Baby Eyes Pyrography Portrait Tutorial wood burning techniques

This is the first installment of my new portrait tutorial series.  This is something I’ve previously been asked for, but said no as I don’t feel that portrait work is my strong suit.  For the New Year I decided to work on improving things I’m not good at like portrait.  Plus my YouTube channel has done amazingly well this last year, so it is also a thank you for the support.  What I plan with this series is to create portraits of people of different ages and poses.  Plus I will be testing out different brands of paper.  This first portrait will feature just the eyes and nose of a baby and the next one will cover the entire face. 

I’m releasing the YouTube version of the tutorial at the same time as I think that will help show what I’m trying to explain.  Plus, I tried to explain things a little different in the video because sometimes a slight variation in the explanation will help in understanding.   To watch the video, just click on the link 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 started.




I rate this as a level 3 because you need a good ability to create uniform color and smooth gradient color.  Also you need to learn to see beyond shapes and instead see highlights and shadows.  All of these are skills anyone can learn, but the less experience you have the more difficult this will be at first.


  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • 5 x 7 inch (12.7 x 17.8 cm) piece of wood or paper
  • Pencil – HB or higher
  • Eraser

I used a tombow eraser because it always has a small erasing area, so is good for when precision is needed, but any pencil eraser will work.  A kneadable pencil eraser would be great as you can shape it to be any size you need.  Links will take you to Amazon.  Tombow eraser     Kneadable Eraser

Please note that while I provide a link to the products, I do not receive compensation if you buy them.  Also I did not look to see who was selling the item at the lowest price.  Instead I used the link for the first item I found.

In one of my previous tutorials I explained how to make a Sepia and Grey Tone Value Finder.  I do think that such a tool would be very beneficial in portrait work.  Obviously it is not absolutely necessary as I didn’t have one for this artwork, but it might be helpful.  Value Finder 


This is the reference photo I’m using for this tutorial.  I got the photo from Pixabay and it was uploaded by user McStone.  Here’s a link to the photo:






I cropped the photo as I will only be working on the eyes and nose from this photo.




Here is a black and white version of the cropped photo.







If using wood, then 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.





If using paper, then I recommend securing the paper on a sturdy backer board of some sort.  This will prevent the paper from warping.   Also I recommend using hot pressed paper versus cold pressed.  The reason is that hot pressed paper will have a smoother surface on it.  When looking for paper that will often designate hot pressed with HP and cold pressed with CP.




I am using a scratchboard by Ampersand because I had one on hand.  A piece of plywood or even thick cardboard will work.  Amazon Ampersand  








This photo is the backside of a project I burned on paper.   All of those tan and brownish marks are areas where the paper got hot, and that heat will transfer to whatever the paper is on and discolor it.  That wouldn’t be good for your table, countertop, etc., so place something UNDER the paper to protect the underlying surface.






I’m testing out 140 lb hot pressed watercolor paper by Baohong.  Amazon Baohong.   






I used white artist tape to secure the paper to the backing board.  The tape has a medium to low tack rating and is acid-free, so it is less likely to damage the paper like scotch tape would.  Amazon White Tape.   






Now we need to trace the image onto the wood or paper.  I will cover the basics of what needs to be done, but if you have more questions I have a video that goes into the subject in much greater detail.  Tracing






Print out the image on regular copier paper.  In fact, while you’re printing, print two as you’ll use the second one later on.   

There are those who claim you must use a black and white photo in pyrography.  I don’t totally agree with that, but this isn’t about my preferences.  Instead it’s about finding what works best for you.  All I can tell you is to try out both and see if one is easier than the other to work with.   I prefer tracing from color images because some color hues have very similar grey hues, so for me I think I see more detail in the color version than I do the black and white.

Flip the paper over and coat the back with graphite.






I’m using 2B pencil that I didn’t like for drawing.  Any brand of pencil will work, but I recommend using one that is at least a HB.  I think anything lower than an HB will be too light and you won’t see the trace lines well.  





Here’s how the back of the paper looked once I was done.  Notice how the graphite is not uniformly applied.  That’s ok.  The only thing you need to avoid is creating gaps in the pencil strokes.





Now secure the image to the surface using two pieces of tape.





This photo is from paper that I used scotch tape to secure the tracing image onto.  The paper became very abraded or roughed up where the tape was and nothing can fix this. 




