In this blog I will be discussing a portrait that features two young children, Matthew and Maggie, I created in 2019. I’m always nervous when accepting portrait work because you don’t have a lot of leeway for mistakes as parents are very familiar with their children’s faces. Regardless of my anxiety level, I still approach the project in the same as I do all of my pyrography artwork, and that will be something I talk about in this blog.
Here is the reference photo I was given to use. When I approach portraits, or any subject, I immediately think about composition. I start by asking myself questions like should the art be oriented vertically (portrait style) or horizontally (landscape style). This particular photo made it easy to decide that vertical orientation would work best.
When there is more than one subject, I have to decide if they should be in one oval together or separated. A lot of that decision depends on the reference photo I’m given. With this photo they were looking at each other, so it didn’t seem right to separate them.
The 2018 portrait I did had a photo where the kids had a lot of distance between them and they were both looking at something on the ground that was between then. For this particular artwork worked I thought it looked best to place the kids in their own ovals, but I gave it a sense of unity by overlapping the ovals slightly.
To help me decide, I place an oval around the image and decide what I think looks best. I’ll alter the shape and size of the oval until I’m happy with the overall composition. Once I’m happy, I print off the image on standard copier paper, coat the back of it with graphite, and trace the image onto the board.
Then I began burning in some of the trace lines on Matthew using the flat of the shader so the lines wouldn’t have crisp edges on them. Since I’m left-handed I didn’t want to worry about my hand resting on the wood and accidently smearing the pencil marks. If I were right-handed I would have started working on Maggie first.
After I erased the trace lines where possible, I started to get serious about shading and decided to work on Matthew’s neck area. I liked the backlighting on the reference photo and wanted to see how well I could replicate that look.
Since I burned in the trace lines first, I have to make sure that I burn the skin dark enough to hide those lines. I don’t want this to look like a coloring book where each area has a dark line around the edges of the shape.
I have watched a number of portraits being create by artist Richy Coelho. Richy has a YouTube channel where he showcases is pyrography and paintings. One thing I’ve noticed is that Richy doesn’t burning in the trace lines first. Instead he starts shading the work and erases the lines as he gets to them. I have since started burning portraits in a similar fashion. The reason is that you don’t have to worry about accidentally burning the trace lines too dark and trying to fix them. Here’s a link to Richy’s channel: Richy Coelho
There was a little gap between the two kids where the background shows; the spot is marked with a green arrow. I burned that gap in darkly to provide good contrast with the faces, but this meant I needed to continue that dark background on the other side of Matthew so it wouldn’t look out of place.
In this photo you can see I burned the background gradiently, so it gets slightly lighter the further up the portrait you go. I plan to let the background fade to tan color at the top of the oval. Right now I’m giving the lips a little color. I often block in areas and then re-burn over them a number of times to slowly build up the color and texture.
When working on eyes, I like to do is burn thin lines that radiate outward from the pupil. I think this adds some realistic texture to the eye and it’s very easy to do. Sometimes the lines are the last thing I add to the eye, and other times they are the first thing I add to the eye. Quite truthfully the order doesn’t matter, but it is important that the lines be subtle.
As you can see on this photo there are lots of pencil lines on the face. Some are solid lines and others are dashes. The lines tend to create irregular shapes. The edges of each shape indicate the boundaries where the color changes, so places where shadows are starting or ending.
It is important to burn over the white of the eyes. The white of the eyes is rarely, if ever, pure white. There are shadows from the eye lashes, the eyelids, and this creates shadows along the top of the whites and in the corners of the eye.
Since I had the writer pen tip equipped on the burner, I added a layer of tiny dots over the entire surface of the tongue. This is another one of those texture things I like to add to help create subtle realism.
Each time I re-burn over an area I make sure to consult with the reference photo. I decide how dark the area is on the photo and compare that with what I’ve burned to decide how much darker I need to go.
Not only do I compare the area I’m working on with the reference photo, but I also compare it with the nearby areas. I’m determining if the area I’m working on is lighter or darker than the nearby areas. This comparison process is something I’ve started referring to as constant comparison. You are constantly comparing the spot your burning with the reference photo and the nearby area.
I have to admit that I found Matthew’s hair challenging. Matthew has blonde hair and pale skin, so there isn’t a lot of contrast. I had to decide just how dark I could burn the hair, but still maintain the impression the hair is blonde in color.
Maggie has brown hair that was fashioned into a cute braid. Since the hair curled up and away from her face, I found it easier to rotate the board and burn the strokes so I could pull them towards myself.
To create the hair I burn thin bands of color that vary in tonal value just a little. Then I re-burn over bands to darken them up, but I make sure to level some of the thin pale colored bands. The thin pale bands become the highlights that really help give the hair shape.
Like I said before, the pencil marks from tracing the image onto the wood form irregular shapes. I burn in each shape individually, but I blend the edges so you can’t see the individual shape once I’m done.
When I’m working on portraits I break down each area into small sections. I don’t look at the mouth as a mouth. Instead I look at the teeth, or the lips, and even those I breakdown into smaller sections.
For example with the upper lip I break it down into 3 or more sections; the center and the edges. If there are dark shadows they would be consider their own section. When I compare with the reference photo I am only comparing that one section. Once I start on the next section I initially look at just that section, but then I compare it with the previous section to determine if it is lighter or darker in color.
