In this blog I will be explaining the pyrography techniques to create this portrait of this smiling teen. I just love her smile and the happiness that radiates from her. This portrait marks the fourth installment in my portrait tutorial series. Just like I did with the previous tutorials I will try cover everything from start to finish. Plus, this is another project where I tested out a different brand of watercolor paper. Spoiler alert, this was terrible paper.
I do want to mention something before we get going. I started doing portraits of photos I found on Pixabay in an effort to improve my skills and try to overcome my apprehension of doing portraits. I do not know the people in the photos, and I won’t be hanging the artwork in my house. Truly this series is just for practice. Because of that I concentrate my efforts on the facial features because I think those are the difficult areas in portraits. That’s why I don’t usually bother with the hair, neck, rest of the body, etc. I create tutorials of my progress because of several requests to provide portrait tutorials. Keep in mind that I feel like I’m still learning how best to handle portraits, and I’m sharing what I’m discovering with you.
Now, let’s get started.
SKILL LEVEL: 3
I rate this as a level 3 because you need a good 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 A Shader
- Writing tip
- Shading tip
- 5 x 7 inch (12.7 x 17.8 cm) piece of wood or paper
- Pencil – HB or higher
- Printed Image – make 2 (1 to trace from and 1 to use for reference)
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 use it for this artwork, but I am very comfortable with a process called Constant Comparison. I explain that concept in Step 3. Value Finder
STEP 1 – PREP THE SURFACE
Note that the board should be damp to the touch, but not soaking wet.
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 be designated by the letters HP, and cold pressed with CP.
This photo is the back side 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.
For this portrait I’m testing out Strathmore 500 series 140 lb hot pressed watercolor paper. I absolutely hated this paper! This teen girl has a beautiful joyous face with a radiant smile. The paper burned so poorly that my artwork looks like the girl has the measles. Don’t waste your money on this paper!
As I get tired of getting links to products, I put them all in one blog. You find links to the paper and the other supplies mentioned. Supplies I Use
STEP 2 – IMAGE TRANSFER
Now we need to trace the image onto the wood or paper. Note that this image is as close as you are going to get for a pattern. I DO NOT recommend using it. If you are trying to learn how to do portraits, part of that process is learning how to trace from the image.
Print out the image on regular copier paper. In fact, while you are at it, print two versions of the image. The first we’ll use for transferring and the other will be used for reference during the burning process.
Some of you ask my why I don’t use a black and white version of the photo. It is personal preference. If you find it’s easier or more comfortable to use black and white, then please do so. I’m just showing you how I do things, but that doesn’t mean you have to do things in the exact same way.
Now secure the image to the surface using two pieces or more of tape. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but I’m placing the tape on the white artist tape that is securing the watercolor paper to the mounting board.
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. This is just to make it easier for you to see what I’m doing. I’m not exerting any pressure as the lines were transferred when I traced with the pencil.
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.
In this photo you might be able to see that solid red lines were used around the outer edge of the face. The solid lines were also used to mark the location of eyebrow hairs, and eye lashes. The majority of the lines are dashed lines. These lined indicate where the color or tonal value changes.
Ideally the shapes created by the dashed lines will be burned in to a uniform color, but the edges should be smooth and seamless. This means that along the edges of each shape gradient shading should be used to gradually transition to the color of the adjacent shape.
I like to do one more check before I start burning. For this check the unmarked printout of the reference photo is placed next to the tracing and I compare shapes. For example, I will look at the shape of the teeth and make sure I traced them correctly.
STEP 3 – SET UP and GUIDELINES
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. As you can see, I have both a color and a b&w version of the reference photo.
DO NOT use the image you traced from as your reference photo. Once you start drawing lines on the image you have altered it. The lines on the traced photo can impair your ability to determine darkness levels.
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 burn up to a line so I would know where the edge or transition was at, and then I erased the pencil line.
- 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.
A value finder is a tool that has grey tones on one side and corresponding sepia tones on the other. I was not able to find one for sale, so I made one. I wrote a blog about it and I attached my scanned finder in the blog. Tonal Value Finder
To do the tonal mapping, use a black and white reference photo. Place the grey side of the value finder next to an area you want to check. Once you have a match write the number down on the corresponding shape on the traced printout.
I put the number zero (0) on the teeth. That represents unburned wood or paper. It is the palest color you can create in pyrography without using something like colored pencil or paints. I put the number thirteen (13) on the iris, as this represents the darkest color I can burn in pyrography.
When you start burning, use the sepia side of the value finder and burn in each shape so it matches the determined tone on the value finder.
