A while back I was asked by Pete, a fairly new pyrography artist, “How can I tell if I’m done with my pyrography artwork?” What a fantastic question and one I didn’t have an immediate answer for. Since that day, I have spent time pondering the question and I think I have 3 ways to help you determine when it’s time to stop burning. The help is in the form of questions to ask yourself about your artwork. If the answer is no to any one of the questions, then you’re not done. I will provide some artwork to show good and bad examples of my guidelines. Plus I will show two ways to fix artwork that didn’t pass the quiz.
QUESTION 1 – MAIN SUBJECT
Is the main subject easily noticed?
If you are unsure if the main subject of your artwork is easily noticed then ask someone who is unfamiliar with the artwork to look at it and tell you what’s the first thing you notice. If you don’t have someone you can ask, then put the artwork on a shelf and don’t look at it for a few days or even a week. After the time is up, then look at it again and pay attention to the very first thing you noticed.
I asked my husband to look at this artwork and tell me what the subject was. His face was priceless. I could tell he really didn’t have a clue what this thing was and that was even after looking at the reference photo that was sitting nearby.
In this side-by-side composite photo you can easily see that I did a terrible job making the flowers the main focus of the artwork. Once you know what to look for, you can see the flowers, but they don’t stand out very well. Most people would glance at this artwork and lose interest very quickly.
I don’t have a lot of artwork that isn’t ‘portrait’ style. The image of the Lioness is an example of the portrait style of art I tend to do. The only thing on the board is the lion, so it’s very easy to tell that is the main subject.
What about this artwork?
Hopefully the bald eagle was the first thing you noticed. The eagle stands out because he’s closer in the image and he’s very dark compared to the background. That difference or oddity is what draws the eye to it.
The hummingbird in the lower half of the board does because it is a dark object surrounded by very pale space. The other hummingbird isn’t near as noticeable, but that’s ok as it’s what I intended. The reason is that it keeps a person’s eye traveling around the board longer to see what else is there; flowers, leaves, and another hummingbird.
If I did my job right, it would be the first visible boat on the dock. The boat is very dark along the bottom, but the top is very pale. The extreme contrast combined with the center placement make the eye notice that right off.
QUESTION 2 – TONAL RANGE
Is there good tonal range and contrast?
All artwork should have a wide tonal range and good contrast in it, but what does that mean?
Tonal Range is a term used to describe all of the brown hues available in pyrography. White is the palest color on the board and is generally represented by leaving the board unburned. Black is the darkest color you can achieve when burning. Of course between the two extremes a large range of tans and browns can be found. Good artwork should have a wide range of tonal hues including white and black.
Don’t enlarge this image. I kept the image as a small thumbnail because I want you to look at the tonal range of the artwork. Hopefully you don’t see a lot of detail on the image. Look at it and pay attention to the tan and brown colors. Is there a large variety of tones or hues? No.
The artwork stays pretty much the within the tan ranges. With the lack of browns, especially dark browns and blacks, the pale areas in the art don’t really stand out. So this particular artwork fails in terms of both tonal variety and good contrast.
The Christmas Candy Canes has both good tonal range and contrast. The dark holly leaves in the background contrast nicely with the candy canes. Plus the candy canes have a variety of tans as does the ribbon.
The farmer and the cow artwork is an example of good tonal range. Look at the jeans the farmer is wearing. The creases or wrinkles have pale highlights and shadows on them. The rubber boots are dark, but have a highlight running down the center. This artwork doesn’t have as much contrast as the candy canes does, but it’s not horrible in that regard.
The Christ of the Mines artwork, on the other hand, is a very good example of contrast. It’s because of the extreme contrast that the statue looks to be popping off the board. Plus the statue has some wonderful dark shadows that also contribute to the contrast. The rocks provide a range of tans and browns, and the subtle shadows on the robe also contribute to the tonal range.
The Yellow Lab Puppy artwork is a tonal fail. There is extreme contrast because of the background, but that has good and bad points to it. The good point is that it really makes the puppy stand out. On the flip side, the bad aspect is that when viewed as a small thumbnail the puppy looks like a white blob with 3 dark spots on it.
Even though this Iris artwork has a dark background like the puppy did, this artwork still has good contrast and decent tonal variety. The dark background makes the flower pop, and the flower petals have a lot of tans and browns on them. What this artwork could use more of is paler hues.
This particular Bald Eagle artwork is another failure. There is extreme contrast, but unfortunately the white head is so pale compared to the black background and dark body that it makes it look like the head if floating in space. There is a fair amount on tonal variety, but it is overshadowed by the extreme contrast.
I’ve been studying my favorite pencil artist, JD Hillbery, and learning a number of things. One thing I’ve learned is that background would have looked better as a gradient that was darker on the left side and got lighter on the right.
Why this direction of gradient shading? Because the light is coming from the left. The dark will contrast with the highlights were the light strikes. The right side is in shadows, so by reducing the background color, the shadows on the back of the head would show up better.
So I decided to test this out using an easy photo editor to lighten up the right side of the artwork. Keep in mind that photo editing is NOT my strong suit. I like how it looks a bit more, but I don’t think it came close to fixing the problems with this artwork. Maybe it would be better if the dark left side was a medium brown instead of dark brown to black in color.
