Pygmy Owl Pyrography Tutorial wood burning technique

In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to create the Pygmy Owl pyrography artwork.  I will explain how to create the beautiful feathers on the wings, the streaked chest, the spotted head, and more.  The owl is the seventh installment of my Backyard Birds tutorial series.  Maybe I’m bias as owls are my favorite bird, but I consider this to be the most exciting bird I’ve seen in my backyard.  

Spotting this owl in my yard was an interesting experience.   I have this old tree stump in my backyard and the birds love to perch on it.   I happened to be looking out the window and noticed there was this little hummingbird having a snit.  It was diving at something on the tree stump.  I could tell something was there, but just looked like a drab brown bird.   Boy did my opinion change quickly when I looked at the lump with a pair of binoculars and realized it was an owl!

Once I recognized it was an owl, I literally yelled at Todd to get his camera as we had an owl in the backyard.  Fortunately he is quick acting and had his camera in action snapping numerous pictures of the little owl.   The owl darted around the yard quickly; in fact, I was amazed at his speed.  It was very hard to keep track of him or her.  Thank god for the little hummingbird who followed and dived at the owl the entire time it was in the backyard.  When the owl would take off, I looked for the extremely agitated hummingbird to find where the owl had gone.  

Sorry, even though it has been over a year since the sighting, I still get exciting talking about.  Let’s start burning.  

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



  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • 8 x 10 inch (20.3 x 25.4 cm) piece of wood
  • Pattern (enlarge or shrink as needed)  Pygmy Owl pattern

I will be using terms like circular motion and pull-away strokes.  If you are unfamiliar with my terminology, I have a blog that explains them:  Using the Shader  


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.  



With the writing pen tip on medium low, very lightly burn in the trace lines. 

After you have burned in the trace lines, rub over the surface with a pencil eraser to remove any residual graphite.  It is easy to get into the habit of burning your outline or trace lines darkly, but if you want to create realistic art don’t get into that habit.   Darkly burned trace lines tends to look more like a color book style of artwork.  If you are wanting to create realistic art a color book style won’t accomplish that.   

Quite frequently the trace lines are nothing more than guidelines to me on where to add shadows, draw fur, etc. and I don’t want a dark harsh line to interfere with that.    The darker the line, the darker the art has to be to make the line blend in and this is especially true with animals and people.  Keep your trace lines burned as lightly as possible.


Here’s how the board looked after I burned in the trace lines and erased any residual graphite.


Here’s the reference photo for the owl.  I know it’s a touch blurry, but this is something that we can handle.









To get a better idea of how small this guy was, here’s the uncropped photo.  The owl is perched on top of my suet feeder that measures 3” wide x 5” long (7.6 x 12.7 cm).  When I looked up the info for a pygmy owl it said they average between 6-7 inches tall (15.2 – 17.8 cm).





Use the shader of your choice and burn in the shadows under the eye ridge on the bird. 






Then burn in the pupil, but avoid the reflection.







Rotate the board as needed to keep your pen tip in optimal position as you burn in the dark areas around the eye.







Then burn in the top portion of the eye.  Keep in mind that right now we are just blocking in color, so don’t worry about getting the values perfect.






Next, burn along the outer edges of the eye using circular motion.







Afterwards, lightly burn over the rest of the eye and very lightly burn over the reflection.







Now block in some of the shadowed areas around the beak.  Again, we are not trying to burn them to their final darkness.  Instead burn them in to a medium tan color.  I like to block in the shadows lightly, assess them to make sure they are burned in correctly, and then darken them up to their final values.  If there is a mistake it is MUCH easier to fix light colored burns than dark ones.




Continue to block in the shadowed or darker areas around the eyes on the owl.






Again, rotate the board as needed to ensure the pen tip is in optimal position as you want the edges of the eyes to be crisp and clearly defined.








Give the right eye the same treatment as the left, so burn in the pupil, use circular motion around the edges, and lightly burn over the rest of the eye including the reflection.






Now resume blocking in the darker areas.  What I’m doing is burning zigzags along the bottom edge of the feather groups.  Or if it helps to visualize, I’m burning along the bottom edge of the pattern lines.





Burn in the shadows along the bottom portion of the beak.







Continued work.







The outer edge of the beak is also clearly defined and needs a crisp edge on it, so again keep your pen tip in optimal position when burning next to it.








Now burn in the area above the eyes while avoiding the white spots.  Don’t worry if you are not burning right up to the line or edge of the white spots as we will fine tune them later.





Continue to block in the shadows and darker areas on the face.






Then lightly burn over the entire beak, but make the portion below the highlight that is marked with a dotted line slightly darker than the highlight.






Once you’re happy with the blocked in shadows, then start re-burning to darken things up.  Start with the eyes.  I always try to get the facial features done as perfectly as possible as that is the area people tend to notice the most and be more critical of.





