Pyrography Tutorial Crashing Ocean Waves wood burning technique with airbrush color

A month or so back I was asked by Keith to write a tutorial explaining how to create ocean waves in pyrography.  I’ve never created an ocean scene before and have wanted to try it, so this blog is all about that attempt.    This tutorial will cover the pyrography techniques I used to create the waves and give them a sense of movement.  As an added bonus, I will also cover how I airbrushed the color onto the waves.

Keep in mind that this is my first attempt at creating an ocean scene and I’m going to admit that I’m not really pleased with the results.  I’ve often said that pyrography and drawing have a lot of similarities; so if I can draw it, I can burn it.   I’ve never drawn an ocean scene before, so I wasn’t sure what I needed to do.  Because of that I ended up doing a lot of experimentation with this burning.  At some point I will try an ocean scene again, but I will first draw the ocean to get a better understanding of the process. 

To watch a YouTube video version of this tutorial, just click on the image to the left. 




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


Now, let’s get to work.



  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • 10 x 10 inch (25.4 x 25.4 cm) piece of wood
  • Attached pattern (shrink or enlarge as needed)  Crashing Ocean Waves pattern
  • Liquid Frisket or Masking Fluid (only if you plan to add liquid color (watercolors, airbrushing, markers, etc.)
  • Frisket film (only if you are airbrushing the color on)

ComArt transparent airbrush colors I used:  Pale Yellow, Ochre, Royal Blue, Emerald Green.   I also used Golden transparent airbrush color in Phthalo blue.








I used a reference photo to get the basic shape of the waves.  I had started out trying to replicate the photo, but about halfway through decided that it would be better to simplify the process.  If nothing else it would make it easier to explain.  The reference photo is from Pixabay and was uploaded by user Enrique Lopezgarre.  Here’s the link to the photo:



First off, look at the crest of a wave and notice how it curves gently downward towards the foam.  The color is not uniform and it’s the different colored streaks that convey movement to our eye.




Then compare the darkness level of the crest (yellow arrow) with the water under the crest (red arrow).  The crest is lighter.





Notice all of the white dots of foam and how the top of the foam is not smooth.





In fact, the bottom edge of the foam is not smooth.





Also notice how the water is darkest right under the foam as this area is in shadows.





Notice the movement of the water.  The water before the wave is mostly flat, but the water getting pulled up into the wave is curving upward in a gentle arch towards the wave crest.  






This is an important one.  Compare the movement lines between the water when it’s on a crest versus under the wave. The opposite direction of curving streaks in the water is also what conveys movement.



Now look at the water that isn’t part of a wave.  It is choppy looking, so there are a lot of short lines, if you will, of light and dark.  Most of the lines curve or bow downward slightly.  Visualize a someone who has a slight smile that is barely curving upward.




Lastly, notice how much darker the wave in the background is compared to the one in front.   The red arrow is pointing to water that is still thick or building up as it is getting ready to crest.   The yellow arrow is pointing to water that is cresting, so the water isn’t as thick.  There are probably more factors to this, but we’ll go with that to keep things simple.

Let’s get burning.




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, and 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.   

Then burn in the trace lines and rub over the surface with a pencil eraser to remove any residual graphite.



The first thing we need to do is burn in a little bit of the sky so the white foam of the waves will show up.  The “white” foam is just unburned wood, so if it is the palest thing on the board it will look white.




Rotate the board so your pen tip is in optimal position and burn a medium tan color next to the edge of the top wave.   The inset photo in the upper left corner is the entire artwork with an arrow pointing to the spot I’m working on.





If you are going to add color to your artwork, then I don’t waste your time burning in the sky.  I didn’t decide to add color until I had finished burning the artwork. 



We will start with the first wave in the back.  I did most of my experimenting on this wave since it isn’t the focal point and won’t get noticed as much. 

Also, I want to point out that I quickly quit trying to use the reference photo.  Instead I created more stylized waves following the items or guidelines I mentioned during the wave analysis. 



Here’s the reference photo and I put a yellow rectangle around the wave in the back that we will work on. 






Use the shader of your choice and begin burning pull-away strokes under the crested wave on the left side.   Start each stroke on the crest edge and pull them down a short ways.  Make sure to curve the lines as this gives movement to the water.




