Using Watercolor Grounds in Pyrography tutorial wood burning

In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to use watercolor grounds in pyrography.  Watercolor grounds are used to create a surface that is similar to watercolor paper.  This lets you use all sorts of liquid mediums like paints, dyes, and inks on wood.  I got the idea from Valarie Connell who adds color to a lot of her artwork.  Her use of watercolors intrigued me, so I decided to test it out.  In this blog I will explain how to apply the grounds to get the smoothest surface results and why watercolor grounds are useful. 

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



As I mentioned in the intro, I got the idea about watercolor grounds from Valarie Connell of Drawing With Fire.  She frequently incorporates different color mediums into her pyrography like inks, colored pencil, and watercolor to name a few.  She has a live burning demo every week, so if you ever wanted to see pyrography created in real time this is a perfect opportunity.  Here is her YouTube channel link:

Valarie also has site for pyrography to gather, post art, and get help.

Now, let’s get to work.


I used the Daniel Smith brand of transparent watercolor grounds.  I’m sure there are many other brands out there, but just make sure to use the transparent variety so the underlying pyrography can show through. 




NEVER EVER burn over the watercolor grounds!  The grounds are made out of an acrylic emulsion and acrylics are a type of plastic.  Most, if not all, plastics emit toxic fumes when heated and your health isn’t worth risking.



Watercolor grounds have the consistency of glue and have a slight glue-ish aroma to them.  Since they are made out of acrylic, they tend to dry quickly.






My first attempt at applying the grounds to a little test piece of wood didn’t go well.  The grounds clumped and streaked over the wood surface.  The results weren’t smooth, so I started testing out different application methods.  Below is the method that think produces the best results.





Step 1 – Prep the Wood

Smooth the wood surface by sanding it with at least 220 grit sandpaper.  The smoother the surface is the better the burn results will be.  






Liberally wet the wood.  I used a pump spray bottle for this, but a wet sponge, wet paintbrush, or even running the wood under the faucet will work.   The reason for this step is to make the grain of the wood rise.






It’s okay if the water beads up. 

LET THE WOOD DRY COMPLETELY.  The wood should feel dry to the touch.  If it feels even slightly damp, then leave it alone.  After the wood is dry, the board will feel slightly fuzzy or soft.  The nap of the wood, or it’s grain if you will, has risen in response to the application of water.




After the wood has completely dried, then sand it again with sandpaper that is at least 220 grit.  The second sanding will remove the grain that was raised up and return the board to a nice smooth finish.






Step 2 – Apply the Grounds

A) Use a clean, damp, wide paint brush to lightly dampen the wood.  This will help the first layer of grounds from drying out too quickly and clumping.







B) Dip a clean, damp, wide paint brush into the grounds and apply to the wood surface.  Work quickly to spread the grounds evenly over the entire wood surface in a horizontal direction.







C) Then lightly brush over the grounds in a vertical direction to eliminate any lines and clumps.








Occasionally dip the brush in water and blot it on a paper towel to keep the grounds from drying on the brush.   This could be my imagination, but it seemed that as the grounds started to dry on the brush they began to suck the moisture out of the grounds on the wood making it more difficult to spread the grounds around.   


D) Let it dry completely: 3-4 hours.

E) Very lightly sand with 280 grit sandpaper.   I do mean very lightly sand.  If you feel the surface of the wood, it will feel slightly gritty or rough because of the grounds.  A light sanding will make it feel smooth again.





This photo shows the gritty surface after a layer of grounds was applied and allowed to dry.





This photo shows how the surface looks after it was very lightly sanded.





F) Pour some grounds into a small container and thin by adding a little water.  The label says the most you can add is 10% water.  I added about 1-2 drops of water for every teaspoon of watercolor grounds.







G) Apply a second coat of watercolor grounds.  This coat should be a thin layer like the first one.   DO NOT wet the board before applying this layer, but it does help to regularly wet and blot the paintbrush. 


H) Again, let it dry completely: 3-4 hours.





I) Lightly sand over the watercolor grounds.







REPEAT.    Repeat the above four steps (F-I) until you have 4-5 layers of watercolor grounds applied to the wood.

J) Let the watercolor grounds cure fully. The jar says that this takes 24-48 hours to do. I let the wood cure for 48 hours before I added any color.  Applying the grounds to the wood takes time, so I didn’t want to ruin all of that work by using the board before it was fully cured.

If you get a white clumpy area during the application process, quickly clean the brush of watercolor grounds.  Then wet the brush and rub it over the area until it smooths out.  The brush should not be dripping water, but instead it should be very damp feeling.






The top half of this board was coated with 5 layers of watercolor grounds.  The bottom half was left uncoated.  As you can see, the watercolor grounds do impart a slight sheen to the wood.







This is my first color test.  I know it doesn’t look like much, but it demonstrates what watercolor grounds can do.   Let me explain what I did, so you will understand my test board.  








I divided the board into equal squares.  The lower two squares were coated with watercolor grounds and the upper two are untreated.







