Pyrography – Tracing Western Tanager wood burning tutorial

In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to trace from a western tanager photo.  I will also explain why I made alterations to the tracing from the photo.  My goal is to help you understand my thought processes when evaluating and alter images to improve their composition for a new project.  The techniques I used are easy and don’t require any fancy equipment or software.  All you will need is a printout of the photo and a graphite pencil.   

Please be aware that this tutorial will not cover digitally altering a photo.  I created the digitally altered photo just for the featured image and the vid.  I thought it was more visually interesting than a black and white version.  

Click on the image to the left to watch a YouTube video version of the tutorial. 

Now, let’s get to work.





  • Graphite pencil
  • White Charcoal pencil
  • Reference Photo


Here’s the color version of the reference photo I’m using.   









This is the black and white version.   

You can use either version for this tutorial.  I will be using the black and white version for most of this tutorial.








When I first examine a photo I ask myself if the photo would look better cropped.  If so, how much should I crop the photo?








Most of the time when I create bird artwork, I zoom in on the bird and ignore most of the background stuff.  This ultra-cropped photo represents how that might look, but I don’t much care for it.  The reason is that the cropped image because it doesn’t convey the same sense of depth that the uncropped photo does.

On a side note, if I used this I would eliminate everything except the bird and the branch he’s perched on.  





Then I tried using a photo editor and creating a circular cropping.   Again, I don’t much care for this for the same reason as the previous cropped image.

I agree, my circle isn’t very good because I had to ‘paint’ it in.  I’m absolutely terrible with photo editing programs, and I have zero desire to spend the time to get better or learn how to use them properly  

The only thing I need a photo editor for is cropping photos and create black and white versions of the the photo.




As I mentioned before, I like the sense of depth found in the uncropped photo.  That sense of depth comes from the combination of different focus levels. 

For example, there are blue arrows pointing at 3 different branches.   Each branch is similar, but different from the others.   

The similarity is that they are all branches on the same tree with similar types of markings. 

They are different because of the amount of detail we can see on them. 




The closest branch is the one the bird is perched on.  It is in-focus, has a lot of detail, and its edges are very crisp.  This combination of features makes the branch appears to be in the front or foreground of the image.







Whereas this larger branch is slightly out-of-focus, has less detail, and its edges are a touch softer.  This helps push the branch into the background.








This long thin branch is dark, very out-of-focus, doesn’t have much detail, and has fuzzy or really soft edges.   That combination of features really pushes this branch deep into the background.  

I like the subtleness of this branch.  It adds a little something to the background, but is a detail you notice after looked around at the photo for a bit.   Now what I don’t like about this branch is that in bisects the bird’s head, so I think that needs to be fixed.







Here’s the photo of the western tanager that we will critically analyze.  There are three things I think should be checked for:   

1)  Identify the main subject, and the focal point of the subject.  

2)  Remove anything that competes with or distracts from the focal point.

3)  Simplify the subject matter.  This means removing things that aren’t necessary.





First identify the main subject.  With this photo the main subject is the bird, which is circled in red. 

The focal point is the bird’s head. 

The focal point of the main subject is the spot we want the viewer to first notice.  

With that in mind, ask yourself what, if anything competes or distracts with the bird or the bird’s head.




The first thing I find both distracting and competing with the bird, so it needs to be removed. 

The reason I dislike this branch is first how bright it is, and second its location.  It’s the brightness is such that my eye tends to focus on it instead of the bird.    If the branch where further away from the bird and toned down in color, it could stay.  Quite truthfully, it’s easier to remove it from the artwork and that removes the distraction and simplifies the image a little bit.

Removing this branch is simply done by first not tracing it onto the board, and, second, by not replicating it in your artwork.   




I dislike both this background branch (circled in blue), and little knob on the closer branch that has a blue arrow pointing to it.   

I dislike the background branch because it is too close to the beak.  When I first glanced at it I had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t a part of the beak.  During that brief moment, I knew the branch had to go.   

As for the little knob or nub on the closer branch, I can’t tell you why I dislike it, but it do.  In fact I dislike it a lot.   Plus the branch that the nub is attached to needs to be toned down just a little.

These two items are added to the list of things I won’t trace over.



Another spot I find distracting are the bright white patches on the large background branch.  

I want to keep this branch because it helps give a sense of depth to the image.  What I will do is eliminating the white patches by making them the same color as the rest of the branch.

That covers the things I find distracting and/or competing with the focal point.  You may or may not agree with my choices, and that’s okay.   There aren’t set rules for what I’m doing, and my choices are based on my personal preferences.

Now it’s time to simplify.    




