Introduction: Pyrography: How to Avoid “Muddy” Woodburnings

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…

Anything can turn to mud! In this article I will share with you the concept of value scales, why they are the key to successful artwork and how they will help you avoid dull, uninteresting “muddy” woodburnings.

It happens often, you burn a beautiful piece only to be shocked at how boring it looks when you step back and view it. Your reference is crisp and clean but your final burning looks like mud. Why?

Values are the reason.

Values are the ranges between lights and darks. In pyrography, due to our materials and process, we have a limited value range. There are only so many “steps” between pure white and pure black that we will be able to render. In fact, we don’t even have a white or black (unless you use paint). This can create a huge impact on the final burning if you fail to account for value adjustment.

This challenge is not unique to pyrographers. Oil painters, watercolorists, and even photographers need to understand the limitations of their mediums in order to create strong artwork. What we reproduce will NEVER match what we see with our eyes. The human eye sees far more detail than can be created by any medium.

So what to do?

Learning to strategically select and often tweak your values to create an even more powerful image will help you avoid “muddy” woodburnings. You can struggle with your limitation of values or use it to your advantage. By simplifying your values and knowing the range your individual surface has, you can adjust your image to make the most of your surface and create a stunning burning that integrates with the nature of your wood.

In this article I will share with my strategy to help not only gauge, but guide you through the burning process so you avoid “muddy” woodburnings.

To begin with you need to evaluate your original reference. The biggest problem I see with most beginning artists is that their original reference is poor to start with. Your final piece will be limited by the quality of your reference. If your original is a color photograph with full lighting – meaning you have very little shadows and an image that looks flat – your burning will be a challenge.

Take your color photo and copy it to black and white. This will instantly reduce the amount of information your eye sees. Color can be very distracting. Values become hard to identify because they are influenced by adjacent colors. This sometimes makes them appear lighter or darker than they really are. By eliminating color you can quickly tell what will need to be burned. It will also let you know how best to use your wood to enhance the image.

Even a black and white photograph will benefit from the copying process. Each time you photocopy something it shortens the range of values and simplifies the image. This is not to say you won’t use the information in either the color or original photograph, it simply facilitates categorizing the values so that you have more control in your burning.

Think of this process as similar to sorting your laundry. If you know ahead of time how to wash each type of garment it is simple to sort them and then properly wash them, but if you throw them all in together you will likely ruin some if not all of them.

In order to evaluate your value range you need to know how your wood will respond to the burning and how many of the subtleties will really be visible. Some woods will hold subtleties better than others and allow you a fuller range. Other woods have less subtlety so your range is limited.

The best way I have found to identify your ranges and control them during burning is by creating a value strip. Whenever possible use a small strip of scrap wood that is the same type as the wood you will be burning on. Now taking one edge, divide the strip (with a pencil) into sections of 5 small squares (no larger than 1 cm x 1 cm or .25 x.25 inches). IMPORTANT: Make these sections small – very small – there is an important reason for this. Also be sure they are at the very edge of your scrap wood so they touch the edge with the different value samples.

<See sample Image above>

Now take your strip and burn the first square as dark as you possibly can. This square is now a representative of black. On the opposite end will be your “white”. Now begin burning the middle square with a value that will represent 50% or middle value. You can shade these boxes with any technique you like. To complete your value strip, shade in the boxes between your 50% and your “white” and “black” to register your medium light and medium dark values.

This value strip will help you map out your burning so you have complete control over the impact of your lights and darks.

To use your strip, hold it next to the area you are evaluating. Compare the small sections of your strip to the original image. Whichever section “blends” into the image best is the source value. This is why it is important that the sections on your strip be small, you want the section to visually blend in so you know what you are dealing with.

In addition, use your strip to gauge how your shading is going and maintain the appropriate value. Values can appear very different based on what they border. For example a 50% value will look very dark in the center of an unburned area, but a 50% value can look much lighter when it is at the center of a black area. Use your value strip to eliminate unwanted surprises.

So what happens if your image has a bunch of values that don’t show up in your value strip? After all there are very few images that are limited to only five values.

The point of the value strip is to create a baseline to control values and give you a good handle on what is possible. Not all woods will capture the same amount of values. Break down the main image into your primary five values. Once you have laid these out you can adjust the in-betweens. This will keep your burnings from becoming muddy.

One last and very important tip. Take a step back and evaluate your work. Do this periodically to correct any errors to values early on.

Most of our burnings are meant to be viewed much further away than we are sitting when we work on them. When we are working only 12”-14” from the surface we can see much more than someone 5 feet away. By taking the time to step back to viewing range you get a chance to see what your viewer will see and make decisions based on that.

In the Lioness burning you see in this article I have added a darker background to the section just behind the Lioness. This dramatizes the image and helps eliminate the natural camoflage that would normally occur with this subject. Although the camoflage is natural, it does not make for a powerful composition.

I hope this article has helped clarify the importance of values for you and shown you not only how critical it is to understand your value limitations, but use them to your advantage to create crisp beautiful burnings.

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!