The Snail Pyrography Artwork wood burning

In this blog I will discuss the Snail pyrography artwork I created.  The Snail is based on a photo my husband, Todd, took.  He had the day off and went to the beach on a little photo shoot.  He came back with some great photos including numerous shots of this snail sliming along a concrete bunker wall.   I was fascinated with all of the snail photos because of the textures and contrast in the photos.  After debating for several days, I finally decided which photo to use.  This article will talk about the creation of the artwork and the techniques I used to create some of the textures. 

Click on the image to the left to watch a YouTube time lapse video of the artwork being created.




Click on the image to the left to watch a tutorial video that demonstrates how to create some of the textures found on the snail.




This is the photo I used for my art and it was a feast of textures!    I love the growth ring texture on the shell and snail’s bumpy reflective skin.  Those two textures contrast wonderfully with the gritty pebbly texture on the concrete.  Plus I loved the dramatic lighting on the snail’s shell and how his tentacles look translucent.  I was super excited to start working on this project!



I decided that I better force myself to burn in the dark background first.  The background provides the contrast for the shell and is the darkest area on the artwork.   





Burning large sections of wood uniformly in color is a bit monotonous, so it was wonderful to get this part of the art over with.





Here’s a progress photo.  As you can see in addition to the outline of the snail, I also traced in the growth rings, if that’s what they are called, on the shell.  I also traced some of the skin texture and even some of the bumpy concrete.    





Normally I burn in all of my trace lines and erase any residual graphite before I start shading the art.  Since I wasn’t 100% positive how dark I should make things, I left everything in pencil and began burning in the dark shadows of the shell.






The shadows on the shell were created by burning long pull-away strokes that followed the contours of the shell. 

I start the stroke on the darkest part of the shadow and pull it towards the lighter area.






I burned MANY, MANY overlapping pull-away strokes to get a smooth texture, and build up the color and length of the shadows.  What do I mean by building up the length of the shadows?





Cold* wood removes more heat from the pen tip than wood that is still warm from being burned on.  As the pen tip losses heat, the burn stroke fades.   Burning over the stroke while the wood is still warm allows the pen tip to go further before the same amount of heat loss is achieved.  So with each repeated stroke, I can burn further and further from the starting point.   

*Cold actually means wood that is room temperature or wood that has cooled back down from being burned on.


Most of the growth rings were dark due to the way the light hit them, but I did not burn them in super dark.  The reason is that they would get re-burned over when I did pull-away strokes along this section of the shell.  That process would darken up the lines.





Each ring on the shell has an area that was shadowed due to the lighting, so I concentrated on burning in those areas first.








Each ring had a lot of reflected light along the top where it touched the next ring.  So I used pull-away strokes that started on the right or dark edge of the ring and faded before reaching the adjacent ring.





Burning in more growth ring lines.  I don’t know if that’s what they are called, but it sounds reasonable to me, so I’m sticking with that term.






The outer ring was the largest on the shell and the most challenging.  It was more weathered and pitted.





I did take a little break from the shell and started working on the snail’s head and the cast shadows on the body from the shell.  I didn’t get far before I starting questioning how to proceed and how dark to burn the body.   I wasn’t 100% sure how to create the texture on the body yet and how dark to make the snail while maintaining his translucent quality I liked.




As I let the problem bounce around in my subconscious, I went back to work on the shell.   One technique that helped replicate the look of growth rings on the shell was to vary the length and darkness level of the pull-away strokes.




With the outer ring I also had to create thicker ridges along the growth rings.  This was done by creating deeper and larger shadows under them.






In this photo I’m finishing up the shell by adding a little color on the top. 






Here’s a progress photo that I took October 10th.  I only mention the date because I plan to point out the passage of time later in this blog.






With the shell done I started working in earnest on the snail’s body.   I still wasn’t sure how dark to burn the body or how to replicate the texture, so I was hoping that a solution would come to me as I worked.





One of the most challenging aspect of the snail was the translucent quality of his body; especially on the tentacles.   I was afraid that since the background wasn’t done I’d accidentally burn the body too dark and lose the translucent aspects.     I really needed to burn in the background, as that would let me know how dark the body could be.   The problem was that I didn’t have a clue on how to replicate the gritty pebbly concrete texture, so I worked on the snail instead.


Along the top of the snail the skin had rows of irregular ridges, if you will, with shadowed areas between them.  That was pretty easy to burn in.




The sides of the body were more pebbly or bumpy in texture, so it was a lot more challenging.






I switched to a writer pen tip to burn a pale line around each bump.







This process wasn’t fast, but I couldn’t think of any other way to replicate the texture on the skin.   Heck, I wasn’t sure what I was doing was the answer, but I had to try something.






I switched back to the shader to add the larger shadows and lightly burn over the circles I had drawn.   This would make the circles less noticeable creating a more subtle texture.






I alternated between the writer and the shader to build up the texture and color on the snail’s body.  This was not an easy process because I really didn’t have a plan.  I just knew that I wasn’t happy with how it was looking, so I kept plodding along hoping it would turn out.






Some artists, like Lora Irish, plan out their art by determining the hues and textures to use before they start burning.  I do not.  Instead I grab my reference photo, transfer what I need to the wood, and start burning.  I often think that if I took the time to plan out the art then I wouldn’t run into as many problems as I do, but I lack the patience.  I just want to start burning as soon as possible.