Instead I recommend using a very low tack paper tape like first aid tape.  PaperTape






Next use a pencil or ink pen and start tracing in the image.   I prefer pencils because they produce finer lines, and I use a mechanical pencil so I don’t have to sharpen it.    The downside is that my lines don’t show up well on camera.




Do not use a heavy hand or exert a lot of pressure when tracing as you can create groves on the paper, and they will show up as white lines when you shade over them.   You can do this with wood too, but it would have to be a softwood or you’re REALLY exerting a lot of pressure.


I recommend using a combination of solid and dashed lines for this.   Use solid lines in areas with clearly defined edges; the iris, edge of the hat, crease in the eyelid above the eye, etc.   Use dashes or dots to mark transitions or shadows. 

With portraits the majority of the lines will be dashes as there are very few  solid edges on a face.   Draw dashed lines around the edges or boundaries of every shadow on the face.




I went over my pencil lines with a red pen so it would be easier to see the lines that I traced in.  There are very few solid lines.  Instead I have a lot of dashed lines that tell me where the shadow boundaries are. 




Let’s examine the left cheek a closer.  1 = the lightest area on the cheek. 2 = is where the first shadow starts.  3 = dark shadow on the laugh line.  4= the area where the laugh line shadow start to fade out.  

The area between each section of lines gets burned to a different shade of tan.  Area 2 will be darker than area 1, but lighter than area 3.     Every place you see a change in color or tone, then draw a line on it.



Before you remove the print out from the board or paper, lift it up and look it over to see if you missed anything.  I actually do this several times as I’m working since it’s easier to compare smaller areas.






Here’s how the paper looked after I was done tracing the image onto it. 






Let’s cover the set up and provide some guidelines before we start burning.  


First off, you need to have a good set up, and I found that this set up worked well for me.    I have my burning surface in the center, the reference material on the right, and scrap material on the left. 




Your reference image should be close by.   Since I’m left handed the reference photo goes to the right side of where I will be working, so I can always see it easily.








If you are right handed place the reference photo to the left of the burning surface, so it is easily visible as you work.





Did you notice that I have both a color and black & white image printed out?  Like I said before, I’m trying to improve my portrait skills, so part of that is trying out black and white images for reference.  








DO NOT use the image you traced from as your reference photo.  Once you start drawing lines on the image you have altered it, so once you’re done toss it away.


ALWAYS have a piece of scrap material nearby to test the pen tip on!  If you’re burning on wood, then have wood.  If you’re burning on paper the scrap should not only be paper, but it should be the same paper you’re using for the portrait.








Something I found worked wonderfully was to cut out a small piece of the paper and secure it to the backer board near the burning.  This way it was close by to test the pen tip on.  Since I wasn’t burning really dark on it I didn’t have to worry about heat transfer.  IE – charring the paper under it.   

Yes, I’ve been working on this tutorial series in secret for a number of months.  The photo is from the 5th installment in the series, and it took me that long to come up with the small piece of paper idea.




  • Always tap or blot your pen tip on the scrap material BEFORE working on the portrait. This will remove any excess heat and prevent dark blotches from happening when the pen tip first touches the paper.
  • Let the paper cool. I found that when I reburned too much in one area the heat seemed to bring out the paper texture more.  I found that I got better results if I burned for a little bit and then left it alone to cool down.  Once cool I could reburn back over the area and get better results.    
  • Use the flat of the shader when burning over pencil lines. This will prevent the graphite from getting shoved down into any burn marks.
  • Erase the graphite as soon as you don’t need it anymore. I would burn up to a line so I would know where the edge or transition was at, and then I erased the pencil line.  I worked in sections.
  • Don’t view the portrait as identifiable objects like a nose or eye. Instead focus on the highlights and shadows.
  • Work upside down if that helps.
  • If you work upside down, then make sure your board/paper and reference photo are ALL oriented in the same direction. See example 1 below.
  • Use the flat of the shader when burning around dashed lines as those lines represent transitions; areas where the shadows get lighter or darker. Those shadows do not have clearly defined edges like an eye iris does.
  • Use gradient shading between areas. See example 2 below.

Example 1 –

Here’s a photo showing just the nose of the baby.  Instead of seeing a nose, instead concentrate on the shadows and highlights.   When you look at it ask yourself questions.  Where is the brightest or lightest spot on the nose?  Where is the darkest spot?  Are the shadows uniform in color?   Are all of the shadows the same darkness level?