Repeatedly fill the area with pull-away strokes to build up the color and movement of the wave.  Make sure to vary the color or darkness level of the strokes.  You do NOT want uniform color.   Note that I purposely didn’t show a lot of pictures for this section of the wave as I was experimenting on what to do.  There really isn’t a point in detailing what I did since most of it isn’t how I preceded with the rest of the artwork. 





Next burn pull-away strokes along the crest of the wave.  Start the stroke on the top of the crest and pull it down in a gentle curve towards the white foam. 





It is important to vary the color of the burn strokes and to burn them in the direction of the water movement.






Next burn pull-away strokes along the edge of the foam.  Start the stroke on the edge of the foam and pull it upwards in a gentle curve towards the top of the crest.  Again, burn the stroke in the direction of the water movement.






DO NOT burn the wave crest strokes very dark.  The wave crest needs to be paler in color than the underside of the wave as this will help convey the sense of light striking the top of the wave. 






Continue to work in sections along the wave.  The water right under the foam tends to be the darkest as it is in shadows.  Plus, the dark burn will contrast nicely with the foam to make the foam look brighter or whiter.





Fill in the wave between the foam and the next wave in front of it.  I added a few short dark dashes on this area of the water to convey flat choppy water.







Here’s a progress photo.






Burn gently curving pull-away strokes along the next section of the wave crest.  Start the stroke on the crest and pull it down towards the foam.






Then burn similar strokes along the foam, but this time start the stroke on the edge of the foam and pull it up towards the top of the crest.






Burn a dark line under the foam that follows the contour of the edge and then burn pull-away strokes that start on the dark line and get pulled downward.  A quick reminder that you need to burn your strokes in the direction of the water movement.




Rotate the board and burn pull-away strokes along the bottom of this section of water.  The inset photo has a yellow arrow pointing to the area we are working on.





Continue to burn along the edge of the next wave. 






Rotate the board back to normal and add more pull-away strokes to darken the area.  Notice how I’m burning the water under the foam a number of shades darker than the water on the crest of the wave.





Then do the same step along the next section of the wave.







Use the first couple of burn strokes to create the direction of the wave, and then the rest of the burn strokes should follow the same basic direction.






Keep in mind that it takes a lot of pull-away strokes to give the wave shape and color.





Plus you will need to re-burn over areas several times as you work.  This will give you a lot more depth and tonal variation.





Your burn strokes do not need to have the exact same curve to them, but they all need to curve.  Do not burn vertical strokes on the waves.






Turn the heat down on your burner as we will be working on the foam.



Use circular motion to burn in pale blotches of color on the foam.  I literally move my hand in a small circle, and I repeat the motion a couple of time before moving on.  This ensures I end up with a roundish blotch and not a round line.




Concentrate the burn along the lower edge of the foam.







It is important to add some color to the foam to give it shape and depth.  Otherwise it would look like flat un-burned wood.





Switch to a writer pen tip and burn dark right under the bottom edge of the foam.






Move to the next patch of foam and burn small blotches of tan on this wave using circular motion.






Also, break up the bottom edge of the foam patch.  I just held the pen tip in place for a second or so to get a dark burn. 





I used a writer pen tip to add a layer of tiny dots on the foam.  I did not care for this look and I consider it a failed experiment on my part.  For one thing my dots are too dark. 

Now, if the dots were much paler in color and I kept them just on the edges of the foam it might have worked to make it look frothier.   



What did work was using the flat of the shader to tap along the edges of the foam.







This really broke up the line or edge of the foam giving it a much frothier appearance.







Now we’ll burn in the remaining waves.





The next wave we’ll work on is the middle wave.  This wave has crested, but has a small wall, if you will, of foam that hasn’t dissipated out yet.






This is another wave on the right side.  I would highly recommend not including it.  Instead I would repeat what is on the left side for the entire length of this wave.   The reason is that you have two separate white foam patches and it was tough to make them seem like separate waves.




There is one change I did made and that was to make the flat choppy water along the right the same color as the left.






Start by burning pull-away strokes along the top of the remaining crest on this wave. 






Then burn in the choppy water in front of the foam.  I am burning horizontal zigzags or short back and forth motions.





Burn the tan blotches on the foam.  The reason for burning in the foam now is that the choppy water needs to be dark enough to make the foam stand out easily.  Until the foam has some color, you can’t determine how dark to make the choppy water.





While we’re working on the foam, tap along the edges of the foam with the shader to give it a frothy look.






With a section of the foam done, resume working on the choppy water in front of it. 






