2018 Matthew and Maggie Portrait Pyrography Art Wood Burning

A few years back a friend and former co-worker paid me to create a portrait of his kids, Matthew and Maggie, as a gift for his wife.  Apparently they were both pleased with the results as it has become a yearly tradition.   This blog will discuss the portrait that I did in 2018.

Click on the image to the left if you’d like to watch a time lapse video of the artwork being created.





This is the reference photo I was given to work with.  The photo presented me with several problems.  First off they aren’t sitting very close to each other, and their heads aren’t close to being on the same level.  The worst of the problems is the horrendous lighting.  They are backlit, which I can handle, but there also reflected light coming from below.  This is creating shadows along the tops of the cheeks that I don’t care for.    Plus Matthew has patches of bright light on his face, so that is messing up the shadows.



The first problem I needed to fix was the composition.  I played around with placing the kids closer together, but I couldn’t make it look right.  The easiest solution was to treat them as two separate portraits with each child in their own oval.  I printed ovals of different sized to see what would fit nicely on the board I was going to use.  In addition to the determining the oval size, I had to figure out what was the best placement of the ovals.  As During my testing out oval sizes and placements I stumbled onto this slightly overlapping ovals, and I liked how it looked.



With the composition problem solved, I cropped the photo so only one child remained.  Then I enlarged the photo so it fit nicely within the oval.  Afterwards I repeated the same steps with the other child.  Afterwards it was a simple matter of printing the images, tracing the images onto the board, and burned in the trace lines.  As you can see I left the overlapped area unburned as I was undecided at this point if I wanted it there.  




With the trace lines done I started to work on Matthew as he presented more challenges.  For example he had bright patches of sunlight on his face and a touch of a rash in a couple of spots.   In this photo I’m burning in some of the shadows around the nose and eyes.






I used a writer pen tip to burn in the eyes since the area was fairly small and there were reflections to deal with.







The key to creating realistic objects is to replicate the highlights and shadows accurately. 






I breakdown the portrait into small areas as I work on it.  For example in this photo I’m working on the mouth, but I broke it down into smaller sections like the tongue. Before I started burning it in, I examined the reference photo and asked myself questions.  How dark is it?  Is it uniform in color?  Where is the lightest spot?  Where is the darkest spot?  Once I have determined these things, then I start burning making sure to replicate my observations.




As I burn in more areas I compare them against each other to keep the tonal values correct.  For example I observed that the eyes are darker than the eyelids, the shadows in the mouth are darker than the eyes, and the lips are darker than the tongue.






When I start burning in a new area I examine the reference photo and determine its tonal value in relationship to the other areas I’ve already burned in.  It is doubtful that I’m replicating the tonal relationship 100% accurately, but if it is close that will be good enough for me.







Matthew had a bit of a rash on his face and I decided to ignore that as it didn’t add anything of value to the art. 







Generally I block in areas, and then I fine-tune the tonal values and details.








As you can see I’m reburning the lips to darken them up.  I had to be careful as there is a seam line running through the lips.  Seam lines are line grain lines in that they darken much faster than the surrounding wood. 







While I can scrape over grain lines to lighten them a bit, I don’t have much success doing that over seam lines.  Because of this, I try very hard to avoid burning over the seam line.   






Here’s how the artwork looks so far.







In this photo I’m starting to block in the darker areas of the hair.







Since I had Matthew mostly blocked in, I started on Maggie.  Again I started on the darker shadows and the eyes.







Again I’m bouncing around burning in different areas to get the tonal values down.







With Maggie indirect light was striking the right side of her face, so it created some dark shadows along the left side of her face.








As I was working around the mouth I decided that I didn’t like how the shadows were falling on her face.  In the black and white format of pyrography it made her look like she had a sunburn. 








I ended up reducing the darkness of the shadows so she matched her brother’s lighting.  This made the overall artwork look better to me, and I felt she didn’t look sunburnt now.







Working on Maggie’s hair was much easier than Matthew’s as it was darker, so I could have a larger range of tonal values to give the hair shape and visual interest. 






To keep Matthew’s hair appearing pale I had to stay in the tan ranges, so I had to be careful not to burn the shadows too dark.






Plus Matthew’s hair was going in more directions, and, for some reason, I found this a bit challenging to work on.






I did use a sharp blade to restore some highlights on the hair.  I try to burn around the highlights, but often there are spots where I didn’t do a good job.  The blade was able to scrape away the overburns and restore the highlight.   





Here’s how the artwork looks so far.