For some people concentrating on the shadows and highlights is a lot easier if you rotate the image.   The reason is that the object isn’t as familiar to the brain, so it’s easier to see or notice the shadows and highlights.





Example 2 –

Remember this photo?  We already determined that each section of lines gets burned to a different shade of tan, so we know that Area 2 will be darker than area 1, but lighter than area 3.  Another important aspect to that is the when you leave area 1 and start heading into area 2, use gradient shading to build up the color to the level area 2 requires.   When you get near area 3, again use gradient shading to build up the color level for area 3.  




Now we’re ready to burn in the portrait.   The steps that I explain here apply to any material you are burning on; wood, paper, leather, etc.






Equip a writer pen tip and set the heat so that you get a medium tan burn result.   Then lightly burn over the solid pencil lines.  

Test out the pen on your scrap material adjusting the heat setting until the desired burn output is achieved.






Continued work.






Once I was done burning in the solid lines, I had burned around the edges of the eye or inner eyelid area, the crease in the eyelid above the eye, around the iris, the reflections on the iris, and a couple of very small lines on the nose.  I could have burned in the eye lashes, but for some reason did not.



Now equip a shader pen tip and set the heat so you get a medium tan burn result.  Once the heat is set, then start working on the darker shadows around the eye.

Use the flat of the shader on all of the dashed lines.  The reason is that these lines mark transition areas where shadows start or end, so we do not want crisp hard lines. 



At this point I’m not burning in the entire area between the lines, but burning along the edges of the lines.  My goal is to get the pencil lines erases as soon as possible.  The reason is that the graphite interferes with determining how dark or light your burns are.




Once the lines immediately around the eye are burned in sufficiently for you to know where their edges are, then erase the pencil lines.   Make sure to only erase the lines you don’t need.   I’m using a Tombow eraser, but again any pencil eraser will work.





After the pencil marks are gone, then darken any lines if needed.







The start working on burning along the edges on the side of the nose.







I like to use circular motion when burning in areas that I don’t want crisp or clearly defined edges on.  Facial shadows would definitely be an area we don’t want hard edges on, but circular motion didn’t always work well for me.  My burn marks tended to get blotchy looking if I burned in an area too long.  I don’t know if this is because of the paper or because of me.  This is a new material and there is always a learning curve to discover what works best.



On lines that are clearly defined, like the edge of the iris, I used the tip or razor edge of the shader to burn it in.  This produces crisp, hard clearly defined lines.  Plus I slowed down my hand speed to get a really dark burn result.





Continue to burn in the areas around the eye.  Check with the reference photo to determine how dark or light they should be.







Here’s a progress photo.







Again, once you have burned up to or filled in areas, then erase the pencil marks if they are no longer needed.  The pencil marks are darker than the burn marks, so they can make the burn results look darker than they are. 






Now burn in more areas around the eye.  The areas do not have to be burned to their final darkness level.  Right now I’m concentrating more on getting the general shape or lines burned in so the pencil marks can be erased.





With this eye all of the lines immediately around it have been burned in sufficiently that I don’t need the pencil marks and have erased them.  Now I’m working on reburning to build up the color and fill in areas.  The first spot I worked on was the iris.




Remember to rotate the paper/wood when working along the lower edge of the iris.  This will keep the pen tip in optimal position which ensures you get clearly defined edges and don’t accidently burn past the boundary of the iris.

Rotate your reference material anytime you rotate the paper or wood!   I ended up taping the reference material to the backing board, so when the backing board was rotated the reference material got moved automatically with it.

There are a lot of reflected light spots in the eyes on this baby.  They do not have the same color levels, but at this point avoid all of them by working very slowly and carefully.





Keep in mind that while I tend to bounce around a lot when I’m burning, that doesn’t mean you have to.  I have seen artist on YouTube who start at the top of the board and work their way down to the bottom.  When they reach the bottom they are completely done.   I can’t do that, but if you can that’s great.

As you burn in shadow areas remember that the edges shouldn’t be clearly defined, so make sure to use gradient shading when transitioning between areas.


In this photo I’m using the razor edge of the shader to burn over the eyelashes.  When burning eyelashes, ALWAYS start the burn at the base of the eyelash and end the burn stroke at the end of the last.   The reason is that the start of a burn stroke is thicker and darker than the end.  Eyelashes are thickest where they connect into the eyelid and thin out at the end.  By starting the burn stroke on the eyelid and ending at the tapered eyelash end, we will replicate how eyelashes grow.