STEP 4 – SOLID LINES
Before you start burning, test out your pen tip on scrap material. Adjust the heat until you get a dark tan burn result. What the exact setting is doesn’t matter. Instead all we are concerned about is get a dark tan burn result.
Be aware that once I get my burner to produce a dark tan burn result, I do not adjust the heat setting. Instead I use hand speed and re-burning to get darker burn results.
I will tell you now that my style of pyrography is something I’d term as low and slow. This means I keep the heat as low and possible and I work slowly.
Keep in mind that it isn’t necessary to burn in the solid lines right now, but this is what I did and it means I don’t have to repeat this information in each section.
STEP 5 – EYES
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 material until the desired burn result is achieved! Which is still a dark tan burn result.
In fact, our immediate goal is to get to the point where the pencil marks can be erased. I think that the pencil marks interfere with the gradient shading between the shapes, so that’s why I like to remove them as quickly as feasible.
I’ve erased the pencil marks from the upper eyelid area. Reburn along the crease on the upper eyelid. Keep the edge of the pen tip on the crease and the body of the pen tip angled over the eyelid below the crease. This will darken the crease and do a little shading at the same time.
Make sure to keep your pen tip in optimal position when working along the edges of the iris. This will keep the edges crisp and clean. If you are not familiar with my terminology, I have a blog that explains them: How to use the shader
Next use the razor edge of the shader and burn in the eyelashes. Start the stroke at the base of the eyelash. Burn strokes start thicker than they end, so that why you should always start at the base of the lash.
Next burn in the upper eyelid below the crease. This area is in shadows, so needs to be a few shades darker than the rest of the eyelid. Don’t worry if you don’t burn it dark enough right now. Once more areas get burned in, you can always fine tune previous areas.
I’m using a Tombow eraser to remove pencils lines that are no longer needed. Any pencil eraser will work. I like the Tombow eraser because it keeps a small point allowing for precise erasing. Again, I wrote a blog listing all of the products I use along with links to Amazon on this blog: Products I use
Look at this photo and notice how I have some lines that formed around some of the shapes. I have two options for dealing with this. 1 – try to erase the lines, or 2 – reburn over the lines using circular motion to help them blend in. Because I already tried fixing a mistake on this paper and discovered it ruined the paper texture, I won’t try to fix anything until after I’m done burning.
If you’re burning on paper, try to avoid fixing anything until the very end. Paper isn’t very forgiving. Plus, it is easy to abrade the paper. Once that happens it is almost impossible to burn over and get smooth results.
Take your time. Rushing seldom produces good results. My artwork size is small. The paper measures 5 x 7 inches (12.7 x 17.8 cm), and I didn’t burn to the edges of the paper. I spent 5 hours working on the face and I didn’t include the forehead, neck, hair, etc.
It can be extremely beneficial to rotate the board and work on portraits from a different angle. The reason is that the brain has a much harder time recognizing familiar shapes. This allows the brain to concentrate on the shadows and highlights.
Notice how I burned over the area behind the eyebrow hairs. This young lady’s eyebrows are super thick, so you see quite a bit of skin around the hairs. In fact, I think the majority of eyebrows are this way.
Make sure to darken up the eyelids where they touch the eye. This area is slightly shadowed. Plus, it will provide contrast with the whites of the eyes, which will need to be burned over at some point.
Erase pencil marks once they are no longer needed. This particular eraser is another Tombow eraser. I bought a set that included the small round tip and this rectangular tip. Again, any pencil eraser will work for this.
I found it helpful to rotate the board to re-burn over the right eyebrows. This position made it easier for me to replicate the slight curve the hairs had. Keep in mind I am left-handed, so if you’re right-handed you may find it harder to work on the left eyebrow.
I highly recommend working on your art in different directions. The reason is that the shapes don’t look as familiar, so your brain spends more time really concentrating on the image. This makes it easier for you to see the highlights and shadows.
Here’s a composite photo showing what I’m talking about. Our brain looks at the image and can see an eye, but the eye looks off. Because of this we tend to spend a more time really examining the area. This is a perfect way to help adjust tonal values, fine tune details, and determine if you have problem areas.
STEP 6 – NOSE
The sides of the nose are darker than the top or bridge of the nose. Even though we are just blocking in the shapes, make sure to keep the tonal relationships in place. This means that when you burn in the top or bridge of the nose, it should be lighter in color than the sides. Doing this helps give the area shape and makes it easier to compare with the reference photo.
I like to burn the shapes a paler color than what they should be. This means I have to re-burn over everything, but I think that produces better artwork. One reason is that there tends to be more tonal depth with this approach.
