Pyrography Art – The Cougar wood burning art

Back in March of 2019 Todd & I were visiting Tucson, Arizona.  While there we visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and I got a photo of a cougar that I just loved.  Immediately I knew that I wanted to turn it into a piece of pyrography artwork.  This blog is going to talk about the artwork and some of the challenges I encountered creating it. 

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





I have a brief video tutorial that covers the soft, slightly out-of-focus fur along the shoulder and the longer fur on the throat.  Click on the image to the left to watch.




This is the photo that I took.  I love the intense look on the cougar’s face.  There was a group of little kids, and amongst them was a little girl with a bright red shirt on.  She was running back and forth between the group and the window to the cougar enclosure.  The cougar was VERY interested in her.  The other thing I love about this photo is the detail the photo captured.  What I don’t love about the photo is the light reflected on the glass that obscures the left side of the cougar.   

I will be honest and say that if someone gave me this photo and asked me to create a replica, I would have told them no.



I’m burning on a cradle board. 






Cradle boards are nothing more than artist grade plywood mounted on a wooden support frame.   This is part of my final round of testing out different brands of cradle boards.    







If you are interested in the initial round of testing here’s a link to that blog.   The cougar is board #1.  All of the boards I tested were 10×10 in size except one that was 8×8.  The Cougar is on the 8×8 board, so I know that Ampersand manufactured it.    Ampersand was my favorite during the initial testing and I cannot 100% say that didn’t impact my impressions of the board during this round of testing.    Cradle Boards




I traced what I could easily see of the image onto the board, and roughly sketched in the missing or obscured area based on another cougar photo.  After that I started burning in the trace lines.  






This is the other photo I used to help me fill in the left side of the face.









When working with fur, I always burn the lines as short dashes in the direction that the fur grows.






When tracing from photos I trace along the lines or contours that define the edges of areas.  So any markings in the fur, color changes, depressions and/or ridges from the bone structure, outline of ears, eyes, etc.







Once the trace lines are burned in, I rub over the area with a pencil eraser to remove any residual graphite.  Then I almost always work on the eyes.







Since the eyes are light in color I worked on the area around the eyes. 







The reason is that this would help me determine how dark I could burn the eyes, but still have them appear pale in color compared to the adjacent areas.








First I burned the eyes to a fairly uniform pale color. 








Then I re-burned along outer edges of the eye.







After that I burned in the shadows from the wispy eyebrow hairs.








I also re-burned around the area the pupil would be.








Then I replicated what I did on the opposite eye.








Here’s how it looked after I added just a hint of the pupils.  The reference photo did not have any of the pupil showing, but I thought the eyes looked better with the hint of pupils.






I used the point of a sharp knife to gently scrape in a couple of pale wispy eyebrow hairs to stick out over the eye.






After the eyes were burned in, I went to work adding the first layer of zigzags to create the fur texture.








As I do this, I make sure to retain any markings, depressions, etc., that create the shape of the face. 






NEVER apply a uniform layer of zigzags over the face.  Doing that will remove or hide the guidelines traced from the pattern.  Creating realistic pyrography can be challenging, so don’t make it more difficult by obliterating the guidelines.





Continued work.







Continued work.





I’ve mentioned numerous times that I use a burn method I call zigzags to create fur texture.





This method produces results that are extremely similar to burning individual lines or ‘hairs,’ but I think the zigzag method is faster.  Keep in mind that is my personal opinion and you may or may not agree with it.  That’s ok.  My website explains how I do things, but that doesn’t mean they are the only or the best way of doing them.





Both the zigzag and single line methods require that the lines be burned in the direction that the fur is growing.







Which method is the best for you?  I can’t tell you.  Instead I would recommend trying both and see if there is one you prefer.







Here’s how the artwork looks so far.









How you hold or angle the shader pen tip can alter the type of burn results you get.    The razor edge creates thin lines; which is great for fur.  Whereas the flat of the shader creates wide bands of color; which is great for filling in areas with color.    Using the razor edge of the shader requires angling the pen tip to access the edge.   






Sometimes it can be difficult to look at a picture and determine how the pen is being held.  With the photo it could easily look like I’m using the flat of the shader, but I’m not.  Instead I’m using just the tip of the front edge of the shader.  What you can’t see is the steep angle I’m holding the pen to accomplish this.