Here’s another progress photo. 








I mentioned before that I discovered circular motion didn’t work well for me while burning on this paper.  Instead I found I got good results using uniform strokes.  This meant I had to reburn the same stroke a number of times to build up the color, but that was better than getting blotchy burn results.





In this photo I’ve angled my pen tip to use the lower razor edge and I burn in the eye next to the lower eyelid.  If you examine the reference photo, you’ll discover that the “white of the eye” isn’t so white. 






When I burn in irises, I always burn some thin lines that radiate outward from the pupil.  I burn the lines so they are darker than the iris, but not immediately noticeable.  I do this regardless of what the reference photo looks like as I think it adds a touch of realistic texture. 






Continued work on the eye burning in a few more line.  I’ve also burned over most of the reflection areas on the eye.  There are only one or two reflections that remained unburned.






Now I’m reburning over some of the eyelashes and the eyelid. 







I also used the razor edge of the shader to burn in the eyebrow hairs.








A reminder than when working on shadows use the flat of the shader.







Back to working on the shadows around the eye.







Here’s how the eye looks so far.







Let’s work on the other eye.  I’m using the razor edge of the shader to burn in the eyelashes.






Then I started on the shadow along the crease.







Next I worked on the iris and carefully burned around the reflections.






Like the first eye, my goal is to burn around the pencil lines so I can erase them.






Continued work.







Continued work.







With the first eye, I burned the lines immediately around the eye, erased the pencil marks, and then worked on more dashed lines.  With this eye I pretty much burned around all of the lines using the flat of the shader as I worked.




Here’s a photo of the eye just before I erased the pencil marks.







Erasing the pencil marks I don’t need.







Now it’s a matter of reburning to build up color, fill in areas, create gradient shading along the transition lines, etc. 






Rotate the board/paper as needed when working along the bottom edge of the iris.







In this photo I’m continuing to burn in the shadows on the right, but if you look at the eyes you can see that I burned in the eye on the right considerably darker than the left.  The eye on the right was more shadowed, so it was a bit darker, but what I did doesn’t look right.  To fix I will have to either lighten the right eye or darken the left.  I’m not sure I could lighten the right eye without ruining the paper surface, so at some point I will darken up the left eye.

Now I’m extending the burn to the transition line on the nose.






Afterwards I erased the line as it wasn’t needed anymore.






Here’s another progress photo.





Let’s work on the nose.  I almost always start on the darker shadows first, so that meant the nostril opening.






Then burn in the other nostril opening.







Burn along the dashed lines just like we did with the eyes.   The immediate goal is the same as the eyes and that is to get the pencil lines removed once they are no longer needed.





I noticed a blotch I accidently created on the paper, so I decided to test out scraping it away with a sharp blade of a knife.  It mostly worked, but use VERY gentle pressure if scraping on paper as it is really easy to dig into the surface.






Back to the nose.  I want to point out that all I’m doing is burning in the area between the dashed lines that were traced in during the image transfer step.





Always check with the reference photo to get an idea of how dark to burn in each area before you start burning.






Something I think all beginning portrait artist do when are first learning how to create portraits is to try and make mirror areas with eyes and nostrils.   That’s a mistake because most of the time the light is not striking both items the same way.   That is especially true with the nostrils.  Instead concentrate on the shadows and burn in the corresponding dashed line area.   


If you compare the nostrils in this photo you will see that I did not burn them in to look identical.  As I said before the light is striking each side of the nose a little differently, so all I am doing is burning in the areas between the dashed lines.





If it helps, think of the dashed lines as lines on a coloring book page.  Each set of dashed lines creates a shape that has to be colored in.  Look at the reference photo to determine the color or darkness level to burn in the shape.  Remember that gradient shading is needed to transition between each shape otherwise you will end up with something that looks like a coloring book.

Continued work.







Erase any pencils lines when they are no longer needed.






Progress photo.





Now I’m burning in areas and creating gradient shading between areas so the skin will look smooth.  






Unless a shadow is being cast from an object, say a hat, the edges of the shadow are almost always soft of subtle.  You can tell the area is getting darker, but there isn’t a clear cut line for the transition.  I say almost always as there will probably be a few exceptions to the rule here and there, but this rule holds up the majority of the time.