The first area the sticks out to me is the mass of leaves near the bird.  There are so many that you really have to look to see individual leaves.    I just don’t care for this mass of leaves, and I don’t want to replicate all of them in my artwork.







My plan is to pick a few leaves in the front and ignore the rest.  The leaves I’m interested in keeping have a blue line drawn around them.

Reducing the number of leaves will introduce more dark areas in and around the leaves.  I think that will provide more visual interest.  Plus, it means I’ll have fewer leaves to burn in.  That is a win-win in my book!   

On a side note, when I create the artwork I will not be burning all of the newly created dark areas uniform in color.  Instead I will create vague suggestions of some leaves, but they will be a number of shades darker than the main leaves.  The darker color will help push them into the background adding to the sense of depth.



Another thing that can be removed this the slightly out-of-focus branch along the right side of the image.  It doesn’t serve a purpose and is a bit distracting, so removing it will be a good thing.







Another area I will simplify are the leaves behind the bird.  The more I look at the photo, the more I think the area directly behind the bird’s head should be leaf-free.  This means removing or ignoring the leaf the arrow is pointing at.   

My plan is that bird’s head will have nothing but a dark background adjacent to it. I think that will help the head remain the focal point, and ensure it’s the first thing viewer’s notice.  

Now that the photo has been critically analyzed, it’s time to alter the photo and make sure we’re happy with the changes.





Here’s the reference photo in a black and white version. 

I printed this version onto standard copier paper, and will be using a graphite pencil to make alterations to the printout. 







I want to make sure that you are aware this is not a necessary step.  The sole purpose of this step is to help visualize the image with the outlined changes.   

That said, the coloring does not need to be perfect.  We are just trying to get a better visualization how the image would look with some of the distractions removed.


I’m using a graphite pencil by Soho, but any graphite pencil will work.  I’d recommend using one in the B ranges so you can get some darker tones.

I’m using graphite pencil instead of colored pencils because graphite erases easily.  Plus, graphite pencils are cheaper; well, most of them are. 


Armed with a graphite pencil and a black & white printout, start making the changes outlined in the photo analysis section.   For me the first thing was removing the very distracting branch behind the bird. 






Notice that I’m only coloring over the branch where there aren’t leaves.  At this point I wasn’t sure about the leaf directly behind the bird, so I left it alone. 

I did color over the branch a bit where it overlapped on the leaf.  This was my attempt to make the branch disappear, but I didn’t spend much time at it.  Thus the reason it’s still quite visible.

If it helps you, spend more time than I did making the branch match the tonal value of the leaf.  I can’t emphasize enough the need to do what works for you.




This is the other branch I didn’t like, so I’m coloring over it to make it part of the dark background. 







I’m not sure why this little branch nub bothers me so much, but it does so I’m coloring over it too.







Now I’m filling in the area to the left of the branch with the pencil to darken it up; this will push the area into the background.







I’m doing the same thing with the stuff I want removed to the right of the bird. 








Remember that the sole purpose of this exercise is to get an idea of how the image would look with some alterations.  This print out won’t be hung up on the wall, so it doesn’t need it to be perfect.   








I want to point out an alteration I made to the branches along the right of the image where the two branches join.   I colored over their join spot making them two completely separate branches.  I thought this looked better.   

The great thing is that you can experiment by coloring over spots to test out ideas.  If you don’t like it, then erase the graphite.






Continued work removing unnecessary items to simplify the image.









I do prefer how this area is looking with most of the background stuff darkened up. 

When I burn in this area I won’t burn it to a uniform color.  Instead I will use circular motion to create random patches of color that differs by a couple of shades of each other.  Doing this will give a sense of dark shapes in the background, and that will help convey a sense of depth in the photo.






Here’s a progress photo.  Yes, I know my printout has a lot of streaks in it.  My printer has been acting up, so do your best to ignore the streaks.

I’m very pleased with the removal of the bright branch that partially bisected the bird’s head.  The face stands out a lot better.

Also, I like how the right side is looking.  I think the darker background contrasts with the two branches in the foreground making things a bit more visually interesting.  Plus, the area is cleaner or clutter-free.   




It was at this point that I decided that I wanted the background around the bird’s head to be leaf free.  To accomplish this, I’m drawing a line of where I think the left edge of the leaf to the right of the bird’s head would be. 







An arrow is pointing to a tiny leaf that I like the shape of, but don’t care for its location.   To me it looks some it’s sprouting from the bird’s back.   

I didn’t really notice this leaf during the analysis phase, but once I started making alterations to the printout I did.   Several of the changes I made happened like that.   I’m working in an area, notice something and decide to change it.  The spot where the two branches was an example of that.   

