Pyrography Tutorial The Covered Bridge – A study of contrast in wood burning

In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to create the Covered Bridge pyrography artwork.  This artwork is the 7th installment in my mini project series.   My primary goal with this artwork is to demonstrate the importance of contrast in creating visually striking images.  The secondary goal is to show you how to create the different textures in the artwork; like the trees and the wooden bridge.   

Click on the image to the left to watch a YouTube video tutorial version of this artwork. 




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

Now, let’s get to work.





With all of my tutorials there are common words or phrases that I use like ‘Optimal Pen Tip Position’ or ‘Circular Motion,’ if you are unfamiliar with my terminology I have a tutorial that explains them.   Using the Shader


For this artwork, I used a stamp.  This photo shows the image of the stamp. 







This is the line drawing I traced onto the wood from the stamped image. 

You can choose, if you’d prefer, to use the line drawing I did or the pdf of the stamp.






This image is the low contrast version of the bridge.  I will only be using this version to occasionally compare it with the high contrast version.  The process that I used to create this version is exactly the same as the high contrast; the only different is the range of tonal values I used.   For the low contrast I tried to keep everything in the tan range, but did use some light brown tones.  




With the high contrast version I used the full tonal range available in pyrography, so everything from light tan all the way to dark brown.







Smooth the wood surface by sanding it with at least 220 grit sandpaper. 

Then thoroughly wet the board by misting it with water or running it quickly under the sink faucet.  Let the board dry and then sand again.

This will produce a super smooth surface.  The smoother the surface is the better the burn results will be. 






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.   





With the writing pen tip on medium low, lightly burn in the trace lines. 

After you have burned in the trace lines, rub over the surface with a pencil eraser to remove any residual graphite. 






We’ll begin with the shadows on the bridge and the tree branches.







Use a shader of your choice to darkly burn in the visible walls inside the bridge.  Be careful when burning around the flower petals.   Keep your pen tip in optimal position when burning around the edges.





I tend to burn around the edges first and then fill in the center.






Switch to a writer pen tip to burn in the support beams visible in the opening along the left wall on the bridge.  If you prefer, you can use the razor edge of the shader for this step.





Then darkly burn in the tree branches that are visible on the background trees.






Don’t forget the tree along the right of the image.







Next use the razor edge of the shader to burn a thin dark line along the underside of the roof.






Use the shader to burn in the cast shadows from the roof onto the bridge walls.  Burn the shadows to a lighter brown color.







Let’s compare contrast between the two images by looking at the composite photo below. 

What is the first thing you noticed between the images?

What I noticed is how intense the dark shadows inside the bridge are in image B.  The dark brown shadow inside the bridge contrasts very nicely with the flower petals in image A and this makes the image more visually interesting.


Now we’ll burn in all of the trees in the background behind the bridge.






Let’s begin with the largest tree to near the front opening of the bridge.  I used circular motion to create the foliage, so let’s see how that was accomplished.








Use a shader of your choice and move your hand in a very small circular motion.   






Start at the back or shady side of the leaves.  I visualized the sun being on the left in my artwork, so the shady side is on the right.






As I said, I’m using circular motion for this process, so I’m literally moving my hand in very small circles.  To get a range of tonal values or color, I vary how many times I repeatedly burn the same small circles. 





Look closely at the small patch of foliage that has been done and you can see the tonal variations it has. 






Make sure to use a light pressure while working.  Light pressure will help keep the pen from sticking or catching on the wood and ensures the heat of the pen remains constant.






It might help to think of the tree as composed of several small shrubs and you are working on one small shrub at a time.






After one section is done, then move to another section and begin by burning  on the shadowed side first.






In this photo you can really see the large tonal variety my tree has.  Notice how the shadows are all located along the inner portion of the tree where the sun doesn’t reach as easily.






It doesn’t matter if you work right to left, top to bottom, or start in the middle like I did.  Take your time and work a small section at a time and before you know it the tree will be done.   

In this photo I’m almost done with the tree, but I’m not happy with the lower left section as it doesn’t have any darker shadows on it.





To fix this is just a simple matter of re-burning along the shadowed side of the tree.







In this photo I’m darkly burning in a section of tree behind the branches.  Make sure to avoid the roof of the bridge while burning along this area.







Now we’ll work on the evergreen tree to the left of the large tree we just finished.  For this tree we will use a combination of zigzags and single lines.








Start at the top of the tree and burn a few short lines to give the tree it’s pointed or peak top.







Work your way down the tree burning more single and/or short zigzags.  I basically burned zigzags in “V” shapes down the tree. 






I overlapped the V’s slightly to break up the V shape.








It is important to keep some pale lines visible so your tree has the impression of branches.








Finishing up.








