Pyrography Portrait LITTLE GIRL wood burning techniques tutorial

In this blog I will be explaining the pyrography techniques to create this portrait of this little girl.  I just love her large eyes and long eyelashes.   This is the third installment in my portrait tutorial series.  Just like I did with the previous tutorials I will explain every from start to finish.   This means I will show you how to transfer the photo to the board, create the pyrography artwork, sign off on the artwork, and discuss fixing mistakes.  Plus this is another project that I tested out a different brand of watercolor paper.

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.  To watch the video, just click on the image to the left. 




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

Now, let’s get started.


I rate this as a level 3 because you need the ability to create uniform color and smooth gradient color.  Also you need to learn to see beyond familiar 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.

Also, I will be using terminology like circular motion in this tutorial.  If you are not familiar with my terminology I have a blog that explains them:   Using Shader 


  • Writing tip
  • Shading tip
  • 4 x 6 inch (10.2 x 15.2 cm) piece of wood or paper
  • Pencil – HB or higher
  • Eraser
  • Printed Image – make 2 (1 to trace from and 1 to use for reference)

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.  Tombow eraser

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




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 I am very comfortable with a process called Constant Comparison. I explain that concept in Step 3.  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 Nyokssoftware.  Here’s a link to the photo:




I cropped the photo as I will only be working with the face.









Here’s a black and white version of the cropped photo.

STEP 1 – PREP THE SURFACE (wood or paper)


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 be aware that hot pressed paper will often designated by the letters HP, and cold pressed with CP. 




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.






Clayboard(ald).  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  








For this portrait I’m testing out Fluid 140 lb hot pressed watercolor paper by Speedball.  I’m going to tell you right now that I did not care for burning on this paper, so I’m not going to provide a link as I think it would be a waste of your money. 







At the time I wrote this tutorial, May 2020, I had already completed the sixth installment of the portrait series. The paper I’m using for that portrait is my favorite so far.  It is a hot pressed watercolor paper by Winsor & Newton, and it is great for burning on.  Here’s a link to that brand, but make sure to get the Hot Pressed variety.  Winsor Newton  




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.   White Artist 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 are printing, print out two versions of the image.  The first we’ll use for transferring and the other will be used for reference during the burning process.







Flip the paper over and coat the back with graphite.  You do not need a uniform layer of graphite, but make sure you cover everywhere you plan to trace.





Now secure the image to the surface using two pieces or more 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.  Paper Tape






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.  Since pencil lines don’t show up well, I’m using a red ink pen to draw over the pencil lines I’ve already traced.  If you look closely you can see some of the pencil marks that I haven’t drawn over yet.    




Do not use a heavy hand or exert a lot of pressure when tracing as you can emboss the paper and possibly the wood depending on its hardness.  Embossed lines are lines that are embedded into the surface and they will show up as white lines when you shade over them.


I recommend using a combination of solid and dashed lines for this.   Use solid lines in areas with clearly defined edges; the iris, crease in the eyelids above the eye, etc.   Use dashes or dots to mark transitions or shadows.  The majority of the lines should be of the dashed variety.


Always check the trace lines for accuracy and missing info before removing the taped on image.







Once you are done tracing, the image will be filled with a bunch of dashed lines that make assorted shapes on the face. 



First off, you need to have a good set up, and I found that this set up worked well for me.  Keep in mind that I am left-handed.






If you are right-handed, then you should have an opposite setup.   






First off my burning surface in the center of my area.






The reference photo should be close by and placed in a spot where you can always see it very easily.   Again, I’m left handed, so for me the best spot is to have the reference photo placed to the right side of where I will be burning.   A right-handed person should place it to the left.





Lastly, always keep a piece of scrap material nearby.  The material is used to test burn darkness levels of your pen tip before you burn on the artwork.





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 tracing throw it away.




Before we start burning I want to give you some general guidelines and provide an overview of how we’ll work on the portrait.

  • 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 re-burned 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 re-burn back over the area and get better results.  I do want to point out that I didn’t notice this happening with the Winsor & Newton paper.
  • 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 burned up to a line so I would know where the edge or transition was at, and then I erased the pencil lines.
  • Try not to view the portrait as identifiable objects like a nose or eye. Instead focus on the highlights and shadows.  To help accomplish this, breakdown areas into smaller pieces.  For example, when working on the nose concentrate on one nostril.  Really examine the highlights and shadows on this nostril.   You can’t replicate what you don’t see.  It can take time to train your eye to notice small details.
  • 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.
  • 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.


Tracing the image onto the board fills the image with a bunch of odd shapes that have dashed lines defining their edges.  This photo shows a number of those shapes filled with difference colors.







First off identify the lightest and darkest areas on the face.  The lightest area is the white of the eye, and the darkest is the iris.   What about the skin?  The lightest area is just above the tip of the nose and the darkest the nostril opening on the nose.   Let’s assign these areas tonal values.