Since I’m using pencil, it’s easy to erase if I don’t like the changes I made on the paper.




Back to the little leaf.  Since I didn’t like the little leaf, I colored over it.









Now I’m coloring over the leaf that is behind the bird’s head.








I mentioned before that while I think this larger branch is great for creating a sense of depth, I don’t like how bright the white patches are.  To reduce the brightness I’m just lightly coloring over them.   If I wanted to spend more time I could make the white patches similar in color the rest of the branch, but I was doing this rather quickly. 

That said, spend as much time as you need.  If it helps you to have the white patches blend in perfectly, then please do so.   


In this photo I’m drawing a leaf in an area that is hard to tell what’s going on in the photo. 

I didn’t want to removal all of the leaves that were ‘touching’ the bird’s belly area because that would seem fake, but I did remove most of them.   One reason for removing most of the leaves adjacent to the front of the bird is to provide contrast.   A dark background will allow the pale belly feathers to show up.   

On the flip side,  we need some leaves along the right side of the bird to help the dark wing feathers show up.   Dark wing feathers against a dark background wouldn’t have the visual impact a lighter background would.



Now I’m starting to darken up the area around the leaves that I want to keep.






As I work I try to keep in mind that the main goal is to simplify the area.  All that is needed is to just keep enough of the detail to convey the essence of the image.   

To me that means removing most of the background leaves and keeping the ones that were closer to the foreground.  I probably removed somewhere between half and two-thirds of the leaves from the image.   Most of the leaves were background leaves, so you didn’t see the entire leaf.



Continue work.







This photo gives a much better idea of how the mass of leaves will look with fewer of them.  I think this will look a lot better than the actual photo does. 

On a side note when I burn in the background around the leaves, I will not be burning it to a uniform dark color.  Instead I will use circular motion to create random patches of irregular color.




Since a lot of the image is pretty dark, I’m using a white charcoal pencil to sketch in some ideas.  I use charcoal because it erases easily unlike colored pencils.   



I sketched in a new leaf along the top of the photo, and now I’m moving that dark background branch. 

As I mentioned before I wanted to keep the branch because of the depth it gives the image, but I wanted the branch to sit above the bird’s head.




Sketching more leaves.  I’m adding the leaves in the upper left corner because it seems a bit barren.  Another reason is that it doesn’t blend in with the other areas of the image. 

If you break the image down into four equal squares, each square has leaves in it except the upper left square.   I decided to add a few leaves to give the image a more balanced look.




I’m coloring in the leaves to indicate that they will be placed in front of the large background branch.






The small yellow arrow in the photo is pointing to the tiny leaf that use to be to the right side of the bird.  I really did like the shape of the leaf, but I didn’t like where it was because it looked like it was sprouting out of the bird’s back.   

The large blue arrow is pointing to a branch that disappears to the left of the bird.  Since I removed a number of leaves to the left, I’m drawing in the branch along the left side of the bird where I think it would be.   I felt this branch was necessary as the leaves have to have something they are growing from.   

Would anyone really analyze the image that closely?  Probably not, but it was something that popped into my head, so I added the branch.


Finishing up drawing in the branch.








I erased the graphite from the leaf I colored over so I could finish drawing the out-of-focus branch in the background.   Charcoal does not layer over graphite well.







Below is a composite photo showing the before and after of the printout that I altered. I think the altered printout image is more compelling or visually interesting.


Now I’m ready to trace the image onto the board.   Normally I use a pencil to trace with because it has a small point.  Since graphite doesn’t show up well, I’m using a red ink pen.  Let’s examine the lines I’ve traced so far.   

I use solid lines around areas that have clearly defined edges like the beak and eye.  I’m using really short lines or dashes to indicate the boundary of the head and the places where the color changes.

The dashed lines are drawn in the direction that the feathers grow.  The feathers on the head so are small or fine that they look like hair or fur.  This means I will be using a zigzag burn stroke to replicate it.   The lines tell me the direction I need to burn the zigzags.


Always use an unaltered photo to trace from.  This ensures you are accurately tracing the photo.  I did keep the altered photo nearby to consult with. 



I also used the dashed or really short lines along the lower edge of the head where the short hair feathers end.







In this photo you can see the different directions I’ve drawn the short lines.  Again, the lines indicate the direction the feathers are growing in.







Solid lines are used around the outer edges of each feather.








Feathers that have markings still have a solid line around the outer edges of the feather.








Tiny dots are used to indicate the presence of a marking on the feather.  In this case, there is a white marking that is found along the right edge of the feather.