For the small shrub next to the fence, burn a row of tan lines along the outer edge of the shrub.  I burned the row using a zigzag motion, but you can also just burn individual lines.






Burn a second row of darker tan lines below and slightly overlapping the first row.






Notice how I’m burning the row of lines in a curve following the contour of the shrub.  This is giving the shrub a rounded or mounded appearance.







Burn in a final row of lines to fill in the center of the shrub.







Also make sure to burn between the fence posts







Repeat the process we used on the large tree for this tree behind the bridge. 






While we’re working in the area, re-burn over the birds to darken them.  I’m using the razor edge of the shader, but a writer pen tip can also be used.





Continued work on the tree.






This is the last of the deciduous trees in the image.







Give it the same treatment as you did the other two tree.   Notice how I made sure that the top right edge of the middle tree is lighter than the tree behind it.  This helps separate the two and give a sense of depth to the artwork.






Burn in the evergreen tree on this side.  I began by burning a row of dark lines along the outer edge of the tree.  You can do the same or replicate the steps you used on the first evergreen tree. 






Whichever method you choose, the tree will look good. 








Use care when burning around the flower petals.  I’m working in a really small area, so I’m using a mini shader.  If you decide to create this artwork, I would recommend enlarging the image a bit so it’s easier to work in the tight areas around the flower petals.







Let’s do another contrast comparison by examining the composite photo below. 


You can see that both images have a fair amount of detail.  The assorted trees are easy to tell apart and the bridge opening is very noticeable, but which image do you prefer and why? 

For me, image B just pops and is a lot more visually interesting.  Whereas image A looks washed out and drab to me.  With image B I find my eye lingers longer and I look around the image more.  Basically I’m noticing or looking at the different high contrast areas; tree branches, evergreen trees, and, of course, the dark insides of the bridge.

There is one more step to do before we’re done with the trees.  Use a shader to burn some tree or shrub foliage behind the opening on the left side of the bridge.  Go ahead and burn right over the dark beams as you’re not going to change their color in any noticeable way.   

When I was done with this I realized I should have burned foliage along the left edge of the bridge.  If you create the artwork, I would recommend burning along there.





In this step we will be burning the walls or sides of the bridge.  I will not be able to do a contrast comparison for this step as I deviated from the order in which I burned in image.  In the low contrast I burned in the foreground (flowers, bird, etc.,) first and burned in the sides of the bridge last.





Begin by using the razor edge of the shader or a writer pen tip to burn vertical lines down the length of the bridge.  The lines represent the seam where two boards touch.






The lines do not need to be perfectly straight, uniform in color, or spaced evenly apart. 






In fact, a little variety will add interest and help the bridge look a little weathered.






Then burn over the right side of the bridge making it a medium tan color. 







Make sure to burn in the area below the opening.








Repeat the process along the front of the bridge, but make it a shade or two lighter than the right side.   As you can see from the photo, I’m giving the front of the bridge color before burning in the seam lines.





Use the razor edge of the shader to burn in the seam lines.  







Rotate the board, if needed, and burn a thin dark line along the upper edge of the roof.  If you have a knife tip you can use that instead as they are perfect for burning straight thin lines.   Knife tips are also called rounded heels or skews. 






Burn a thin dark line along the inner edge of the roof line.







Do the same steps for the remaining edges on the roof.








Including the upper edge of the roof.  If needed, darken up the lower edge of the tree to next to the roof to increase the contrast.






I also decided to darken up the underside of the adjacent tree just a little.








Let’s burn in the objects in the foreground like the flowers and bird to finished up the image.






Switch to a writer pen tip and start burning in the leaves and stems of the flowers.







A very simple thick dark tan line is sufficient to represent the leaves and stems.






I did NOT try to add any shading or shadows to the leaves and stems; instead I kept them as very basic lines.  If the line was not uniform in color, I let it be.






Next use the writer to burn a dark line under the lower edge of the bridge.  Try to avoid the petals, stems, and leaves of the flowers while doing this.   Also burn the body of the small butterfly to a dark color.  I put a small yellow arrow just above the butterfly to mark its position.




Burn in the ground around the flowers to a medium tan color.  I chose to use a standard writer pen tip for this.







Burn a dark line under the front left wall of the bridge.






Extend the line so that it defines the bottom edge of the fence.








Then burn in the ground in front of the bridge.  Again I used a standard writer pen tip for this step.  Also I used a horizontal zigzag or back and forth motion to give a slightly irregular color.  This added a little ‘rough’ texture to the road.  I kept the left side a bit darker to make it seem like the fence and shrubbery was casting a little bit of a shadow onto the road.




Lightly burn in the fence and add a few lines here and there to give it a slightly weathered look.