White of the eyes = very pale tan

Iris = dark brown or black

Nose highlight = light tan

Nostril opening = medium brown



Now pick a shape created by the dashed lines.  I’ve chosen the tip of the nose.  I’ve labeled the shape with the letter A and circled it with green. 








Find the corresponding shape on the reference photo.  A green arrow points to the spot.   How does this shape compare in tonal value with the 4 areas we have already assigned a value to?      

To me Shape A is much darker than the nose highlight, and much lighter than the nostril opening.   I would say it is in the middle of those two values, so let’s give it a tonal value dark tan to extremely light brown.  





0d4.  Now let’s look at the adjacent shape to the left of shape A.  This shape I’ve labeled as shape B.








Find the shape on the reference photo and compare its color to shape A.  What do you think?   To me shape B is a touch darker than shape A.  When shape B gets burned in burn it 1-2 shades darker than shape A.

That is how constant comparison works.  Examine one shape and compare its color with shapes that have already been given a tonal value.   Don’t worry if you discover that you have to adjust tonal values as more shapes get burned in.  I do this all the time.   You look at the artwork as a whole and sometimes discover the color isn’t right, so you re-burn to fix it.

Again, learning to constantly compare tonal values takes time and practice.  For many people using a Value Finder tool is easier and it helps them during the learning curve.



Use a black and white version of the reference photo and hold the grey value side of the finder to an area you want to work on.  Compare the tonal values between the reference photo spot and the grey side of the value finder.







Continue to compare different grey values on the value finder with the reference photo.  This value looks really close.








I always check the adjacent darker value before deciding on which grey tone I think is a match.








With this example, the second value was the closest match.









When you burn in the area switch over to the sepia tone side of the value finder and burn the area to match that value.   This example isn’t perfect, but I think you understand how it works.








Here’s a link to the blog I wrote about making a tonal value finder tool.  I scanned the one I made, so you can print it off.  Just keep in mind that depending on the printer it might not produces the same rich sepia tones as making your own will.   Value Finder 








Now we’re ready to burn in the portrait.  









Equip a shader pen tip and set the heat so that you get a medium tan burn result.   Remember to test out on the scrap paper until the desired burn result is achieved.   Once the pen tip is at the proper temperature, then use the razor edge and starting burning in the solid pencil lines around the eye.  






Also start to burn in the shadows you encounter.  The main point is to make sure you can easily tell the different shapes created by the dashed lines apart. 






Use the razor edge of the shader to burn in the eyelashes.  Always start the burn stroke at the base of the eyelash.







When you near the end of the eyelash lift the pen tip up and away from the board to get a nice tapered point.







Here’s how the eye looks so far.  Notice that I’m not burning that darkly.  I’m just lightly blocking in areas and after the pencil marks are gone I will re-burn over the shapes to darken areas and smooth out the transitions between the shapes.







Make sure you keep your pen tip in optimal position when burning along the outer edge of the face.  Rotate the board, if needed, to accomplish this.   





Since the tip or front edge of the shader in on the edge and the body of the shader is over the face, this prevents burning past the line and the edge stays nice, clean, and clearly defined.





Erase any pencils marks that are no longer needed.  Then switch to a writer pen tip and burn around the iris, the light reflection spots on the iris, and re-burn over the eyelashes to darken them up.






You can also use the writer to darken up the top portion of the iris.







Then switch back to a shader and start burning in the different shapes around the eye.  In this photo I’m darkening up the inner portion of the visible eyelid. 







Afterwards burn in a gentle curving arch just below the halfway mark on the iris.   This portion of the eye is slightly lighter in the reference photo, though it is a bit tough to see.   I plan to leave this area much lighter as I think that will add some visual interest to the eyes.





Burn really short pull-away strokes along the eyelid crease.   Start the stroke on the eyelid crease and pull it towards the eyelashes.  Stop the stroke a very short distance from the eyelid crease.







Finish burning in the iris.  Burn the portion below the gentle arch a few shades lighter than the upper portion.  Also burn in a few vertical lines that angle towards the pupil in the lower portion.







Then burn in the eyebrows using the razor edge of the shader.   Burn the strokes in the direction the hair grows.  Also start the stroke at the base of the hairs.







Now finishing the skin around the eye.  I am using either circular motion or uniform strokes for this.








If needed, re-burn over the eyebrows to darken them up.  I’m not trying to burn over the individual hairs that were already burned in. 







Next work on the bridge of the nose between the eyebrows.  Both sides are darker than the center and the closer to the right eye you get the dark the shadows.





There are some eyebrow hairs starting to show up in this area. 






Here’s a progress photo.








Burn a thick line or wide band that arches gently from the nose to the outer edge of the face.