With the eye, I’m burning along the lower edge using circular motion.  This will give it slight gradient shading and help the eye look curved.






Then re-burn over the dark areas around the eye.









If needed, re-burn over the pupils until they are a dark brown to black color.  Make sure to avoid the light reflection.







Darken up the shadow under the brow on the left.







Burn in the dark nostril opening.  I am using a very small shader pen tip for this, but a writer pen tip might be easier to use.






Darken up the shadows under the beak.






Next burn along the edge of the feather section.  You can use zigzags to burn along the outer edge or burn a bunch of single lines.






Then fill in the section using pull-away strokes.  Start the stroke on the inner edge and pull it towards the outer edge.







Repeat this process on the next row of feathers.







Keep in mind that you can burn along all of the edges and then fill in the feathers.  Or burn one feather at a time.  Either way works and will produce great results.






In this photo I am burning along the bottom or outer edge of several rows of feathers.







It might be helpful to switch to a writer pen tip to burn around the numerous small pale feathers that are seen on this left side of the face.  This particular writer pen tip is Colwood’s standard C writer.






Continue to burn around the pale feathers along the left side of the face.







You can also use the writer pen tip to burn in the shadow under the facial foods.






Now re-burn the lower part of brow to darken it up.






Then re-burn over the smaller dark areas on the facial feathers.






Here’s a progress photo.







Switch to a shader and finish burning in the top of the head. 







Again avoid burning over the white spots on the head.






Work your way down the side of the face.






Then burn pull-away strokes on the feathers to the right of the face if you haven’t done so already.






It might be easier to rotate the board so you can pull the pen tip towards yourself.







Burn along the sides of the nostril to make it look rounded in shape.







Then continue to fill rows of feathers with pull-away strokes.







Here’s another progress photo.







Use a writer pen tip to darken up the nostril openings







Also define the area around the nostrils







Switch to a shader and burn over the nostrils to darken up the shadows.  I’m not really sure if this is what they are called, but I couldn’t find anything on the internet, so you’re stuck with my term.





Continue to darken up the shadows under the brow.  This line of shadows extends almost to the left edge of the head.






Now re-burn over the head to darken it up.  Like before, avoid the white spots.  I switched to the smallest shader I have, mini J by Colwood, to burn in the area.






Try to keep the color fairly smooth, but remember that it doesn’t need to be perfect.  A little variety will provide texture to the area.  






Also darken up the rows of feathers below the eyes.  Use pull-away strokes for this area.






Then resume working on the top of the head.  Make sure that edges are a bit darker than the center.






Next burn in the shadow under the left feathers on the face that are just above the chest or wing.






Also darken up the feathers under the left eye.






Now it is time to fine-tune the face and head of the owl.  Look at your owl and decide what needs to be darkened up.  I thought the shadows around the eyes on my owl weren’t dark enough.







Darkening up the shadows around the left eye.








Then I darkened up the forehead or eyebrow area.







I also darkened up the base of each feather row.






And the shadow under the feather on the left.   Do you get the idea that I pretty much darkened up everything?  That is pretty close to the truth.







Use a writer pen tip to darken and add some texture to the top of the head.






What I’m doing to add texture is burning a zigzag type of stroke.  I’m using a really fast hand speed as I burn to ensure I don’t end up with noticeable lines on the head.  Since I moved my hand so fast I ended up with really faint lines that sometimes fade out completely.  Also keep the lines short.





Burn around the white spots to increase the contrast, but try to make sure the spots don’t have crisp edges or clearly defined borders on them.  The borders should be soft.






If needed, switch to a small shader to smooth out some of the texture created with the writer.






Here’s a progress photo.







Burn along the outer edge of the upper wing.







The fill in the wing creating the impression of feathers here and there.  This is accomplished by using the shader to burn along the bottom edge of the feather you want to create.  Then lightly burn over the area.  Make sure to use the FLAT of the shader so the feathers will have soft or slightly blurry edges on them.




This photo has a green arrow pointing to some feathers I’ve started to create by burning under where I plan for the feathers to be.  Also burn under the white spots found on the upper wing.







Then burn a dark line along the left edge of the upper wing.  This might actually be the mantle, but we’ll stick with the term upper wing. 






Next fill the area with pull-away strokes.  Each stroke should start on the burn mark under the feather and get pulled upward towards the face.  Let the color fade a bit before reaching the feather above it.





Continued work.







Don’t burn over the white spots in the area.







The edge of this area has a row of more defined feathers, but burn them the same way as the others.  This means you burn a thick line or band along the bottom edge and then use pull-away strokes to fill the feather with color.  The pull-away strokes starts on the bottom and gets pulled upward.





Continued work.







If needed, darken up areas of the upper wing, and lightly burn over the white spots.