It will take a couple of layers of horizontal zigzags to build up the color.  Also, add some short dark thin lines or dashes to the water to help give it that choppy look.






Continued work on the choppy water.  In this photo you can see that I’m approaching the second wave that starts in the middle of the board.  I left this wave on the pattern, but if I were to do this again I’d leave the wave out.




Burn tan blotches on the foam.





Work your way to the right edge of the wave burning tan blotches on the foam.  Then burn pull-away strokes on the small crest that remains on this wave.






Re-burn over the choppy water as needed to build up the color and texture.







Now burn in the second wave that starts near the center of the image.  There isn’t a lot of the wave showing, so you don’t have a lot of room to curve the strokes.  Instead burn them so that they start near the foam and angle downward to the left towards the spot where the wave begins to rise (marked with a yellow arrow).



Continue to burn over the wave to build up the color.  Make sure to leave the upper left edge a couple shades paler than the choppy water behind it.





Work your way along the wave burning in the water under the foam.






Continued work.







Continued work.








Add the tan circular blotches to the foam.






Then create the choppy water.







Now we’ll burn in the last wave.  The thing I want to point out with this wave are the two pale areas of thin water where the light is shining through.  Those two spots need to be lighter than the rest of the wave.





Burn some gently curving lines on the left to create the shape or movement of the water.







Then re-burn over the area to build up the color and shape.  Notice how I’m leave the thin water area lighter in color than the rest of the water.






Burn pull-away strokes along the water crest.






Burn circular blotches on the foam.





Now burn some long strokes to give the right side of the wave shape.







Continued work.







Re-burn to build up the color and shape of the water.





Continued work.





I do recommend trying out different sized shaders to burn the horizontal zigzags when creating the choppy water.  I’m using my largest shader in this photo and I really like the longer lines it creates.  






Maybe it’s just me, but I thought the longer lines created the illusion that the water was closer to the foreground when compared with the small lines of the choppy water behind this wave.





An added benefit of using a larger shader is that it is quicker to create the choppy water texture.






I went ahead and tried burning the water on the wave with the large shader and it worked fine.





Continue to burn gently curving lines on the wave and horizontal zigzags on the choppy water.





Continued work.






Finishing up the choppy water.







I decided that the choppy water behind the front wave needed to be darker, so I’m using the large shader to re-burn over it. 






Continued work on the choppy water.






Here’s a progress photo.






If needed, re-burn over the crest to darken it up slightly.





With the right area of thin water, burn it just dark enough so that the white foam is noticeable.  It doesn’t have to be a huge contrast difference.





Then use the shader on low heat to tap along the edges of the foam to made it frothy.





Continued work.






Now I’ll explain how I applied color starting with the sky.





First you need to cover the entire board with frisket film.



Then use a very sharp X-acto knife to cut the frisket along the top edge on the last wave (the first wave we burned in). This photo has black arrows pointing to the line I cut.  The goal is just to score the frisket enough to remove it cleanly along the cut line, but not cut so deep that you cut into the underlying wood.






Carefully remove the frisket film from the sky.






SAVE THE PIECE OF FRISKET!!!   Put the piece of frisket film on the paper backer that it came from.





I like to rub over the frisket film to make sure it adheres well.





Put a couple drops of translucent pale yellow airbrush color in an airbrush gun and spray it onto the board.  I sprayed a few passes and then added translucent Ochre to the airbrush.





To get smooth spray results start spraying BEFORE you reach the board.






Spray at a constant speed across the board.






Continue to spray AFTER you reach the end of the board.  This will prevent spots or dots of color build up along the edges of the board.





Here’s how the board looked once I was done with the yellow.






Thoroughly clean the airbrush and then add a couple drops of translucent Royal blue watered down with 3-5 drops of water.  Spray that along the upper edge of the board.  I left an area between the yellow and blue unsprayed as I figured the slight over spray from both would fill in the area without mixing to a green color.




Here’s how the board looked once I was done with the blue.






LET THE PAINT DRY!  The great thing with airbrushed color is that the paint is almost dry once it hits the board, but let it sit for 5-10 minutes just to make sure it is completely dry.



Retrieve the frisket film for the sky and carefully replace it on the sky.  





Rub your finger along the lower edge to ensure it makes a good seal.





Then rub over all of the frisket to remove any air bubbles.


Now I’ll explain how I sprayed the color to the waves.





