Pyrography: Woodburning Realistic Amphibians and Reptiles

Turtles, frogs and ‘gators – Oh My! These beautifully patterned and intricately textured animals can pose a challenge for the pyrographer. Changes in surfaces if not handled well can create an unrealistic and lifeless burning.

In this article I will share with you some technique and criteria to evaluate and approach your woodburnings of these wonderful creatures. Understanding how to evaluate your approach is important because many times patterns can remain similar while the surfaces change dramatically. So in this article I will share three ways to visually communicate these differences in your burnings.

Tools and Techniques

One simple way to define different textures is to simply use different techniques for particular areas. Smooth shading on one surface with a stippling underlay in another surface will result in a different final appearance. Remember that in pyrography we have the added benefit of engraving textures. When an area is primarily smooth shaded there is no texture. In fact it will appear glass-like and smooth because of the reflective quality of the shading on wood. If you use stippling the effect becomes denser because the stippling texture does not reflect light in the same way as shading. This instantly creates a different look, even if the pattern is the same.

Changing pens is another way to ensure that two adjacent areas have a different feel to them.

For example you might use a shader for the head and feet and a writer or skew primarily for the shell. Using different pens or techniques can help maintain the patterning but deliver a different texture to your final burning.

Most often, changes in texture will require both the use of alternate technique and pen, so feel free to experiment with combinations that look and feel right to you.

Intensity and Contrast

As we discussed in the first section, the physical texture can change the way light reflects off your artwork. You can also study your reference and evaluate if different surfaces have more or less intensity and contrast. On many of the reference photos I noticed that the contrast and intensity of the markings was greater on the leathery part of the body than on the heavily textured shell.

And so when burning I will use a greater range of values (lights and darks) in the skin than on the shell. For example I will burn my darkest darks and lightest lights on the head markings but on the shell I will only use darkest darks and medium lights (keeping my whites to a bare minimum). Controlling these intensities and contrasts helps sustain the illusion of different surfaces.

Reflective Quality

Last but not least is the reflective quality of the surface. Although I touched on this in the previous section under technique, it is important to note that smooth surfaces reflect light more than rough and pitted surfaces. As an artist it is often important to exaggerate this quality a tiny bit in order to properly communicate visually to the viewer.

In other words, make the rough areas a tiny bit rougher and the smooth areas a tiny bit smoother. Yes, this is taking artistic license. No you are not being “photographic” anymore. Quite honestly you CAN’T be photographic because you don’t have the value range of a photograph to begin with – pyrographers who achieve that illusion are highly skilled in knowing what to capture and what to leave behind.

Don’t be deceived, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of this art form is critical to excellent craftsmanship. Pyrography is an amazingly lush and rich medium that communicates beauty in a way that cannot be duplicated with any other medium. Understanding these principles can help you to create strong images that capture the imagination and celebrate your love of the subject.

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