Using solid lines around the edge of the feather and dotted lines for the markings, makes it easy to identify each feather.  For me I find this very helpful when burning in the artwork.







Continued work.








In this photo it is easier to see how I use the solid and dotted lines to trace around the feathers.







On the belly of the bird are more hair like feathers, but these hairs are much longer than those on the head.  To indicate this, I draw longer lines.  These longer lines are drawing in the direction the feathers grow just like I did with the short ones.







I do not use a solid line on the outer edge of the belly because some of the feathers stick out a bit more than others. 








As I trace over the bird’s leg, I use solid lines around the edges.








Dashed lines are also used along the rachis, or shaft, found in the center of the feather. 








Finishing up tracing the bird’s body.








Tracing the tail.  Again, I use solid lines around the edges of the feather, and dashed lines along the rachis.  I’m not bothering with the small white edges a couple feathers have.   The white edges are so thin that it would be hard to see the dotted line representing them.






With a leaf, I use a solid line around the outer edges of the leaf.









Dashed lines are used along the vein lines. 









Continued work on the leaves. 






In this photo I’m marking the location of a highlight on the left using a dotted line.   This makes it easy for me to look at the leaf and be able to differentiate between the vein lines and the shadows and/or the highlights.    






With these background leaves, I’m leaving the lines for the side veins out.  Instead, I just marked the outer edges and where the highlights and shadows are. I don’t want a lot of detail in these leaves because that will help push them into the background.






In this photo I’ve used a solid line along the outer edge of the big branch.  I’ve also drawing solid lines to indicate the direction the bark is growing or textured.   The dashed line near the lower edge indicated where the shadow gets darker. 







When tracing this branch, I avoided the little knob that I disliked.






I’m tracing around this little blemish on the close branch.  This branch is in the foreground and in focus, so I want more detail to help convey that.






Let’s recap the tracing lines.   Solid lines are used along the outer edges of objects.  Dashed lines are used to indicate the growth direction of the short hair like feathers, and along vein lines.   Dotted lines are used along the edge of markings on the feathers, and to indicate where a shadow or highlight starts.   

Keep in mind that I’m just explaining my method of doing things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the method for you.  Instead evaluate it and incorporate the aspects that work well for you.


Because I made so many alterations to the photo, I traced onto paper instead of a board.  I did this because there are some leaves I needed to draw in, and I wasn’t 100% sure of their placement yet.     

This photo shows my set up.  The tracing is in he center, the altered printout is to the right, and the traced photo to the left.  What you can’t see is the unaltered printout which is sitting to the side of the easel.      I keep the traced photo to do a final check for missing trace lines.   The altered printout is nearby as reference for the changes I plan to do.

I could have done this directly on the board, but I don’t like doing that.  For one thing it’s easier to see the pencil lines on bright white paper.  Another thing is that it can take me days before I have a composition that I’m completely happy with.  The longer graphite is in contact with wood the harder it gets to remove the graphite; it clings stubbornly to the wood.  On a side note, this phenomenon happens with white charcoal too.   Wanting to avoid stubborn graphite is another reason I work on paper.  





Continued work.









Continued work.









I forgot that I had planned to draw some leaves in front of the large branch.  Since I had already inked in the large branch, I’m using a white gel pen to cover up the ink lines.







Here you can see that I moved the distance out-of-focus branch and added a little side branch to it. 






Finishing up.








Here’s how the line drawing looks once I was completely done.   During the photo altering step I had planned that all of the leaves in the upper left corner would sit in front of the branch.  When I did the final composition, I decided to move one of the leaves to behind the branch.  I did this to give the area more depth.







On a final note, this composite photo shows the reference photo before and after it was digitally altered.  As I said before, I created this just for the thumbnail photo.  I felt it was a lot more visually interesting than the black and white version.   

That said. I do think that the altered photo really shows the impact that removing distractions and simplifying the image has.  


I hope you found this tutorial informative.  More importantly I hope it will help you with your projects.  Tracing from photos might seem a little intimidating at first, but just like burning, the more you do it the easier it becomes.

Until the next blog,


July 13, 2021

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8 thoughts on “Pyrography – Tracing Western Tanager wood burning tutorial

    1. Hi Warren,
      Thank you for the comment.
      I like to understand why people do things a certain way, so when I create my tutorials I try to incorporate the things that I would want to know. Not sure how successful I am at accomplishing this, but I give it my best try.

  1. That was a great . Definitely locked away for later use.
    Thank you for such a detailed tutorial.

  2. I absolutely love your explanations and your step by step instructions. Thankyou for taking the time to pass on your knowledge

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