Truth be told, I actually prefer burning in the clothing versus skin.  The reason is that clothing tends to have wrinkles, folds, stitch marks, and other little details that I enjoy replicating. 








Plus if you make a mistake on the clothing it is unlikely anyone will notice.









The oval border around each child was created by burning really short pull-away strokes along both edges of the border.  This gave the border a rounded appearance, and since I burned the strokes rather darkly this helped fame the kids nicely.





When doing portraits I like to take breaks from the face, so I don’t get burnt out.   I’m not sure that’s the right or best word to describe what I’m trying to say, so let me explain.  I think if you stare at something for too long, you get too familiar with it and don’t look as analytically at it.  Creating realistic art requires constant analytical observations, and taking breaks allows me to look at things with fresh eyes.




One way of taking a break is to work on different areas of the artwork like the clothing.  Matthew had a jumper with a t-shirt under it and I really enjoyed the contrast of textures.






Maggie’s hair was another area I could work on to give myself a break from the facial features. 







I find facial features a bit difficult to do and I think part of that is the added pressure I feel because there isn’t room for a lot of mistakes.  Parents are very familiar with their kids’ face.







As much as I enjoy the textures of the clothing, there are times when it can get a bit monotonous to work on.  Basically in the areas that is lacking folds, wrinkles, etc.






Maggie’s shirt had a lot more wrinkles and folds on it, so I found it more entertaining to work on. 








In this photo I’m finishing up Maggie’s shirt. 






Here’s another progress photo.







Maggie had a little fake flower in her hair, and I decided to do my own thing with the flower.  I thought it ended up looking better than the reference photo.







At this point Matthew’s clothing was the last thing I needed to get burned in.





I’ve mentioned before that I like to create the different textures on the fabric.  The fabric had vertical creases on it, but I decided to burn in some thin dark lines to represent the creases. 





I used a writer pen tip to burn in the stitch marks.






Finishing up Matthew’s clothing.







Here’s how the artwork looks at this point, and I wasn’t happy with it.  The oval frame just looked like dark lines that circled around the kids and they were a touch more noticeable than the kids were. 






To fix the portrait, I started burning in the background.  This made the white or unburned wood behind the kids stand out more, bringing the focal point back to the contents of the ovals.






The background is nothing more than an assortment of horizontal lines burned in a variety of lengths, widths, and color.   This gave the background some texture and it was easy to darken it up by adding more lines.






Here’s a comparison photo of Matthew.  Looking at it I think I should have darkened up his skin more, but overall it’s not too bad.






Here’s a composite photo for comparing Maggie.  Again I should have darkened up the skin some more.             






I do think composition worked well and that the alterations or deviations I made from the reference photo created a better image.








While the portrait turned out decently, I will have to admit that I had to erase the facial features a couple of times before I got them right.  Portraits are not the easiest thing to do, and at the time of this artworks creation I had only done a couple of portraits.  Considering the challenges the reference photo presented, I’m rather impressed it turned out as well as it did.I burned the portrait on a piece of basswood that measured 11 x 13 1/2 inches (27.9 x 34.3 cm).  It took me 17 hours to create the art.  

Until the next blog,


Feb 22, 2020

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8 thoughts on “2018 Matthew and Maggie Portrait Pyrography Art Wood Burning

    1. Hi Jerry,
      I use a Colwood Super Pro II. I will be honest and tell you that while I like it a LOT, it is not necessary to have a fancy pyrography machine. It’s a lot more convenient as the pen tips heat up and cool down quicker, but there are artist like Minisa Pyrography who uses a craft burner (soldering iron style) and she creates fantastic artwork! Just make sure to get one with a temperature control on it.

  1. Thank you for the details of how to burn portraits. I learned a lot from this post. I think that one of the hardest parts us hair! I always get lost on hair pattern or direction of original photos. LOL

    1. Hi Jackie,
      Like with all things, break it down into smaller sections and it becomes much easier to work on. I’ve also seen artist use a piece of paper with a square cut out of it and they place this over the reference photo to block out everything but the area they are working on.
      Thank you for the comment!

  2. Brilliant,I look forward to your blog,and video tutorials.I have always been a a keen amateur photographer and I hope to burn some of my photo’s on wood.I will be 75 this year so this is a fresh challenge for me.Many thanks for making my retirement more interesting.

    1. Hi Alan,
      How exciting. I think it is wonderful that you want to create art from your photos. It’s one of the many benefits of being a photographer.
      Let’s be honest though, I’m not making your retirement more interesting – you are. Your willingness and desire to learn and stay busy in retirement is inspirational to me. I hope that you will love pyrography as much as I do!

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