Afterwards burn in the cheek from the line upward.









Now burn in the white of the eye.  The top and bottom of the eye should be slightly darker than the center.






Let’s do the same basic steps with the right eye.  Start by the burning in the trace lines.  Make sure to rotate the board as needed to keep your pen tip in optimal position when burning along clearly defined edges.








Then switch to a writer pen tip and darkly burn around the edges of the iris.






Also burn around the light reflection spots and burn in the pupil.






Burn in the upper portion of the iris and then burn in the eyelashes.  Again start the stroke at the base of the lash. 






If you look at the reference photo you’ll see that the lashes don’t look the same at the right corner.  I burned a very short line with a small blob or dot at the end of it.





Use the shader and burn the shadows next to the eye.







Then burn pull-away strokes along the outer edge of the iris.  Start the stroke on the iris edge and pull it towards the pupil.







Then burn pull-away strokes along the pupil and pull the stroke towards the outer edge of the iris.







Darken up the top portion of the iris and lastly burn thin vertical lines that radiate outward from the pupil.






I liked how the right eye turned out, so I tried to get the left eye to match.  I added a pupil, increased the contrast between the top and bottom of the arch, and darkened up the vertical lines.  I will admit that it didn’t work well.   I also admit that I deviated from the reference photo when I created the eyes.






Burn along the dashed lines around the eye.







When burning along the dashed lines use the flat of the shader.  This will ensure you have soft edges and don’t end up with crisp or clearly defined lines.






Once you don’t need the pencil lines, then erase them.  I’m using a Tombow mono eraser, but any standard pencil eraser will work.






Now burn in the eyelashes along the lower eyelid.  Pay attention to the reference photo as some eyelashes are barely seen. 






Then fill in the shapes created by the dashed lines.  Also burn in the white of the eye and again the top and bottom areas are darker than the center. 







Here’s another progress photo.









Burn in the eyebrow hairs.  I’m burn them in lightly at first.  This allows me to block them in, evaluate them, and easily make changes if needed.







Afterwards start blocking in the shapes made by the dashed lines.








Erase any unneeded pencil marks and move onto the next area.







As you might have noticed, sometimes I burn over a number of dashed lines, erase the pencil marks, and then fill in the shapes.  Or I burn around one shape, erase the pencil marks, and fill in that one shape.  I’m trying to show you that there are different ways of accomplishing the same goal.







With this eyebrow I used a writer pen tip to burn in the hair.  This was easier than the shader because the pen tip didn’t cut into the paper like the razor edge of the shader. 






The dark blobs or dots at the start of the lines happened because I had the heat too high on my burner.  I have to tell you that I’m not very good with eyebrows.  I’ve yet to burn in one that I thought looked decently.






Now start burning along the dashed lines around the nose.







Then fill in the shapes.  






With the nostrils make sure to let the color fade a bit along the lower edge of it.  The arrow is pointing to the shadow along the right nostril.  Notice how difficult it is to tell the nostril from the shadow next to it.  






Before I erase the pencil marks I need to re-burn over the shadow so I can tell the two areas apart from each other.






After re-burning the shadow I erased the pencil lines that weren’t needed.  I do highly recommend you look your artwork over before erasing any pencil lines to make sure you don’t need them anymore.






Once the pencil lines are gone, then fill in shapes and smooth out the transitions.







Continue to fill in the shapes in around the nose and cheek.






Like before I’m using circular motion as my primary burn stroke, but I also use some uniform strokes.







When you fill in areas make sure to concentrate on gradient shading along the edges of the shapes to smooth out the transitions between the shapes.







It can take a several re-burnings to create smooth transitions.








Also if you see areas that need fine-tuning, then fix them up.  Once in a while you should take a few moments and look at the artwork as a whole.  Compare your artwork with the reference photo looking for areas that aren’t dark enough.





Continued work on the area around the nose.







Rotate the board, as needed when working near edges so your pen tip stays in optimal position.






Make sure that there is a tonal difference between the nose and the left cheek.  The difference shouldn’t be extreme, but enough to tell the two apart.






I do recommend working on your art at different orientations in an attempt to fool your brain.  When the art is rotated your brain may not recognize shapes as easily and this allows you to focus more on the highlights and shadow.   





While the board is rotated, burn along the left side of the upper lip.







Re-burn over the nose area to darken it up as needed.   When I create tutorials it is always interesting to me that mistakes I discover I’ve made.  With this artwork I did not darken up the bridge of the nose and upper cheek enough.  I do remember that I was getting very frustrated with this paper, so maybe I thought this is good enough.  Not sure.   




Here’s another progress photo.









Let’s shift our attention to the lower portion of the face and start burning in the dark shadow to the left of the mouth.






Then burn over the pencil lines on the mouth.







