In this tutorial I’m going to explain pyrography shading techniques to get smooth gradient color. First I will give you some tips that will help get better burn results and then I’ll explain how to create both uniform color and gradient color. Gradient shading is one of the more difficult skills to master in pyrography. Being able to burn in color that is smooth and uniform will make learning gradient shading easier. I generally start with uniform color and transform it into gradient color.
I have to tell you that I have worked harder on this tutorial than I have on any of my previous tutorials. I really tried to make sure to cover everything I could think that to help explain the steps needed to produce gradient shading. How to get smooth gradient shading is one of the most common questions I get asked from people trying to learn pyrography, but it is a hard question to answer as I can’t see what you are doing. I really hope that I was able to write this so it makes sense, answers a lot of questions I get, and helps improve your results. Please leave me a comment and let me know how I did. If something isn’t clear then put that in a comment and I’ll try to clarify.
I do have a YouTube tutorial video available to help you learn this important skill; just click on the thumbnail to the left.
Let’s get to work.
SKILL LEVEL: 1
TIP 1 – SMOOTH SURFACE
Make sure your burning surface is as smooth as possible. This photo shows a piece of un-sanded plywood. While the surface might feel fairly smooth, a visual inspection shows there is a lot of rough looking texture.
Here’s that same piece of plywood, but the right side of the board has been sanded with 240 grit sandpaper. A line separates the un-sanded and sanded surfaces. You can clearly see a huge improvement of the wood surface after it was sanded.
As I’ve mentioned before, you need to mist the board with water and then let it dry. Examine the photo and notice how rough or gritty the section looks after it was misted with water and allowed to air dry.
Here’s the board after I sanded the right portion to remove the grit (wood grain) that rose to the surface after it was misted with water.
Here’s the same board at a different angle that really shows the difference in texture between the 3 segments.
Here’s a test burn. Unfortunately I ended up burning right over a grain line in the middle burn, so I did a second test burn above it. Ironically it had a little grain line running through the middle too. The results of the test burn between the segments might look similar, but what I can’t convey is how much different it felt.
When I started burning on the sanded portion of the board, it was like skating on ice; the pen tip just glided along the surface so easily.
Now I will admit that I couldn’t feel a huge difference between this surface and the previous one, but it was easier to get consistently uniform burn strokes.
TIP 2 – KEEP PEN TIP CLEAN
Dirty pens tips, especially if they have black carbon buildup, can interfere with heat transfer and the carbon can snag on the wood.
Lots of gunk on the pen tip can make it feel scratchy when burning on wood. It reminds me of burning on wood that hasn’t been sanded.
I’ve also experienced times where the pen felt almost sticky when burning. This has happened on a piece of poplar wood that was still a bit green and it oozed a little sap. I’ve had several different pine boards ooze resin and it’s one of the reasons I don’t like burning on pine.
I keep a piece of polishing cloth next to my easel when I’m working. This photo shows the front and back side of a piece of polishing cloth. This polishing cloth is also called crocus cloth.
Don’t use the front of the cloth while your pen tip is hot as it can remove the brown material. Or so I have heard. 🙂
When I’m working on really dark areas (or leather) I flip the polishing cloth over and use the back side to remove carbon build up as I work. The back of the polishing has more texture to it, so it removes the build up pretty quickly and I don’t have to worry about the heat of the pen tip damaging it.
Note that rough or thick cotton material will accomplish the same thing. I’ve even used a piece of regular copier paper to remove the carbon gunk. Just make sure to put something under the paper as pen heat can penetrate the paper and burn the surface underneath.
TIP 3 – PRESSURE
This is a close up of the left example that a light pressure was use. The pen was allowed to glide over the surface of the wood. The burn is darker and the color more consistent throughout the length of the burn.
Whereas this example was burned using a heavy hand pressure. I was really pressing the pen tip into the wood. The burn starts out dark, but quickly loses the color intensity. To me it looks like I was burning pull-away strokes instead of uniform strokes.
Use a light pressure when burning. You want the pen tip to glide over the surface of the wood. Remember, we’re burning the wood, not engraving it.