Continued work on creating gradient color to smooth out the transition lines.  The transition lines are where the dashed pencil lines use to be.






Continued work.







Continued work.







Progress photo.





Here’s a comparison photo of the nose.  The top picture is after I burned in the areas between the dashed lines.   The bottom picture is after I used gradient shading to transition or smooth out the lines between the areas.   The bottom photo looks a lot more realistic and less color book looking







Now it’s just a matter of adjusting darkness levels, and finishing burning in areas.





During this phase of the portrait I really bounce around.






Back to working on the right iris.








I found it helpful to use a writer pen tip to burn around the reflections on the eye to give them better shape and defined edges.





Burning in the pupil.







Fixing the left eye to match how dark I burned the right eye.





Then I’m back to burning in areas, adjusting darkness levels, and creating gradient shading between the different areas.








Continued work.








Here’s another progress photo.





As you work on your portrait, don’t try to compare all areas of the art with the reference photo.  Instead break it down in smaller areas.  For example, the white of the eyes.  In this photo I’ve noticed that I haven’t burned in the shadows on the whites of the right eye, so I’m taking care of that.




When I started on the larger areas of the face, like the cheek, I found it helpful to switch to a slightly larger shader pen tip.







It is VERY important to test out all pen tips on the scrap material to get the heat adjusted properly.  All of my pen tips require different heat settings to achieve the same medium tan burn result.  This is true regardless of the material I’m burning on.


Continued work.





Continued work.






Continued work.






Finishing up.





Using a sharp blade to scrape away some dark spots on the paper.







Once you are happy with your artwork, then it’s time to sign off on it.  Use a pencil to sign your name to the artwork.  I don’t think there is a wrong or right place you are suppose to sign the artwork, so sign it where you want to.




Then use a writer pen tip and burn over the pencil marks.   Afterwards erase over the signature with a pencil eraser to remove any residual graphite.






Here’s a comparison photo of my artwork and the reference photo.  It’s not perfect and I just realized that I never darkened up the eyelashes to their proper level.  Oops.  For my first portrait on paper, I will consider this a success.








Like I said at the beginning of this blog, I’m also testing out different brands of paper to burn on in this tutorial series.  This first paper was Baohong and its sold in the USA by Meeden.  I don’t know if Meeden makes the paper or is just the company that represents it in the USA.  Not that it really matters other than it’s something to be aware of if you do a google search.   When I was working on getting a link to the paper for this blog I had googled Baohong and kept getting results for overseas companies. 

The paper performed pretty well.  There were a couple of areas where the burn results seemed a bit blotchy, but I think that was because of me as I’m on my learning curve.   I do have to admit that I this portrait didn’t have a lot of dark areas, but I did use this paper to make my Value Finder and it worked pretty well for that application..

Burning on paper is a lot different than wood.  For one thing it requires completely different heat settings.  Keep in mind that all burners are different, but I found that I had to use a higher heat to the equivalent burn result I’d get on wood.  For example, if I was burning on wood and had the burner set at 3.0, I was closer to 3.5 for paper.

Another thing is that circular motion tends to bring out the pattern or texture in the paper.  It would end up looking kind of blotchy.  On wood I can easily use circular motion to extend and blend color.  With paper I found that to be a lot harder.   Instead I found that uniform strokes produced better results. 


That’s it for this first portrait tutorial.   For those of you who had asked me to create a portrait tutorial, I hope I did a good job.  Please keep in mind that portrait work is not my strong suit, so I’m working on improving my skills with this series.   That said, let me recap the basic process.  1) Transfer the image using a combination of solid and dashed lines.  The solid lines are used along the edges of clearly defined objects.  Dashes are used to indicate the transition lines of shadows.   2) Burn around the lines and erase the pencil marks when they are no longer needed.  3) Burn in areas between the lines checking with the reference photo to determine how dark they should be.   4) Use gradient shading to transition between areas.  

I do want to point out that the process I used to create the portrait is very similar to how I do most of my work.  If I’m working on a furry animal I will be using zigzag strokes instead of uniform strokes, but the basic process remains the same. 

I hope that this tutorial provided you with some valuable information for doing your own portrait work.  More importantly I hope that I showed that portrait work is something that can be broken down into smaller steps making the creation process easier.  Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Until the next blog,


Jan 7, 2020

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