Next, burn the left cheek near the upper lip to further define the two areas.







Also lightly burn in the shadows on the upper lip.







Then burn over the remaining pencil lines using the flat of the shader.






Afterwards rub over the area with a pencil eraser to remove the pencil lines.  At this point all of the pencil marks are gone; at least on my rendition of the artwork.





Now burn pull-away strokes along the right side of the upper lip.  Start the stroke on the outer edge of the lip and pull it down towards the lower lip.






Burn the shadow along the right corner of the mouth.







Then burn some vertical lines on the upper lip.







Rotate the board and burn along the outer edge of the lower lip.  Once you’re done then burn in the lower lip.







Also burn in the paler portion of the lower lip.







Then burn in the shadow that is next to the corner of the mouth.







Since the board is rotated and the pen tip is in optimal position, burn a wide band of color along the outer edge of the face.  This means we won’t have to get close to the edge later on.





Now start burning in shapes that were created by the dashed lines.







There isn’t a wrong or a right way to do this.  I had started working on the upper right side of the lip area, but decided to finish the left cheek.







Also add a few lines the lower lip and darken up if needed.







There is a subtle highlight adjacent to the upper lip, so burn it a shade or two lighter than the rest of the skin in this area.






Here’s a progress photo.









With the lips and upper mouth completed, now it’s just a matter of burning in the shapes on the chin and right cheek.







Again a reminder to make sure you really blend the edges of the shapes so you get smooth transitions between one shape to the next. 






One more progress photo.









I tend to work on the darker areas first and leave the lighter areas for last.






Also I like to work sections at a time, so I’m pretty much working my way from left to right on the lower portion of the face.






Continued work.






Continued work.








Remember to consult with the reference photo often to determine how dark to burn an area.  Use the constant comparison method or a value finder to help you with this.






Try out different pen tips.  For the cheek area I switched to a larger shader to get the area burned in quicker.






As always re-burn over areas if you notice they aren’t dark enough.






I often spend a considerable amount of time fine-tuning areas or re-burning over them to increase their darkness levels.








Once you are happy with your artwork, then it’s time to sign off on it.  I always use a pencil to sign my name.





Then switch to a writer pen tip and burn over the pencil marks.






Afterwards rub over the area with a pencil eraser to remove any residual graphite.


I made several mistakes while working on the portrait and tried different ways to fix them.

First off I used the flat edge of a knife to gently scrape away mistakes.







I also tried using an ink pen eraser on areas where I didn’t have to be very precise.  That didn’t work very well.  It abraded the paper giving it a very rough texture.  When I burned over the area it looked blotchy.







Both methods abraded the paper and when I removed over “erased” areas little dark dots appeared.  I think the dots are the frayed ends of paper fiber that charred. 


Below is a comparison photo of my artwork and the reference photo.  It’s okay.  I don’t think I did this little cutie justice, and the more I look at the artwork the less I like what I did.


The paper I burned on for this portrait was the Fluid series 140 pound, hot pressed, 100% cotton, acid-free watercolor paper by Speedball.   I already mentioned that I did not like this paper.  The paper tended to get blotchy.  Plus no matter how lightly I tried to erase mistakes the paper became abraded.  If I burned over the abraded area I ended up with little dark spots. 

I don’t recommend this paper.






That’s it for this portrait tutorial series.    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.  I say similar because if I’m working on animal fur that requires a completely different burn stroke method that what I used for the portrait. 

Even though I’m not super happy with how my rendition turned out, I hope I was able to explain the methods that I used well enough so that you can create portrait art.  Lastly, the artwork measure 6 x 6 inches (15.2 x 15.2 cm), and it took me 5 hours to create it.

Until the next blog,


May 26, 2020

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4 thoughts on “Pyrography Portrait LITTLE GIRL wood burning techniques tutorial

  1. Salut BRENDA, je suis un de vos grands fans. Je suis au Burkina Faso à Ouagadougou la capitale. Outre mes études que j’ai fini, je m’exerce en pyrogravure que je passionne. J’admire votre super talent irrésistible. Vous êtes pour moi une référence.
    En outre vos tutoriels que je suie , avoir un stage de perfectionnement auprès de vous est l’un de mes rêves.
    Simon ZONGO

  2. You create a great blog tutorial, Brenda. I wondered how long a blog post such as this takes you to create. I also wondered if you are getting someone to take the photographs of you working, or if these are stills from the YouTube video? You are doing a superb job. 🙂
    Cheers, Ryn.

    1. Hi Ryn,

      the tutorial blogs take me a number of hours to create. Heck it takes me a number of hours just to gather and edit all of the photos. Final cut pro allows you to easily capture and export video screenshots. After each burning session I try to remember to take a real photo (high resolution) of the artwork, so I throw some of those into the blog also.

      Thank you so much for the question and awesome comment!

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