tree bark. If you look at this photo you will notice how bowed I burned the edge of the tree. It’s how the tree was shaped in the reference photo, but I hated how it looked in my artwork.
As I contemplated what, if anything, I was going to do about it, I went to work on the dead branch.
I really liked the texture I created for the dead branch as it was a combination of zigzags and circular motion burn methods.
The bowed tree bothered me too much and I spent considerable time sanding and scraping away the burn. This photo shows the results of my endeavors. I burned a vertical line where I wanted the new edge of the tree to be, but you can still see a ghost of the old burn. I was hoping that once I was done re-burning the tree it wouldn’t be very noticeable.
This is the final results of my cosmetic fix. It’s not perfect, but I liked how the shape of the tree a lot better.
Now I’m back to working on the dead branch.
Finishing up the dead branch.
I’ve burned a few pieces of the pine cone debris in this photo.
Now I’m working on the tree bark behind the squirrel. The tree bark covered all of the darker wood on my two-tone board. My goal was to hide the fact that the board was two-toned.
Working on the tree bark was a bit boring, so I’d burn on the bark for a bit and then work on something else. Here I’m fine-tuning the squirrel’s feet.
I’m just starting to work on the bushy tail. I used white charcoal to draw the pale hairs and carefully burned around the charcoal.
I want to point out that I’m not burning the area behind the charcoal as a dark mass. Instead I’m burning hairs while trying to avoid the white charcoal marks. If you look closely near the area I’m burning you’ll see many “strands” of fur in assorted colors.
In this photo I’ve erased the white charcoal and I’m continuing to burn in hairs and add color to the pale lines.
This photo shows the type of burn strokes I’m doing. The lines are thick and curved. Almost every burn stroke was burned in a slightly different direction. One might have a gentle curve, another might be ‘s’ shaped, another curly to the left, etc.
Basically, what I’m saying is that I used lots of line direction variety while working on the tail.
I also needed to burn the tree bark that showed behind the tail. To accomplish this I rotated the wood and carefully burned around each hair on the tail.
At this point the majority of the work I needed to do was the tail and the tree bark. So I worked a small section of tail at a time, drawing in pale hairs with a white charcoal pencil, and then carefully burning around the pencil marks.
Now I’m burning in the background behind all of those lines I just drew in.
One of the things I made a point of doing was burning over the pale lines to make them tan instead of white. Some I would burn over several times to vary to color of the highlights.
Here’s another progress photo.
Now I’m fine-tuning areas. In this photo I’m adjusting the darkness on the belly fur.
I was having problems making the face look right, so I placed the reference photo right next to where I was working.
Below is a composite photo that shows my artwork and the reference photo.
What do you think?
I look at the photo and I can’t see signs of the two-tone wood without really searching for it, so I’m happy about that. I like the squirrel, but I think I should have made the belly fur a little darker. There are a couple other little areas I see now that I’d like to fine-tune, but it is too late. First of all, I’ve signed off on the art. I have this rule that once I sign off on the art there’s no more working on it. And, secondly, the artwork has been sealed, so even if I wanted to break my rule I can’t.
I hope that you enjoyed this blog. I do try to provide some useful information even in my non-tutorial articles and I would love to know if I’m successful in this endeavor. Do you like the artwork, did I provide some useful information, is there a subject you’d like to see in the future? Please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.
Now to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently. This artwork was burned on basswood that measures 11 x 14 inches (27.9 x 35.6 cm). It took me 19 hours to complete the artwork.
Until the next blog,
Jun 22, 2018
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