Excessive pressure and not sanding the board are probably the two most common reasons people are having problems getting smooth results.
There is an ideal combination of heat setting, hand speed, and stroke length that enables you to avoid irregular burning (example 1) and instead produce nice uniform burns (example 2). I can’t tell you what that ideal combination is for you. You have to experiment to find the ideal combination that produces the best results for you.
Higher heat produces a darker burn. Also, I want to mention that it is a lot harder to get tan and light brown hues if the heat is set high. Tan and light brown hues is where I do most of my work, so I VERY seldom use a high heat.
Obviously a low heat setting will produce a much lighter burn, but if the heat is too low it can be very difficult to burn the wood because you have to move your hand so slowly to get any results.
The goal is to set the heat so that you get a medium tan color using a normal hand speed, so let’s talk about hand speed.
This photo shows a number of lines with a wide range of tonal hues. The heat setting remained the same on every single burn. What changed was how fast or slow I moved my hand.
I had my burner set at 3.0 and moved my hand pretty fast to get the super pale burns along the left. The middle is where my hand speed is normal and I get a nice tan color. Moving to the right my hand speed slows down with each line. The far right line is a very dark burn and was created by moving my hand very slowly down the board.
First of all, what is a comfortable burn length? For me it is the length I can burn without having to move my hand a lot. For example, burning one continuous 8 inch (20.3 cm) line would not be comfortable to me.
Now what about repeatedly? The picture with the question mark shows a patch of color that was created by burning lots of thick lines. I was able to burn each line without getting a dark blotch at the beginning of any line, so I can repeatedly burn the lines and heat buildup wasn’t an issue.
What is heat build up? The minute the pen tip is not in contact with the wood surface, the heat starts to build up on the pen. If the heat gets too hot you will get a dark blotch at the beginning of the burn. If you look at this photo, there is a much darker spot/blotch on the upper right edge of the burn area. This happened because of heat build up.
This is another example of heat build up. By the time I reach the bottom of the burn, lift the pen tip up and return to the top of the area, the heat has built up enough that the burn starts out VERY dark. Once the pen tip comes in contact with the wood, it looses the excess heat and the color begins to fade. Note that I’m keeping my hand speed constant.
The goal is to get back to the top of the area you are working on and start a new line of color before the heat gets too hot. If you are unable to do that, then you either need to decrease the heat setting on the burner or increase your hand speed.
To fix the problem with my last burn example I chose to turn down the heat on my burner. Now I can repeatedly burn lines that are fairly uniform in color and the heat build up isn’t an issue. The only problem for me with this example, is that it is not a very comfortable burn length.
Watching other pyrographers on YouTube and comparing their burn strokes to mine, I’d think it’s pretty safe to say that most of the time the stroke length is under 1″ (2.54 cm) long.
In this example, I have found my ideal combination. I’m able to burn comfortably and repeatedly burn uniform lines without heat buildup being an issue.
Dialing in the ideal combination of heat, speed, and length that works best for you takes time and practice. Obviously, the more you practice the quicker you’ll discover your ideal combination.
Now, I will share with you my settings, but keep in mind that the information is very dependent on the type of burner you are using and the type of pen tip. Even if you are using the same burner as I am (Colwood Super Pro II) yours might still require a different setting.
Heat Setting is around 3. I almost always have to slightly adjust the setting until I get a good medium tan color. When I make adjustments they are done in very small 0.1 increments until I find the ideal heat setting. For example, if I increase the heat I will increase from 3.0 to 3.1, and if it is still not hot enough then I’ll increase to 3.2, etc.
Also, my burner has two pens; Detail and Heavy Duty. I am almost always using the Detail side of the burner as the Heavy Duty tends to burn a lot darker and I find it difficult to stay in the tan to light brown ranges where I normal work.
Lastly, I’m almost always using the J shader which Colwood also refers to as a Tight Round shader. I also use the Mini J shader a lot as it is great for working in smaller areas.
Hand Speed is generally my normal speed where I get a medium tan burn result. From there I can speed up or slow down to change the color.