Here’s a progress photo taken Nov 1st.   I take photos of my art at the end of each day’s burning session.  I can tell I was frustrated since there are only 3 progress photos between Oct 10th and Nov 1st.  All 3 were all taken around the middle of October.   The next progress photo was taken near the end of January, and that’s almost three months after I took the Nov progress photo.   I would definitely say I was frustrated with this artwork!   




Below are the 3 October progress photos take between Oct 10-Nov 1.  






Fast forward to January when I resumed working on the snail.  At this time I began work on the gravely concrete barrier the snail was traversing.  






A lot of the gravely texture was creating by using the shader pen tip to draw squiggly lines.  Yes, I was scribbling, but the lines were all semi-circular in shape.  Think figure 8’s, but I didn’t always close the loops.  Sometimes I burned in short lines reminiscent of rivers with lots of curves in them. 




As I was creating the small gritty, gravely texture I left room for little pebbles by avoiding the area.






I mentioned before that I wasn’t happy with the snail’s body, so I would take breaks from the background and work on the body again.





I bounced back and forth between the left and right sides of the background burning in the texture and testing out ideas in little areas.  

The reference photo shows that the concrete behind the snail is a touch fuzzy or out-of-focus.  It also has larger pebbles in it.  The closer to the foreground the concrete is the more in-focus it is and the finer or grittier the texture.



As I said, I tested out ideas in little areas to figure out how to replicate the general texture the photo showed.    Near the snail was a testing spot since viewers would concentrate more on the snail than the texture around him.




Despite what a challenge the concrete texture was, I had to have a background around the snail’s body.  Plus the background had to be darker than the body for contrast.  Contrast was needed to so the snail’s pale translucent body would stand out from the unburned wood.    





Let’s look at that November progress photo again.  Don’t look close at it or zoom in.  Instead stand back and look at the picture as a whole.  Is the snail’s body really noticeable?  No.  You can tell that something is there, but it doesn’t pop.  Contrast, in the form of a darker background, can fix this problem.




I continued to burn in an assortment of squiggly lines and left a few small pebbles here and there in there.






I love this photo because it shows the impact of contrast.   Now the tentacle is starting to look translucent!






This photo doesn’t have my hand in the way.  Now the tentacle pops. 








Below is a comparison photo of the tentacle.

You can see the tentacle in the left before photo, but it doesn’t really stand out.   Looking at the right after photo really shows the impact of contrast.  Now the tentacle is very prominent.

Despite being translucent, the snail did cast a shadow on the ground.  The shadow adds to the contrast and really helps his body stand out.





Here’s a close-up photo of the squiggly lines I was burning with the shader.  Notice how they are not very dark?  That was done on purpose.





I used a writer pen tip to burn the same sort of squiggly lines over the ones make with the shader.   I did NOT try to burn over the exact lines I made with the shader.





Instead I just scribbled.  Of course the lines will overlap, but the underlying burning still showed in many places.  This gave me a lot of tonal variation that added to the overall gritty texture. 





I lightly burned over the texture I had created with a shader to reduce the contrast. Plus, this made lines burned in the writer pen tip a little more subdued.





One of the last things I did on the background was to add a little texture to the rocks, and  I added some cast shadows around them.







Now I went back to working on the body of the snail fine-tuning the texture and darkness levels.





Finishing up…or so I thought.






Here’s a photo after I was done, or thought I was.  At this point it is March 8, 2018.  There are a number of progress photos between this one and January.  In fact, I worked on it several times a week.  It was slow going as the concrete texture was a bit tedious to create.





Regardless, I forced myself to continue and eventually got it done.  Before I declare any project as being finished, I put it on a shelf and leave it there for a couple of days.  I do not look at it during this time.  The purpose is to get unfamiliar with the artwork, so when I do finally look at it again it will see fresh and new.

Eight days later, I finally looked at the Snail again decided it needed more work. 






Below is a before/after picture.


Comparing the above photos, it’s easy to see that I darkened up the background.  I also added a few larger pebbles in the foreground.   Since I did more work on the snail, I put it back on the shelf for a few days.  When I looked at the artwork with “fresh” eye I found more things to work on.  I did this several times. 

By the 3rd round of this, even I had to admit that I was nitpicking the art to death, so on April 3, I called the artwork done.  It took me slightly over 6 months from when I started the project, before I finished it.



Did you know that the snail’s eyes are located at the end of the longer tentacles?  I did not know that until I was looking for some information to include in this section.

Snail is a word generally used to refer to gastropod mollusks that have a shell large enough for the animal to retract into.  Whereas slug is a term used to describe a gastropod mollusk lacking a shell.   What I didn’t know is that, according to Wikipedia, a mollusk with a shell too small to retract into is called a semi-slug.

Some people keep snails as pets and there are websites devoted to this.  According to, most snails live 2-5 years, but in captivity some species can live up to 25 years. WOW!   Numerous articles said that snails generally reproduce 5 times a year, and that 80-200 eggs are produced each time.  The math on that is scary!  Lastly, snails can go into a type of hibernation by sealing itself up inside its shell.  They can hibernate for up to 3 years!



Even though I had a difficult time forcing myself to finish the artwork, I’m glad I did because I like how it turned out.  Plus I discovered some new techniques to create some interesting texture and to me that’s a huge bonus.  It’s doubtful I ever would have discovered the techniques without pushing myself to try a challenging project.  I really think that you can learn a lot by trying to create artwork that is harder than you’re used to.  In fact, I think this applies to life too, so push yourself and try something challenging.  You just never know what new things you might discover.

Now to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently.  This artwork was burned on basswood that measured 9 x 12 inches and it took me 17 ½ hours to complete the artwork.

Until the next blog,


Sept 14, 2018

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