First remove the frisket film covering the waves.






Here’s how the board looked once I removed the frisket from the waves.  Since the frisket covering the sky is clear it’s hard to tell it’s there.





Now you will need a jar of liquid frisket.  Any brand will work.  This particular brand has orange dye at the bottom that will turn the frisket a pale orange after it is thoroughly shaken.








I will be applying the frisket with a silicon taper point brush or tool.  I use this instead of a regular paint brush because I can easily remove any dried frisket from the tool.  The other reason is that I hate paintbrushes and avoid using them as much as possible.

Apply a layer of liquid frisket to the foam. 






As the frisket dries it turns a pale orange color making is harder to see on the wood.  At least I think it’s harder to see.






I did use the point of the silicon tool to apply tiny dots of frisket just above the foam to create a little spray off of the wave.






Let the frisket dry.  Here’s how the board looked once I was done applying the frisket.   





In this photo I have the board angled, so you can see the frisket film and the liquid frisket on the board.






Add translucent Emerald green paint to the airbrush and spray on the color.  I initial spray horizontally to give the water a light base color.





Then I added phthalo blue to the airbrush and started spraying in the same direction we burned the pull-away strokes on the waves.  I started spraying on the frisket covering the sky, and ended the spray on the liquid frisket covering the foam below the area I was working.




Working my way down the length of the wave adding color.






Here’s how the artwork looked after I was done.   I probably should have stopped here, but I didn’t.





I put some translucent royal blue into the airbrush and sprayed that on the waves.





Again I’m spraying in the same directions that I burned the waves.  The waves get gentle curving lines sprayed on them, and the choppy water gets horizontal lines sprayed on it.





Here’s how the board looked once I was done airbrushing.






LET THE PAINT DRY COMPLETELY!!!   Paint on liquid frisket takes longer to dry than it does on the board, or any surface for that matter.  I’ve messed with a painting before the paint was dry on the frisket and the paint smeared over the paper and ruined the artwork. 


Once the paint is dry then remove the frisket film from the sky.






Here’s how the board looked after the frisket film was removed.  The film made a great seal, so my yellow sky doesn’t have any blue from the waves on it.





Now remove the liquid frisket using a pencil eraser or rubber cement pick up tool.   





It is super important to make sure the paint is completely dry on the liquid frisket.  I’ve had times where the paint is dry on the board / paper, but was still wet in spots on the liquid frisket.  When I removed the frisket I ended up smearing the wet paint on my artwork right in the area I was trying to protect.  

A rubber cement pick up tool is a square piece of very firm textured rubber that easily ‘grabs’ the frisket removing it from the wood surface.








Continued work removing frisket.






The frisket is completely gone, but at this point I thought the color on the waves was too dark.





To lighten or remove some of the color I’m rubbing over the area with an ink pen eraser.  These area also called typewriter eraser or sand erasers.





Use a gentle hand when erasing as you can remove most if not all of the color from the board.





Here’s the before and after picture once I was done erasing some of the color from the board.








That’s it for this tutorial.  Keith, thank you for the suggestion and I hope I was able to provide some useful information to help you with your project.  As I said, I’m not really thrilled with how the artwork turned out, but I got to try something new and different.  Plus I learned some more about pyrography in general, so that’s always a good thing.

Lastly, to answer a couple of questions I always get.  The artwork was burned on basswood and it took me 5 3/4 hours to create it, not counting the airbrushing.

Until the next blog,


June 7, 2019

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4 thoughts on “Pyrography Tutorial Crashing Ocean Waves wood burning technique with airbrush color

  1. You are so very talented, I hope I can produce this type of art work that is just 1/2 as good.

    1. Hi Monica,

      thank you for the kind compliment. Anyone can do what I do, but it is very dependent on the willingness to stick with it. All hobbies take time to learn and discover what works best for you. For example, you will or probably already have discovered that there are some pen tips you like using more than others. There are couple of YouTube pyrography artist I like who love to use spoon shaders. I bought one because I figured if it worked for them then it should work for me. It didn’t. I absolutely hated using the spoon shader. I’ve tried it several times since the initial attempt and I still hate it. So if there is a pen tip you like, use it! The more comfortable you get with it the easier burning becomes. Part of the reason is that you learn what heat settings to use, how to angle the pen to get the burn strokes you desire, etc.

      Thank you again for the wonderful comment!

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