I often get asked how I create the “white” areas in my artwork.  I think the person asking thinks I use colored pencils, paint, or some other medium.  Instead I use contrast.







The fur around the mouth will end up looking white for two reasons.  First, I don’t burn it near as dark as the adjacent fur.  Second;y, I burn the adjacent fur much darker.   This creates a lot of contrast and that makes the fur look white.





Most of the face has at has been blocked in, so now I’m starting ears.






The left ear was partially obscured by the reflection on the glass, so I burn over it very lightly at first.  Lighter burn marks are so much easier to fix!  By burning it in lightly I can access how the ear looks and make any changes if needed.




Cougar ears have a white marking that is framed by really dark markings.  Sometimes the dark markings are nearly black in color, and this cougar is one who has black ear markings.






The inside of most animal ears tend to be filled with a lot of wispy hairs.  This is the perfect place where burning lightly and slowly building up the color and details works wonderfully.  






It can be extremely helpful to draw in the wispy hairs using a white charcoal pencil.  Then it’s a matter of carefully burning around the charcoal lines.








I used the right ear as a color template for the left ear, so in this photo I’m starting to building up the color.





Like I said, the left ear is obscured, so I’m not rushing to get the ear done.  I find it helpful to take breaks from areas that are challenging. 





The breaks allow me to come back to the area with “fresh” eyes.  This often allows me to better evaluate the work I’ve done, and help determine what still needs to be done.






Plus the breaks help keep areas from getting too monotonous. 






Generally I apply between 3-7 layers of zigzags when creating fur.  The number of layers depends on the area, so white fur would not receive near as many layers as the darker fur would.   Keep in mind that each layer is not very dark, so I can add numerous layers without the fur looking getting close to a dark brown or black color.






All of those layers really add to the tonal variety of the fur.  That variety is part of the reason I think I achieve realistic looking artwork.







Even dark markings get a number of zigzag layers as I build up the color.  Notice how dark the muzzle markings look in this photo.  I want you to remember this for a little bit because as I fill in more areas the area won’t look as dark. 





Here’s how the artwork looks so far.









I’ve mentioned a number of times that white fur should never be left unburned.  I always apply a thin layer of zigzags and/or single lines over white fur.   Otherwise the white fur will look like you forgot to burn it in, and that might not convey “fur” to the viewer.






Another thing I frequently do is use a writer pen tip and apply a layer of dots over animal noses.  I don’t make the dots extremely dark as I want them to be a subtle detail.  







Notice how the dark markings on the muzzle don’t look as dark now?  That is the power of contrast. Increase the contrast and you get bright and dark areas.  The extreme contrast is often interpreted as dark and/or white markings, or light and dark fur.  Now if you decrease the contrast and you get areas that look shadowed or highlighted.  The muzzle was looking a bit like dark fur, and now it looks like shadowed fur.




Contrast has a lot of power in your artwork.  Low contrast work will look boring and not keep the viewer’s attention near as long as high contrast will.






The fur along the shoulder and back of the neck was a touch out of focus on the reference photo.  To replicate that feature I used the flat of the shader while burning in the zigzags on that area.  We already discussed how the flat of the shader creates bands of color.  Those bands are much thicker than razor thin lines that resemble hair.  That subtle lack of detail is what give the fur a slight out of focus appearance.  






In this photo you can see I’ve gotten the wispy ear hair blocked in.







Notice how this spot I’m working on is looking more like a shadow versus a dark marking even though it is noticeably darker than the fur to the right of it.  The major reason for this is the black area around the eye.  The black area is so dark that in comparison this spot just looks darker or shadowed.    





I want you to look at this photo and notice how the areas of high contrast are being used to create white fur.  The ear on the left is a perfect example.  Also, look at the eyebrow on the right.  It hasn’t been burned over yet, so looks like unburned wood at this point.







The fur along the left edge of the cougar I decided should be in clear focus, so I’m using the razor edge of the shader to burn it in.





The throat had thicker and slightly longer fur.  This fur required a different approach than my standard zigzag burn stroke.






I used the flat of the shader to burn long strokes of color.  I varied the color of the strokes and slowly build up the lights and darks in this area.







With this photo you can see the texture a bit better that I’m creating.







Back to working on the wispy ear hair.  Like I said before I think it’s better to burn lightly the during the initial burning.  Then if things look good, re-burn over the area to build up the color, contrast, and details.