Next I covered the right two squares with frisket film and then airbrushed color onto the left two squares.








I applied an assortment of airbrushed layers; some thin and some very thick.  I even spidered the paint along the dividing line just to see if there was a difference between the treated and untreated wood.







After the paint dried, I removed the frisket from the wood.  The frisket made a very nice seal on the wood and it didn’t remove or mar any of the watercolor grounds.






Here’s how the airbrushed side of the board looked after I was done.  To me the airbrushing looked the same on both the treated and untreated wood.








Next I applied watercolor to the right side of the board using a paint brush.









After applying two wide strokes of color I tried to blend the color out.  I started with the treated side and the colored blended out very easily. 







Then I tried to blend the color on the untreated portion of the wood, but it didn’t do much.  








Here’s how the wood looked after my blending attempt.  With the top untreated portion of the wood, the paintbrush picked up some of the surplus color and smeared that around slightly, but you could easily see the original brush strokes.  Whereas the bottom section that was treated blended the color very smoothly.





Next I applied a thick curving line of paint on both the treated and untreated wood.







I wet the paint brush and pulled the brush horizontally through the paint on the treated side. 






Then I repeated this process on the untreated portion of the wood.  Like before, the untreated portion of the wood didn’t blend out very well.  Again, it was very easy to see where the paint was originally applied.






Because I love to experiment, I tried running a wet paint brush through the untreated side of the wood that was airbrushed.







I did the same for the treated section.






Let’s look at the test panel again now that you know what I did to it.   

The untreated wood on the top of the test board showed brush marks and the color didn’t blend.  Instead it stained the wood.  

The treated wood on the bottom of the test board allowed the color to blend and be re-worked.  Even after the color was dry you could still move the color around using a wet paint brush or adding water to the surface.



After doing the color test, I decided I needed to test out the watercolor grounds on a piece of pyrography.  I had three goals with this test: 1) see if the grounds affected the pyrography, 2) see if the grounds improve the airbrush results, and 3) determine if it was better to airbrush or paint the color on the wood.




I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on the pyrography portion of this, so I burned in a simple butterfly.






I applied the grounds over the pyrography except for the upper left corner.   Since I was going to airbrush the left side of board, I needed an untreated section for comparison.





Here’s how the board looks straight on.  If I had treated the entire board I don’t think you would be able to tell the board was treated unless you angled it in the light to see the slight sheen.  

So the answer to my first question is that the watercolor grounds DO NOT affect the pyrography.




I started with the airbrushed side as I needed to apply frisket film.  All of the butterfly and the entire right side of the board was covered with the film.






I removed the frisket from the left side of the butterfly and airbrushed yellow onto the wings.







Here’s the board after all of the frisket was removed.  The color looks pretty similar on both sides of the board – (treated and untreated).






In this photo I’m angling the board to see if I can notice anything; and I can.  The upper portion of the board (untreated) looks a little grainy and less smooth than the lower portion.








Here’s the board at a different angle.   What I see at this angle is that the more layers of airbrushed paint there are, the smoother the color looks.  Especially on the treated side of the wood.






The answer to my second question about whether the grounds makes a difference for airbrushing is: yes.  The watercolor grounds created a smoother surface on the board, so on the treated section the color looks smoother and less slivered.  Keep in mind I’m using plywood for my test. 

All plywoods have a slivered surface on them and some brands are worse than others.  No amount of sanding will completely remove the slivering.  This photo shows a piece of plywood that was burned over to show the slivering.  

One of the benefits to watercolor grounds is that it fills in the micro slivers producing a smoother surface for the paint.



I used a paint brush to do the right side of the board. 







I originally started out trying to create the gayfeather flowers around the butterfly, but I’m not very good with a paint brush, so that didn’t go well.







After a few frustrating attempts at “painting” the background, I gave up and decided to have fun.  I applied a lot of water and dabbed the color into it letting it swirl around and blend as it pleased.





Here’s the final color test picture again.  I like the watercolor side a lot better than the airbrushed side, but truthfully neither side looks like flowers.






The last thing I wanted to decide with this test was whether it is better to airbrush or brush on color.  I cannot answer this question.  I think they both have potential to create some interesting effects, but I hate painting.  I think paint brushes have a mind of their own and their goal in life is to do the opposite of what I want them to do. 

That said I did have fun slopping some paint onto the wood and letting the colors do as they pleased.



Watercolor grounds fill in micro slivers on plywood giving the wood a smoother surface for paint.   Also the watercolor grounds create a workable surface on the wood that allows the paint to float on the wood instead of staining it.

If you are planning on adding watercolor to your pyrography artwork,  I would highly recommend coating the wood with watercolor grounds. As for airbrush applications, I’m not sure if the amount of work it takes to get the grounds applied is worth it. 

I hope the information I provided about watercolor grounds was helpful.  Have you tried to add color via airbrushing or watercolors?  Leave a comment and tell me about it.

Until the next blog,


Aug 31, 2018

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