Continued work.







I decided that the top of the head on my owl wasn’t dark enough, so I’m re-burning over it.





I won’t be burning in the background, so I need the owl to be fairly dark so he stands.






Once I started re-burning I just kept going and re-burned over most of the face.






I would have to say that I like the richer or slightly darker color of the owl after I re-burned over most of it.






Now burn in the shadows on the throat feathers.  The line that is sticking out by the throat is where the edge of the suet feeder ends.   This line is found on the pattern, but it looks a little odd in this photo.






Continue to burn in the shadows on the feathers and lightly burn over the rest of the feather area.







Then burn in the shadows under the last row of face feathers.







Continued work.








Here’s a progress photo.







Now start working on the next section of the wing feathers.







It might be helpful to rotate the board when burning the short lines along the edge where wispy chest feathers overlap onto the wing.







Continued work.








Continued work.








Then burn in the this area of the wing creating the impression or hint of a feather here and there.  The hint of feather is create the same way we did the feathers on the first part of the wing, just make sure to keep the edges very soft or slightly blurry.





There are a few white spots in this area too, so carefully burn around them.






Now burn a dark line along the left edge of the clearly defined wing feathers.





Burn in the top portion of each feather and finish burning in the area above the feathers.






Continued work.







If needed, re-burn the feathers along the edge of the upper wing to darken them up.






Burn around the edges of the leftmost wing feather. 







Afterwards burn in the feather while avoiding the white spots.







Re-burn along the right edge and below the feather for the shadows found there.







Burn a dark line along the right edge of each feather.







Next burn in the top portion of the feathers. but burn each one individually.







Leave the bottom left edge of each feather lighter in color than the upper right edge. 







Switch to a writer pen tip to burn in the shadows to the left of the first feather.






Next burn a really dark line separating the section we just burned on each feather from the remaining bottom of the feathers.






If needed, darken up the outer edge of the owl.







Now burn a dark line around each feather on the wing.







Also burn darkly around the white spots on the wing feathers.







Afterward use a shader to burn in each feather individually.  The left edge of each feather should be a shade or two lighter in color than the right edge.






Burn over the upper section to dark up the lower left edge of the feathers.






Now decide if any areas on the wing need to be darkened up some more.







You  might be a bit surprised to read that I pretty much re-burned over all of the wing area.  Shocking I know.  🙂






I decided I made a mistake by burning over the lower left edge on the upper segment on the wing feathers, so I’m removing some of the color with a spot sanding pen.  





I’m not going to discuss the eraser in detail here as I’ve mentioned it in numerous blogs.  If you’re not familiar with it and want more information I have a blog that I discuss different types of erasers for pyrography.  Erasers




Here’s a progress photo.







Now start on the little group of feathers to the left.






With this section of feathers it is a bit difficult to see what’s going on in the reference photo.  When I zoom in the photo is too blurry to make out much detail.  The great thing is that no one is going to look that closely at this section, so burn in the feathers individually to a fairly dark color.  Shade them like the other wing feathers; this means that left edge is slightly lighter in color than the right.



With the next cluster of feathers burn a dark line long the bottom and left side of each one.






Then fill in the each feather individually leaving a thin pale line along the right side next the adjoining feather in the group.






Now burn in the dark shadow onto the long flight feathers.







Burn each of the flight feathers individually.  Avoid the white spots and leave the left edge lighter in color than the right edge.






Not all of the flight feathers have white spots, but you can add spots to each feather if you like.  After you burn in the feathers, make sure to lightly burn over the white spots on them.





Here’s a progress photo of the flight feathers.







Re-burn as needed to get them to their proper darkness level.







Here’s a progress photo.








Now burn in the lower portion of tail feathers. 






The bottom edge of each feather is lighter in color than the upper edge.







Continued work.







The upper portion of each feather is much paler than the bottom.  The upper portion is found along the left side of the feathers in this photo.






Burn a few tan lines along the outer edge of the fluffy feathers under the tail.






Start burning in the chest feathers.  Begin with the wispy feathers on the right and then work on the last of the wing feathers.  Make sure they are lighter in color than the feathers to the right of them.





Again burn each feather individually.






Continued work.






Once the last of the wing feathers are done, work your way up the right side of the chest.






Here’s a progress photo.







The right side of the chest has some feathers that have defined edges and others are just hints of feathers.






Take your time and consult with the reference photo often. 






After you fill in the right side, then work on the upper portion of the chest where the last of the individual feathers appear.






I find that burning in the dark areas helps define the area quicker and makes it easier to compare with the reference photo.






Continued work burning in the upper chest feathers.






As always, you should periodically assess areas you have already burned in to decide if they need a little fine-tuning.  In this photo I’m re-burning over some of the feathers along the right side of the upper chest.