I cannot tell you what layer this is that I’m burning over the top of the head, but it is probably the third or fourth layer. 







Here’s another progress photo.









Looking at this photo it is really obvious the areas that have received the latest additional layer of zigzags on it.






Like I said before, I do like to take breaks from areas.  Burning numerous layers of zigzags is not that exciting.  I like how the end results look, but sometimes I don’t always enjoy what it takes to get there.








I’m testing out a larger shader to see if it makes the out of focus fur quicker to do.   I did this artwork in October of 2019, so I don’t really remember if it did or not.







When I did the first round of testing I burned along the edges of the board.  I decided that I burn a dark border around the artwork during the final round of testing.   The pencil line marks seen in the photo are where the dark border will start.







It never hurts to test out different pen tips to see if one will work better than another.  This larger shader must have been working out well since I’m now using it to create the in focus fur.





The throat is lighter in color than the fur on the face and side of the neck.  I’m working extra carefully in this area to make sure I don’t burn it in too dark.






Burning the muzzle markings really dark will provide some good contrast that will help the throat look paler in color.







As you can see I switched to a smaller shader.  The hairs in this area need to stay short, so a smaller shader makes it easy to do that.  Could I have used the previous shader?  Yes.   What’s the point of having a number of different sized shaders if I don’t use them?






Here’s another progress photo.  Most areas on the cougar now have a several layers of fur, but there are a couple that have just one like the white fur on the cheek.   Also the muzzle has been darkened up enough so that it is looking like dark fur; especially next to the much lighter fur on the neck.






At this point it is a matter of burning and re-burning to build up the color and fine tune details.






I can spend many hours on this stage of the artwork.







Todd will often tell me the artwork looks fine and I should leave it be, but I can’t because it doesn’t look right to me. 






There are things I see that just don’t look dark enough when I compare them with the reference photo.   

Another consideration is how the artwork tends to fade over time.  Darker burns last longer.   

Now I should mention that the artwork isn’t fading.  Instead the wood is aging or oxidizing, and as this happens it gets darker in color.   The darker the wood gets the more contrast you loose, so light colored areas seem to disappear. 



The nice thing with the stage of the artwork, is that the hard work has been done.  The cougar has shape, the markings are in place, so it’s really just a matter of re-burning to get the fur dark enough.






I bought this large square shader thinking it would allow me to burn really wide bands of color.  It can, but for some reason I cannot seem to hold it right to accomplish this on a consistent basis.







But I have found that this shader is great for burning over fur to darken it up a bit.   Let me explain something.  When you create the fur texture with the razor edge of the shader, that edge tends dig down into the wood.  You can run your finger over the area and feel the cut marks.  You can use the flat of a shader to burn over the area and it will darken up the area, but not the bottom of the cut marks.  So you retain your fur texture.  Plus I’m not burning dark, so I don’t lose hair lines.   

Back to the square shader.  With how this shader is shaped it is just like using the flat of shader I have been using, but this one is easier for burning in a vertical direction.  At least for me with how I hold pens.

Since the square shader it is one of my larger shaders it is good for burning the longer fur on the throat.






In areas I need more precision due to the smaller space, I switch to a smaller shader.   Plus with the square shader I have to hold it at a really steep angle to be able to use the razor edge.  Quite truthfully the angle is not comfortable for prolonged burning.







Adding another layer of zigzags to the top of the head.






Continued work.







There are small subtle highlights on the eyelids.  In the past I would try to avoid burning over those type of highlights.  Now I burn right over them, and then use the sharp edge of a knife to scrape them in after the wood burning is done in that area.   I must say that creating small subtle highlights like this is much easier using the knife. 





Fine tuning the right ear.








Darkening up the area along the side of the muzzle.







Re-burning over the bridge of the nose.  

One area that really bothers me now is the right eyebrow.  For some reason it looked fine while I was creating the artwork, but now I think it looks too bright.  I wish had darkened it up a bit more.





Adding more dots to the nose.  When I add the dots I apply them so they shade and help contour the nose.  This means I add more dots in the darker shadows than I do on the lighter areas.






With the whiskers I scraped them into existence using the sharp edge of a knife.






Depending on the arc, it can help to rotate the board. 








For the whisker that stuck out on the unburned portion of the board I used a white colored pencil to draw them in.  