Keep in mind, that if I’m working on a large dark area, I will turn up the heat setting on my burner versus slowing down my hand speed. I don’t have that much patience that I’m willing to move my hand at a snail’s pace just to avoid adjusting the heat setting.
Stroke Length is usually between 3/8 – 1/2 inch long (0.9 – 1.3 cm). For me this works well, but you will have to experiment to find what works best for you.
UNIFORM COLOR EXAMPLES
Here are 4 examples of uniform smooth color. Examples 1 & 2 were burned with the wood grain and examples 3 & 4 burned against or across the grain. Being able to burn a uniform patch of color is important and will make it easier to master gradient color. Also, with examples 3 & 4 I will discuss how to fix a common problems that can happen when burning.
Begin by burning a thick band of color with a shader. Start the stroke along the upper edge of the area and pull it down or towards you. I do not recommend burning strokes where you pull the pen up and away from you; especially when you are first learning to create uniform color. This applies to gradient color too.
Then burn another thick band of color so it is just barely touching the first band. Keep the color the same as the first band. The key is to maintain the same hand speed during the entire burn.
The minute the pen tip touches the wood, immediately start pulling it towards you. DO NOT PAUSE. Letting the pen tip just sit in one place can create dark blotches.
Continue to burn adjacent bands of color in the area you are trying to fill.
Notice how the length of the strokes are very similar, even if I didn’t burn them in a straight line. 🙂
Also look at how uniform the color is. This was accomplished by using the same hand speed for every single thick line or band that was burned.
In this second example we’re going to take a block of solid uniform color and extend the color.
Now one thing I want to point out is how the bottom edge of this color block varies in length. I do this on purpose when I know I am going to extend the color as it helps prevent a tell-tale seam line where old and new burn lines touch.
Burn a patch of uniform color, but make sure to vary the length of the lines a little so the bottom edge isn’t even.
To extend the color, start a new stroke along the bottom of the color block. The new stroke should be slightly overlapping the bottom of the color block.
The pull the pen tip straight down using the same hand speed you’ve been using all along. This should result in a new wide band of color that matches the color block.
Then it is a matter of burning new bands of adjacent strokes that all start slightly on the bottom edge of the color block. Since each new stroke is starting on a slightly different spot you shouldn’t get a line forming between the old block of color and the new one.
Continue to burn in new wide bands of color. Again each stroke slightly overlaps the ended edge of a stroke on the old or first block of color.
Let me state right off the bat that the technique to burn a block of color has not changed. The only thing that has changed is that I rotated the wood. This allowed me to pull the pen tip towards me as I burned. Sometimes it can be a little more difficult to burn against or across the grain, so it’s a good thing to practice or try.
As you can see in this photo, the right edge of the color block is darker than the rest of the block. Obviously my pen tip had built up a bit of excess heat before I had started.
To fix, just re-burn over the entire color block to darken it up until it matches the dark spot. Don’t re-burn over the dark spot, instead start the stroke just below the spot.
Continue to burn new wide bands of color over the top of the color block.
If you still aren’t happy with the results, you can re-burn again. Just keep in mind that each time you re-burn over the color block, you will darken up the color block.
We start the same; by burning a small block of uniform color.
Then extend the color by burning a second block of color below the first one. This is just like the second example we did.
So far, everything is good and this shows that you can work the patch in small segments.
Now add some wide bands to the first block of color.
Notice how I didn’t vary the ending length of the strokes very much. It is real easy to get into a rhythm while burning and burn your strokes the same length.
Next start extending the color along the bottom block of color. Make sure to slightly overlap each new stroke onto the bottom edge of the upper block of color.
Notice how the bands aren’t quite as dark as the rest of the color blocks? This is problem 1.
This usually happens when most of the strokes in the upper or top band are the same length. The spot where you are slightly overlapping the bands is always a smidgen darker, but if you keep the lines staggered you don’t notice it. In this case I didn’t vary the length of the burn strokes in the top color block, so it is a little noticeable.