The closer to the left edge of the chest you get, the lighter in color most of the feathers get.






Burn in the dark bands or markings than run down the chest and belly area.






Also burn in the feathers to the right of the marking.






Then continue burning in the dark band marking.






Continued work.







Then start on the dark band than angles downward towards the left edge of the belly.






Once you get to the left edge of the belly the marking continues vertically upward making a V shape, so follow the pattern lines and burn it in.







Continued work.







Then burn in the few feathers that are to the left of the dark marking on the left edge of the owl.






Check with the reference photo to determine how dark to burn the little feathers.






Lightly burn over the white feathers on the belly between the two dark bands that form the V shape.






Continued work.







Work your way down the belly burning in the dark markings and the feathers near the markings.







Now burn in the shadow on the back leg.  Make sure your pen tip is in optimal position when burning next to the front foot; the edge of the toe needs to be very crisp or clearly defined.






If needed, re-burn over some of the dark bands to darken them up a bit more.






Now burn in the shadow along the right side of the belly.






There is a row of wispy feathers with soft edges, so burn some dark tan lines to represent them.






Finish burning in the shadow between the soft edge and wing so it is a dark brown to black color.






Next burn some thin tan lines along the bottom edge of the belly.






Also burn in the last little section of dark marking found in the area.






Afterwards burn a jagged line along the edge of the foot where it is in shadows.






Then burn in the shadow.







Here’s a progress photo.








If you are not going to burn in the background you might need to darken up the edge of the wispy feathers under the tail.






If the edge isn’t darkened up the feathers won’t show up next to the pale wood behind them.






Since I’m fine-tuning, I decided to darken up the right edge of the body.







Plus I extended the color a little ways so it doesn’t look like a dark line.







Now burn along the bottom edge of the far toe.






Continued work.






Then burn some thick lines along the top of the toe where the knuckles are located.






Afterwards burn the rest of the toe to a tan color, but make sure the bottom is darker than the top.







Now repeat the steps with the next toe.






Finishing up this toe.






On this toe there are nodules, or some roundish shape, along the bottom that have shadows or darker areas all around them.






Burn a tan band that runs along the bottom of the toe, but just above the nodules or roundish shapes.






Don’t forget to burn a bit darker on the top along the knuckles.







Once the toes are done, critically look at them and decide if they need any fine-tuning.  I’m darkening a couple of the shadowed areas.






Switch to a writer pen tip and burn around the edges of the claws.






Continued work.






Then burn dark pull-away strokes that start at the point of the claw and fade near the three-quarter mark.  I am using a standard writer pen tip for this, so the resulting burn strokes are lines.






In this photo I’ve got pen tip at the tip of the claw.






Now I’m burning upward following the curve of the claw.






Once reaching the three-quarter mark, lift the pen tip up and away from the wood.






Here you can see the burn stroke I just finished.  I’m getting ready to burn another line, so the pen tip is heading back towards the point of the claw.






Finishing up the last claw.








Here’s a progress photo of the claws.







Next, switch to a small shader and lightly burn over the top of the claws.







Continued work.







Finishing up the claws.


Now let’s burn in the perch.  Use a shader and carefully burn the area around the toes under the owl to a dark brown.  Make sure to leave the lower edge of the perch a shade or two lighter.






Burn the upper side of the perch to a really dark brown or black color.  You should be able to tell the top from the bottom, but in the shadowed areas it should be a subtle color difference.





As you burn the perch, burn thick bands of color, but alter the color slightly to give the impression of wood.






Also rotate the board as needed to keep your pen tip in optimal position when burning around the toes.  The toes need to have clearly defined edges.





You might find it easier to burn in different directions, so I suggesting experimenting around. 







Continued work.  I let the left edge of the perch fade away, but it’s up to you on whether or not you do the same.








I want to talk about the line that the yellow arrow is pointing to.  This line is on the pattern and represents the upper edge of the suet cage the owl is perched on.







I decided that I didn’t want the perch to extend that far upward, so I sanded away the line and altered the perch a bit.  Again you can decide if this is something you want to imitate.


I like to burn a dark border around the birds in my backyard bird series.  For this one I used a large metal shield and a mini flame torch to burn in the border.




Let me point how I have the direction of the flame angled up away from the artwork.  This is the proper angle to use.





Notice how I have the flame angled down towards the artwork in this photo.  Don’t do that.   The flame can char the wood under the edge of the shield.





Also I don’t recommend using the shield along the sides of the board because it is too easy to angle the flame inward towards the artwork.






The red arrow is pointing to a spot where the wood under the shield got charred.  I had to do a LOT of sanding and scraping to remove that charing.  Also make sure not to get too close to the inner edge when using a torch without a shield.





Once you are done torching the edge, then take a piece of paper towel or tissue and rub over the border.