Introduction: Pyrography: Composition and Storytelling

About: I am a third generation artist with a background in oil painting and watercolors, I fell in love with pyrography in 1984 and have won numerous awards, written 6 books, am a regular contributor to major print m…

In this article I want to chat a bit about storytelling through composition. Woodburning is about storytelling… all art is. A good woodburning is not just a static image, it tells a story. A good woodburning will engage the viewer and touch their soul. How can we do this? There are many ways to accomplish this, the image itself is only one small part. In this article I will touch on composition and wood selection.

I often am asked how to choose the wood and then where to position the image. There are many “rules” out there as to how to do this. The problem with “rules” is that they generalize the situation.

Understanding why a “rule” works will help you determine if it is the right strategy to use for your situation. For example, there are certain rules for driving. However some of these rules need to be altered or sometimes completely disregarded depending on circumstances. It does not make the rule “wrong” in just makes it inappropriate for the circumstances. Rules of placement or composition are that way too. Many wonderful guidelines exist but only the artist with a story to tell can truly decide which one to follow or break.

Let’s explore this concept of composition and wood selection further….

Let’s use as an example a pattern of a Model T. The storytelling possibilities are endless with a subject like this. Let’s explore a few scenarios and see how placement on, and choice of wood influences the story.

Step 1: Storyline #1 - ​Model T – an Illustration of Henry Ford’s Famous Automobile

In this scenario the story consists of a documentary of an antique auto. It shows what it looked like and the detail is rendered in clean crisp lines and shadows.

The wood selected will be smooth, light, and clean without distracting grain (Italian Poplar). To further stress the technical aspect of the subject matter, I will place the image on a panel and frame it simply with a dark metal frame. To emphasize this particular story, I will place the image well centered on the board and use little or no background to detract from the automobile and its details. I would also suggest allowing a little unburned wood around the perimeter to cleanly “frame” the image. This is what is called negative space.

Step 2: ​Storyline #2: Model T – Dramatic Abstraction

The previous scenario shows how centering an image can create a static feeling… but that can change dramatically by adjusting the negative space around the image.

For this composition I will eliminate the unburned area around the subject and come in for an extreme close-up taking the image right off the wood. Depending on which view I choose I can now emphasize dramatic curves, contrast, or lines. In this image I emphasize the repeated circles and curves to create an interesting abstract.

The story becomes much different as I shift to a study of lines, design, metal, curves, blacks and whites. The image is now bold… in-your-face. Same car… same pattern… very different result. Try this technique sometime with the face of an animal, if done properly it can be very dramatic.

Step 3: ​Storyline #3: Model T – a Nostalgic Look at Days Gone By

In this version I have placed the Model T under a tree and added two figures out for an afternoon picnic. Using a horizontal orientation I give the viewer a sense of place and a vastness.

For this image I use a basswood bark-on oval. I position the pattern and then proceed to pencil in supporting details using the existing grain patterns. This story would be the equivalent of a novel that takes you to another time and place. The Model T is now part of a sweeping drama, a human interest story. This can link the viewer with their own memories or those that they have heard about from parents or grandparents. The horizontal orientation indicates a vastness and also gives a soothing quality to the work. This type of image allows the viewer to meander and become a part of the story.

Step 4: ​Storyline #4: Model T – a Look Into the Past

Now try the image on a bark-on slab (basswood) with cut edges and you can see how the story changes. Whereas the previous wood gave us a neat little package, this wood introduces a visual tension. The previous image on a round is a neatly packaged vignette, this image indicates the unknown connection with the distant past and unrealized future. It is still a snapshot of a time gone by but has an added richness and uncertainty. Again,…what story are you telling?

Step 5: ​Storyline #5: Model T – Abandonment and a Forgotten Past

Now I’m digging in my pile of discarded wood (basswood). Sometimes the “defects” in the wood serve to help me tell a story. I find a piece of wood that is missing one side of bark, it is grainy and rather “ugly” – the perfect wood to tell my story!

Placement of the image on a vertical slab tells a very different story. The dramatic use of negative space at the top of the image gives a different feeling. The Model T is rendered as a small part of something immense, a forgotten moment in time. Ashes to ashes…dust to dust… and all that dreary ideology.

I place the car somewhat skewed to illustrate perhaps a flat tire, or simply decay. The tall grasses surrounding the vehicle and gnarled tree let you know that the car has been in this spot for a very long time. No one will be coming for it any time soon. And so, I can also add a few simple visual elements to support my story of neglect.

Now, before we all get too depressed, let’s make a tiny shift and turn this image around…

Step 6: ​Storyline #6: Model T – the Circle of Life - How the Hope of the Future Is Rooted in the Past

I will use a different slab of wood (basswood), this one has a nasty splintered section at the bottom edge. Instead of sanding off, I intend to incorporate this into the image to add a three dimensional quality.

Using the same basic image and layout as before, I now emphasize new life and growth by adding a few wildflowers to the overgrown grasses, a nest under the roof, various critters milling about and a lone spider constructing an elaborate web.

The abandoned car has now become a home to the new generation. It becomes an integral part of the cycle of life and houses hope and beauty. The vertical orientation still highlights enormity, but the supporting details tell a story of how this decaying car is embraced by the environment, an important link in a never ending chain and a vital contributor to new life.

In this article I have shown how one image can tell many different stories depending on how composition is used. Composition can be confusing with many “rules” and even more contradictions. It has many merits and if you take the time to learn it, it can reward you richly. I certainly have not covered all there is to know about composition, but have only given you a taste.

I hope this opens up new possibilities for you and encourages you to pull out your old patterns, the extra wood you have lying around and look at these resources in a new way, and tell some stories!

If you have enjoyed this article and are interested in diving deeper into pyrography, be sure to sign up for my FREE Burning Basics Video series at to get more information on burning techniques, projects, and more!