Next, use the writer to burn the bird’s tail feathers to a medium brown color.  I did not try to create individual feathers.






Then burn in the bird’s wing, but make it a shade or two lighter than the tail.  Lightly burn along the lower edge of the wing and continue the line to the bird’s throat.  I left the shoulder of the wing unburned or very light tan in color.





Burn the bird’s back to the same color as the tail, but let the color lighten by a few shades when you near the bird’s head.







Burn along the edges of the bird’s head.  To make it stand out it needs to be considerably lighter than the shadows inside the bridge.  I left the belly completely un-burned.






Burn in the grass clump or whatever the foliage is next to the rock.








I burned the grass clump just like a did the flower stems & leaves, so the fronds are nothing more than thick lines.  Just like the flower stems and leaves, I didn’t worry about making the lines uniform in color.   Just make sure to avoid the flower petals in front of the fern.  





Burn a line along the edge of the rock.








Then burn a line down the center of the fern fronds.








These could be some sort of flower, but I’m going to call them a fern frond instead.







Then burn around each nodule on the frond.  Please keep in mind that I’m not a botanist, so I don’t have a clue what the technical terms are for the different parts of the plant.






Switch to a shader and burn in the side of the rock.  Give it a base tan color and then burn an assortment of thin short vertical lines on the side.  Add a crack if you want like I did by burning a thicker vertical line.






Lightly burn over the top of the rock.







Make sure your shader, or writer pen tip, is on low heat.  Then burn in the flower petals.  Start the burn stroke on the flower center and pull it outward towards the end of the petal, but stop the stroke near or just past the halfway mark.  






Burn in the top of the roof to a tan color.







Then use the razor edge of the shader to burn thin diagonal lines on the roof.  Again if you have a knife tip it is great for burning thin straight lines.






Burn a thin dark line under the rock.







Add some blotches or small dots to the top of the rock for a little texture. 

I have to mention that I’m not really thrilled with how the rock turned out, so if you want to try something else – go for it!  Hopefully you’re rock will look better than mine.





Lastly, if needed, darken up the side of the rock and add more vertical lines.







Now it’s time for the final comparison between the low and high contrast image. 

Comparing the two, which image do you think is more visually striking?  

Again for me I really prefer image B.  There is a lot more contrast between the bridge and the white daisies, so the daisies are a lot easier to see.  All of the dark brown areas on the artwork help guide the eye around the artwork and keep your interest longer. 

Image A has a fair amount of detail in it, but it lacks pizzazz.    Again, to me it just looks washed out and boring when compared to image B. 

Quite truthfully, it doesn’t take a lot of work to incorporate contrast into your artwork.  Generally all you need to do is make sure a few of the shadows are really nice and dark, and have a few really pale areas.   For the covered bridge I have the dark shadowed opening contrasting with the white petals of the daisies.  


That’s it for this tutorial.   I hope I was able to convey the importance of contrast in your artwork.  Artwork looks so much better if you incorporate some extreme contrast in the image.  One more image I want to share with you is the Christ of the Mines artwork I did as it is a perfect example of high contrast.

This is my Christ of the Mines artwork I did and I’ve had numerous people tell me the statue looks like it could be picked up.  The statue stands out so well because of the dark background.  Also the contrast between textures really helps the statue stand out.  The statue is smooth and pale, but the rocks behind it are rough and dark.  I can’t emphasize enough the need for contrast in your artwork. 

I hope that this blog will help you think about the importance of contrast and incorporate it into your own artwork.

Now to answer a couple of questions I get asked frequently.  This covered bridge was burned on birch plywood that measures 5 x 7 inches (12.7 x 17.8 cm).  Both versions of the bridge were burned onto the same piece of wood, so each image is pretty small measuring around 3 x 3 inches (7.6 x 7.6 cm).   It took me a total of 2 1/2 hours to complete both bridges.   That said, this is not a race or contest.  I only put how long a project takes me as I get asked that question a lot.

Until the next blog,


Apr 12, 2019

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4 thoughts on “Pyrography Tutorial The Covered Bridge – A study of contrast in wood burning

  1. Hi Brenda

    Seeing the two results side by side really shows how important it is to pay attention to the contrast.

    Thank you for all your postings. I know it takes a lot of time and I appreciate what you do for us.
    Your tutorials are so detailed and easy to follow that I just have to try it myself and I ordered a Colwood Detailer.
    Thank you again.


    1. Hi Billy,
      A lot of times we don’t think about contrast, but it really can make the difference between good and great artwork.
      How exciting! I hope you will get a lot of use out of your burner when it comes in, and, more importantly, I hope that you will really enjoy pyrography. It has become almost an obsession with me and I seldom work in any other medium now.

      Thank you for your wonderful comment and welcome to the pyrography community!

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