In this photo I’m scraping in the portion of the whisker that is on the fur.








The below photo shows the impact the extra layers of zigzags makes.  The image on the left has 1-4 layers depending on the area.  The image on the right has 2-8 layers depending on the area.  The white cheek and muzzle have 2-3 layers, but the bridge of the nose as 8.  To me the tonal depth of the right image is far superior to the left one. 

Below is a comparison photo of my final artwork with the reference photo.  

My artwork is not horrible, but it’s not perfect either.   I see things that I really dislike that I didn’t seem to notice before.   Some of you might wonder why I don’t fix the things I don’t like.   I can’t for two reasons.   1) I signed off on the artwork.  I have this personal rule that once I sign off on the artwork it’s done.  No more working on it.  The reason is to prevent myself from constantly tinkering with it for the rest of eternity.    2) It’s been sealed.  Once a finish is applied to the artwork you NEVER EVER burn over it.   Wood finishes can be extremely toxic if vaporized.  The heat of a pen tip is hot enough to do that.


The last thing I want to talk about this the cradle board.  Like I said I already knew that this was the one Ampersand manufactured.  This board was much easier to burn layers of zigzags than the other two I had completed the final testing on. 

If you read blog about the cradle board, then you know I had Todd assign each board to number.  Plus I waited a month before I started the final round of testing.  By then I had forgotten everything I wrote about the board during first round of testing.  With the exception of the odd sized board.

As I created the actual artwork I wrote down notes on a piece of paper.  I’ve done that for every single cradleboard that I’ve completed the final testing on. 

The cheetah was the first one I finished and it was on board number 7.  Note: I don’t care for this board. 








The Lioness was the second one I finished and it was on board number 2.   Note: I hate this board.  








The cougar was burned on board number 1.  Note: I like this board.









The Jaguar was burned on board number 3.  Note: The board is okay, but not awesome. 

I’m telling you my thoughts on the board in case you are considering burning on one.  Of these 4 boards I would not recommend the boards from whomever manufactured numbers 7 and 2. 

While I tell you what board I’ve burned on, be aware I still have 4 more boards to do the final round of testing on.  If you decide to read the blog on the original testing and discover who the different manufactures are, please don’t tell me.  I’m trying to remain unbiased during the final round of testing.   Here’s another link to that blog: Cradle board blog.




That is it for this blog.  This artwork was challenging because I made it much harder on myself by using a reference photo that wasn’t that great.   Something I don’t recommend doing.   I’m not sure why I liked the reference photo so much.  In retrospect I should have used something else.  While I like challenges I would prefer they were because I had to learn a new pyrography skill, figure out how to create some new texture, etc., but not because of a poor reference photo.  

As I said before this artwork was burned onto a cradle board that measured 8 x 8 inches (20.3 x 20.3 cm).  It took me 9 ¼ hours to complete it.

Until the next blog.


July 21, 2020

Want to subscribe? 

  • Click on the “Leave a Comment” field at the end of any post (blog) and a subscribe option will appear.
  • Put something in the comment field (if you put “test” or “just subscribing” I won’t make your comment public)
  • Fill in the sections for your email address and name, and then click on the “notify me of new posts via email.”
  • You will get a confirmation email from WordPress confirming you want to subscribe.
  • Click on the confirm button in that email and you’re done.

Please note that I do not send out emails.   If you have a WordPress account there is a way to subscribe within the WordPress system, but I cannot provide specifics on how it works as I don’t know.

4 thoughts on “Pyrography Art – The Cougar wood burning art

    1. Hi Mitzi,
      sounds like you’re burning on a wood with high sap or resin content. Pine is one such wood. I’ve burned on a pine a couple of times and each time it starts seeping a sticking material that chars under the heat of the pen tip. Now I don’t burn on pine.

  1. thank you so much for sharing it’s really kind of you and thank you so much There is not a day when I can leave it alone, I do some burning every day l have been trying to get fur right so this tutorial was prefect for me every day practice practise practise It amazes me the amount of different materials I have tried burning on each time I believe I am getting better slow and steady

    1. Hi. I wouldn’t call this a tutorial, but if you found it helpful that’s great. Practice makes perfect. I’ve got many, many hours of burn time in and the art I can produce now is so much better than when I started. I think that is the case for everyone.

I love hearing from you, so leave a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.