Last summer while on vacation in Wisconsin, my dear friend took me to a local artist shop. It was there that I found a rolling pin with the cutest design of chick-a-dee birds burned into the wood. I took it home as a souvenir and a source of inspiration! Until then, wood burning had never occurred to me as a thing to do, but the rolling pin look so cool I had to give it a try myself. Funny enough, I ended up with two pyrography kits! One was gifted to me by my mother who didn’t know I had already bought one for myself a month prior.
Before I got started, I had to first decided what to actually draw. The beginner’s how-to book my mom packed along with my kit suggested starting out simple. Truly, that is very sound advice! However, I love a challenge and prefer to jump right into things when possible. Ultimately, I decided on a horned owl – it would provide the necessary challenge to be interesting to work on, while also being forgiving of my inevitable mistakes.
Lightly sketching out the owl was simple enough. The hard part was what followed – I really liked the sketch and was afraid of ruining it with bad burning! I procrastinated on getting started for nearly two weeks! Every day I’d see my owl sitting neatly on my art desk, and everyday I’d come up with some excuse why it wasn’t a good day to take my first steps.
This actually happens quite frequently for me. I can be very unconfident in myself and my ability, even with things I have done a thousands times before. It’s like having stage fright, except I am the only critic in the audience (though I can be pretty harsh on myself). One evening I sat down and messed around with a practice piece of wood. It felt a little discouraging, to say the least. My lines looked wobbly and my shading was super uneven. To be fair, it was an attempt after a 10 hour work day so I was probably a little mentally fatigued. Valid reason or not to do poorly, it stung.
I didn’t let it get me down forever though! The very next day off I had, I woke up to a pleasant morning and a resolve to give it my best! FIGHTING!!
I plugged in both pens, each one with a different sized tip to draw with. Had I only had one pen, I would have had to wait for the pen to completely cool down before switching tips. Acquiring two pens ended up being a fortuitous happenstance. As the tools heated up, I did some practice sketching on the the scrap wood from the night before. Rest had done wonders for my confidence and the fears I had about messing up were fading.
Whenever I start a piece using new materials or a new technique, I always choose an inconsequential area to work on. This way, I can get a feel for the picture and not worry about messing anything up a section that cannot be corrected. For this picture, I started with the feathers along his chest. The complicated layers of feathers allowed for missteps that could be easily hid with lines and shading.
As I worked along the left half of the owl, the process stated to feel more natural. Originally, I struggled with how the pen had to be held. Unlike normal drawing with a pencil or pen, the heat pens create a lot of distance between your hand and the drawing surface.
When I wasn’t busy making sure to keep my fingers away from the heated portion of the pen, I was busy making sure to keep my face away from the heat. I very near sighted, so without realizing it, I tend to keep my face very close to the work surface. At one point, I got up for a break to find my nose was beet red!
I worked the drawing in a counter-clockwise direction. I was feeling good about the feathers and becoming more and comfortable with the control I had over the pen. When I was most done with the left side I felt it was time to try the most challenging part of the picture: the eye.
The eye looks deceptively simple, however, it required a lot of control with pressure to achieve pales lines and light shading. Like-wise, the white feathers surrounding it needed to remain light and uniform. I literally held my breath each time the heat pen tip touch the wood. Even just a millisecond too long and I would have been left with a dark line that didn’t belong. Stray lines were on my mind as well. A bad slip of the pen and Mr Owl would have had eyeball veins, yuck.
Once I got past that part, I felt really happy with how the picture was turning out. I still had plenty of chances to goof up, but with the hard part behind me, I believed it would be okay.
During the whole process I only burned myself twice! For a klutz like me, that’s pretty good! I also dropped the pens twice too. The stands they came with had no weight to them so just resting the hot pen on them was enough to pull them off the table and on to the carpet underneath. Thankfully I scooped them up quickly before anything could get damaged or burned. I remedied the situation with some blue painters tape – affixing both stands to the table.
The whole project took about 15 hours to complete from the initial sketch to the final heated lines. And overall, I am quite happy with how it came out. It was a lot fun to watch the pen change the wood from a pale cream to a literal burnt umber. Even though one of the pens I used has a variable temperature control, I used the same constant temperature of 750 degrees Fahrenheit through out a majority of the work. Instead of relying on low heat for light lines, I controlled the speed and pressure of my strokes. I went about it as if I were using an ink pen or marker.
I really loved the process of pyrography and I’m already thinking of new drawings to create in it. I want to do more nature works, but also try some comic illustrations too. I also want to experiment with colour such as watercolour or colour pencil. I feel like a door to a brand new rooms has been opened!
Looking back at the beginning of things, I feel a little silly for being so hesitant. Even if it had come out terrible, mistakes are a mega-important part of the learning process!!
Until next time!