One of my personal preferences is to burn in the darker shapes first. I find that this helps me match shapes with the reference photo easier, but again that is how I like to work. Keep in mind that there isn’t a set way to do things.
As I slowly block in the shapes, I’m evaluating how the overall area is looking. If something isn’t looking right, I try to fix it at this stage. This is a cautious approach to burning, but I find it helps reduce the number of times I have to fix problems.
Again, a reminder to erase pencil marks that are no longer needed. I personally think that they interfere with determining the tonal values of a shape. I also think they make it harder to access if the gradient shading between the shapes is good or needs more work.
Usually once the pencil marks are gone, I’m ready to start re-burning over the shapes. Not always, as sometimes I burn over the pencil lines just so I can erase them. Then I block in the shapes. Like I said before, there isn’t a set order in which the steps have to be done.
I mentioned before that I purposely block in the shapes to a lighter value than they should be. The main reason is that I plan to re-burn over them, and the reburning process will darken the shapes. Once the shapes are blocked in and the pencil marks are gone, I often start working on smoothing out the transitions between the shapes.
Yes, I tend to bounce around the artwork. I am constantly consulting the reference photo and I will see something that needs adjusting. While it’s in fresh in my mind I go work on my observation. I know this makes it harder to follow along, but this is something we’re both stuck with.
I mentioned the importance of maintaining tonal relationships. The top or bridge of the nose is lighter in color or tonal value than the sides. If you should block in a shape and you burn it too dark, then you have two options to fix it. Option 1: try to remove some of the color. Option 2: darken the shapes around it to restore tonal relationships.
Most of the time if something gets accidently burned way to dark it is a problem of either not observing properly or the heat is set too high on the burner. As I said before, I keep my burner set so I get a dark tan burn result and then I leave it alone. Low and slow works well for me.
The higher the heat is set on the burner, the quicker the pen tip heats up. During pauses the heat can build up to the point where you can get a very dark blotch when the pen tip comes into contact with the board. That’s why you should ALWAYS blot the pen tip on scrape material before you resume burning. I do this even though I keep the heat very low on my burner.
As you work make sure you are keeping light and dark areas in their proper spots. For example, near the tip of the nose is a spot of reflected light, so it is paler in color than the rest of the nose.
STEP 7 – CHEEKS
Now that the top of the cheek is blocked in, start burning over the pencil lines using the flat of the shader. We want to erase the pencil lines as soon as they are no longer needed because I think they interfere with gradient shading and accessing tonal values.
Erase the pencil lines once they are not needed, and then start filling the shapes. As always, use the flat of shader as you burn to help keep the edges of the burn strokes soft. This will help prevent lines from forming.
I want to mention that I set my burner to get a dark tan burn result. Once it is set, I do NOT adjust the heat setting. Instead, I reburn to get darker results. The darker the area means there is a lot more reburning required.
You will need to consult with the reference photo often to make sure you are replicating the shadows and highlights found on the face. I often burn along the edge of a shape which marks the spot where the tonal value changes. Then I fill in the shape.
To accomplish this means I start burning on the shape that is lighter in color. I reburn just above the transition line. The color gets darker on the transition line, and darker yet just past the line. Or to put it another way, the number of burn strokes I do increase as I work my way towards the darker shape.
As you can see, I tend to bounce around a lot while I’m burning. I’ll look at the reference photo or the artwork and something will catch my eye that needs fixing. Most of the time when this happens, I jump to the spot and try to fix it.
The process remains the same as before. Our first goal is to get the shapes block in, or at least burn over the pencil lines so they can be erased. I think the pencil lines interfere with determining tonal values, so I like to remove them as quickly as possible.
There isn’t a set way that portraits must be done in. In fact, I seldom do the steps in the exact order. Sometimes I block in shapes, erase pencil lines, and then smooth and fine tune the shapes. Other times I burn over the pencil lines, erase them, block in the shapes, and then smooth and fine tune the shapes.
I mentioned before that you should use the flat of the shader when burning. Not only with this help keep lines from forming, but it puts more metal in contact with the surface. This produces wider burn strokes and that helps get the job done faster.
Rotate the board as needed when working along the edge of the cheek. You want to keep your pen tip in optimal position when working along edges. This will help prevent accidently burned past the line.
STEP 8 – EAR
Now let’s burn in the ear. Be away that the young lady has an ear piercing, but I am ignoring it for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to hassle with it. Two, it doesn’t contribute to the artwork because it’s not a focal point. If this was a commissioned piece instead of a practice piece, I would include the ear ring.
STEP 9 – MOUTH and CHIN