Remember that when you create portrait artwork, the focal point needs to be the face of your subject. One way to help ensure this happens is to eliminate any words, logos, images, patterns, etc., that might be on the clothing. Matthew’s shirt had some sort of image on it, and knowing the father of these children I’d venture a guess that it had something to do with car racing. Maggie had a plaid shirt on over a green t-shirt. I purposely left out both the image and the plaid pattern. They wouldn’t add anything substantial to the artwork, but they might detract from the focal point.
Now I’m back to working on the hair. I’ll show some extra pictures of the hair being worked on as I get a fair number of questions about hair. Maybe with the extra pictures it will help answer some of those questions.
With the previous picture I had burned in this small section to a tan color. Now I’m re-burning over it to add a lot more tonal variety and I’m making sure to leave some thin bands or thick lines of color as highlights.
One of the most important aspects of creating portraits is to make sure the shadows are in place. Shadows are what give the face shape. A lot of times we don’t think about the face as having shadows because most of them are very subtle.
When working on really pale areas like teeth, make sure you have the heat turned down on your burner. My burner was set around 3, but for the teeth I turned it down to 1. The reason is that I know I will be spending a bit of time working on the teeth. Unlike the white of the eye where I could move my hand quickly burn over the area to add a shadow. The teeth I need more precision work, so I don’t want to move my hand quickly to keep the color light. Instead it makes a lot more sense to turn the heat down.
Please remember that while I occasionally mention what heat setting I have my burner at, this does NOT mean that is the setting you should be using. Each burner is a little different. Each type of wood is a little different. And how many burn hours your pen tip has impacts the heat setting. The shader I normally use has many, many burn hours and requires a lower heat setting than a brand new pen tip of the same type would require. Why this is true, I do not know, but it is something to be aware of.
One of the things I love about pyrography, and drawing in general, is creating illusions. In this photo I’m shading the ribbed border on the hood to make it look like it is twisting slightly. For some reason I really enjoy doing this. Ironically it’s another detail that probably goes completely unnoticed, but for me art is more about my enjoyment of creating it versus what people think of it.
By the way, look at how much better or less flat the teeth on Maggie look since they have been burned over.
Since I’m a bit lazy and really dislike burning large areas to a uniform color, I like to create a rustic background around the outside of the ovals. The background is fairly quick to create and it helps keep the focus on the oval contents.
I want to point out how my pinkie finger is resting on the edge of the board. A yellow arrow is pointing to my finger. This maneuver helps stabilize my hand making it a lot easier to burn consistent smooth strokes.
Another little detail I enjoyed doing was creating the white stitch marks along the edge of the shirt seam. All I do is use a paper embossing tool (ball stylus) and press it firmly into the surface of the wood to create short embedded lines. The lines appear when burned over. Again, I highly doubt that anyone notices this little detail, but I enjoy creating it.
Another subtle detail I added was the hint of wispy hairs sticking up haphazardly. I used the edge of a sharp knife to gently scrape away the background color to create them. Besides myself, you are probably the only person who is aware they are there.
Now it’s time to made some final adjustments. When I’m at this stage of the artwork I’m trying to look at the image as a whole and compare that to the reference photo. I’m not looking at shapes, but instead color or tonal intensity. Plus I ask myself lots of questions like, is there a really dark area that seems out of place? Is there a really light area that seems out of place? Are the transitions between the irregular shapes smooth looking? Are any of the initial trace lines visible?
This stage of the artwork can span several days before I’m happy.
When you get to the end of your project, put the artwork away on a shelf for a day or two or three. Don’t look at it during this time! After the time has passed, look at the reference photo first and then look at your artwork. Pay special attention to what your first thoughts are. Those first thoughts can tell you a lot. If you were impressed with your work, then that is a good indicator you are done. If something looked off, then fix it. Put the artwork back on a shelf for several days and repeat this cycle until you’re happy.
If you did not get your board wet during the initial prepping process, then DO NOT DO THIS STEP! The reason is that the water will raise the nap or wood grain. When the board dries it will feel fuzzy. To remove the fuzz you need to sand the board and you really don’t want to sand a board that you’ve spent hours burning on as it might remove some of your work.
Here is a comparison photo of the before/after I wetted the board. The after picture gives me an idea of how the board will look after it gets sealed with either lacquer or polycrylic. Based on how it looks I may or may not adjust areas. For example on Matthew’s chin there are grain lines that create an oval dark spot. I can’t remove the grain lines, but I can darken up the skin around the grain lines so they aren’t as noticeable. I’m happy that Matthew’s hair stayed visible, so I won’t have to do anything more with it.
I don’t consider portraits to be my strong suit. Even though this is the third year I’ve created pyrography art of Matthew and Maggie, I still feel extremely anxious when I present the original for payment. This feeling of anxiety is part of the reason I started the portrait tutorial series. My thought was if I created a lot of non-commissioned portraits then I’d feel more confident with my portrait skills and I wouldn’t get so nervous with commissioned work. Time will tell if this idea ends up working. Anxiety aside, I am very flattered that the customer likes my work well enough that he continues to commission yearly portraits of his children. Maybe I should listen to Todd when he tells me that I am my own worst critic.
Now to answer a couple of commonly asked questions. This artwork was burned on basswood and it took me 13 ¾ hours to create it. That’s it for this blog.
Until the next blog,
April 7, 2020
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