QUESTION 3 – FADING
Do your tans remain after doing a fade check?
Over time, all pyrography artwork burned on wood fades. Ok, that’s not exactly true. Instead what is happening is that the wood is aging, and as the wood ages it discolors which negatively impacts your pyrography artwork.
Sealing the wood helps slow down this process, but sealants also age and discolor over time.
Wood absolutely MUST have a sealant to protect it from the elements, moisture changes, and to slow down the aging process. Unfortunately I have yet to find a sealant that remains perfectly clear over time. Most of them impart a color from the beginning and some, like polyurethane, impart considerable color.
To get an idea of how dark the board and/or sealant will discolor with time, I lightly mist the board with water. It doesn’t need to be a lot of water. In fact, you can rub a damp paper towel over the board to get similar results.
The reason is that it wetting the board will raise the nap or the grain of the board. Once it dries the board will be very rough making burning extremely difficult to do over. This photo shows a board that was sanded, and then the right half of the board was misted with water. Afterwards the board was allowed to dry. Notice how rough the right side is? That would not be fun or easy to burn on.
I do not recommend using denatured alcohol because the stuff is toxic! There are a numerous medical problems that can be caused just by the fumes. The health risk is not worth it to me. I’m sure that you can minimize the risk by wearing protective equipment like working in an extremely well ventilated area, wearing rubber gloves, etc., but again for me it’s not worth it.
I’ve attached a link to the MSDS (material safety data sheet) for the product. If you plan to use it, I do recommend you be aware of the dangers so you can take appropriate precautions.
What I’m checking for is to see if the lighter tan colors I’ve burned disappear when I mist the board with water. I’ve put yellow circles on the images to point out the area I’m really concerned with. From viewing this photo I can tell that I will need to darken up some of the burn areas on the white section of the duck.
When I did the fade test on the Garden Thief Squirrel, the edges of the tail practically vanished. The fade test revealed the fact that I need to darken up the tail a lot to ensure that it will show up once sealed.
To give you an idea of how aging wood impacts artwork, below are comparison photos of work I’ve done.
Feather is not aging well. I burned it on a piece of store bought die-cut plywood, and I never sealed the wood. The left side of the feather has almost disappeared and overall I’ve lost a lot of the tan hues. Notice how the wood grain is becoming a lot more noticeable.
Plus the is yellowing a lot. I had to angle the art around before my camera captured what my eyes could easily see. Plywoods are the worst for aging. I still burn on them because they are inexpensive, but I wouldn’t do commissioned work on plywood.
The Lotus Goddess was burned on basswood, so it should have aged well but it’s not. There are two reason for this. One I didn’t burned the side of the robe well enough to make sure they would pass the fade test. Secondly, this is the only piece of artwork sealed with polyurethane.
High quality acid-free paper will not fade as long as you keep it out of direct sunlight. Direct sunlight will damage the paper and generally discolor it a yellow color which will impact your artwork.
The first way to fix easily is to add color. On this print out of my artwork I used color pencils to add color to the flowers. Now the flowers really stand out, but does that fix the poor tonal variety? It can be hard to tell when looking at color, so let’s convert the photo to a black and white image and look at it that way.
Looking at the artwork with the color removed shows that not much has changed. The large open blossom might stand out a little more, but not much more and the flower buds to the side are barely noticeable.
Look at the black and white version of the photo. Now the flower buds are standing out, so coloring in the background is helping emphasis the main subject of the artwork. This lets me know I’m on the right track to fix the main subject issue.
When I convert the image to black and white, I discovered that I fixed my main subject issue, but the tonal variety is still terrible. I do like how the flowers are now easily identified as the main subject.
With this last photo, I used a dark brown color and really built up some of the dark shadows. The artwork seems to have good tonal variety and contrast, but again it can be hard to determine when judging color images.
After converting the photo to a black and white image, you can easily evaluate the tones. Things look good. The flowers are easily identifiable as the main subject, and there good contrast and tonal variety. I did one final check and looked at the image from across the room (or make it really small on the screen), and I could see a lot of tonal variety and I could see the flower. Granted it wasn’t in sharp detail, but I could still see it. Now let’s use reburning to fix the artwork.
This photo shows the artwork after reburned over left side of the image, but I did not burn over the large leaf in the lower left corner. Just this little bit of reburning already makes the artwork look a lot better.
Look at this composite photo comparing the left side of the artwork before and after I re-burned it. The left side is very boring looking. It looks abstract and blasé. The right side has visual interest and you can start to pick out objects.
Here is a final comparison photo of the artwork before and after I re-burned over it to restore the main subject and increase the contrast and tonal variety of the artwork. I like the after photo, but I can’t say that about the before image.
There are numerous photo editors free to use online. I have not tried any of them, but Richy Coelho does and has tutorials demonstrating them. Click on one of the images to watch the YouTube video. The first video covers the basics of using a photo editor. The second video explains how to use a free online app to create a composition from multiple images.
I hope this blog helps you with your artwork. While my questions might not apply to every scenario, I think that they do for the majority of artwork. If nothing else I think this blog showcases the positive impact of extreme contrast and good tonal variety can have on your artwork.
Until the next blog,
Sep 20, 2019
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