To fix problem 1, just re-burn over the strokes in the section that are paler than the rest.
Unfortunately, if you aren’t really careful, it will make problem 2 even worse. What happened is that I started the stroke in the same position I did during the first initial burn. This resulted in the overlapping band getting even darker and more noticeable.
To fix this, re-burn the block of color, but start the stroke below the dark horizontal line/band.
Then re-burn the upper block, but stop the stroke BEFORE reaching the dark horizontal line/band.
GRADIENT COLOR EXAMPLES
Now that we understand how to create solid uniform color, let’s work on creating gradient color. Again I have 4 examples, but this time each one was created differently. I can’t tell you that one method is better than another, so I recommend trying them and see what works best for you.
Begin by burning in a block of solid semi-uniform color, but let the color fade a bit at the end.
Then start burning over the block of color, but make the strokes longer than the first set of burn strokes. Again let the color fade a bit at the end.
Notice how the color is darker along the top where it overlaps the initial burn strokes.
Continue to re-burn over the area to build up the color. Always let the color fade at the end of the burn, so the color starts darker then it ends.
Yes, I worked on just the right part of the color block. Can’t say why, but that’s what I did.
As you can see, I am getting a very nice gradient color burn result.
You do the same thing on the remaining portions of the color block.
If you need the area to be longer, then burn longer strokes.
Keep re-burning over the area to get the darkness levels you want.
I often re-burn numerous times before I get the darkness level I’m after.
To get the top of the area really dark, I re-burned along it using much shorter strokes.
For example 2 we will do horizontal gradient shading.
Begin by burning a patch of uniform color.
Then start re-burning over the patch starting near the halfway mark. The re-burn is just another layer of uniform color.
Continue to re-burn over the patch until you reach the left edge of the patch.
Now re-burner over the patch again, but this time start at the 1/4 mark.
To extend the patch, add more thick bands to the left edge. Make sure the new bands match in color with the left edge of the patch. This will mean either slowing down your hand speed, or re-burning until the color is the same. Keep in mind that even if you slowed your hand speed down, you might still need to re-burn.
Continue to extend the left edge of the patch. Make sure to re-burn over some of the new strokes to keep them increasing in darkness level.
Continue the process of extending the color and re-burning until the patch is as long as you need it to be.
Start the stroke on the upper edge where the color is going to be the darkest. Pull-away strokes ALWAYS start on the darkest part of the stroke.
The pull pen quickly straight down. This cause the color to start dark, but fade quickly.
Each new pull-away stroke should be touching or even slightly overlapping the previous stroke.
Re-burning over the area will smooth out the color, and, if desired, you can extend the color a little.
The last example relies on circular motion to extend the color out from a patch of uniform color.
First burn a patch of uniform color. The patch is the darkest area on this method of gradient color, so re-burn as needed to get it to the desired darkness level.
Then start burning around the patch using circular motion.
Work your way around the patch using circular motion. Note that you only burn circular motion in the areas where you want to extend the color. In this example I choose not to extend the color along the left side of the patch.
You’ll need to re-burn over the circular motion until your hide the obvious right edge of the uniform color patch.
Depending on how dark the uniform patch it, it might take several re-burnings to hide the edges it.
Once the uniform patch edges have been blended, then start extending the color again. Like before, you burn around the area making sure to burn a new area and re-burn over the last area.
Producing gradient color with circular motion is the hardest of the different gradient shading methods to master. I do use this method a lot as it doesn’t have clearly defined edges (left edge excepted in this example). When I do folds in clothing, they are almost always done using circular motion.
That is it for this blog. The ability to burn smooth uniform color is important and so is gradient shading. I hope that I was able to offer some tips and techniques to help you improve your pyrography skills. I love hearing from you, so leave a comment and let me know what you think. Like I said near the beginning of this tutorial, I worked really hard on this blog, so please let me know what you think. Did the tutorial help and answer your questions? Was the information understandable? If it wasn’t what do I need to clarify? Also if you have ideas for future tutorial leave a comment and let me know.
Until the next blog,
Feb 22, 2019
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