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Pyrography 101 Tutorial Using Color in Pyrography - Woodburning with Color

Nedra Denison's pyrography tutorial reviews the various options for adding color to your woodburning

The use of color is a very personal decision and just because I prefer not to use color does not make it wrong. 

When I first started burning I used color more than I do now...actually I don't even use color anymore except in rare circumstances. Being aportrait of sitting bull with color added for accent. bit of a purist I have stopped using color except as accent to enhance an area such as adding a touch of gold and bronze to the eyes of a wolf. The look I try to achieve in my burnings is that of a sepia photo, so use of color is not the look I am trying to achieve. It does not mean using color is wrong. It's just my style of burning and my personal preference. My feeling has been that if I want to do a painting or colored drawing I will do that, but when I am wood burning, I want it to be just that, a wood burning! Again, that is my personal preference. When I do use color I use either acrylic paint or pencils, either clay-based or oil depending on the effect I'm trying to create. As an example, when I add color to the eye of a wolf I use an acrylic paint because I get a bolder "frost" which creates a nice "glimmer" to the eye (I use a bright gold and bronze mixture to create a natural color). For added touches, such as beads in some of my Native American pieces I would use oil pencils mixed with odorless turpenoid (paint thinner).

In the photo above you will see an example of a burning done with oil pencils (no paint thinner) blended with a blending stick used just as an accent on all the beaded areas and the ribbons in his headdress. 

The photo below on the left is a burning of a lighthouse, again using no paint thinner with the oil pencils but blended with a blender stick.  It is Brant Point lighthouse with color added.done using no color with the background, rocks, sand and parts of the lighthouse. Color was only added to areas where there was no burning. I did not apply any finish to the burnings before using color although some people do add a light finish before adding color.  Again that is personal preference.

Both of these pieces were done several years ago while I was still learning, experimenting and using color. 

The photo on the left was done in a maple burl using Jo Sonja acrylic paint. Some people merely outline their design and fill everything in with color making it look more like a painting than a wood burning.  But as I said the choice is strictly personal how much or how little color you use if you use color at all. 

Some woodcarving shows have even developed a separate category for pyrography with color added. 

So, the choice is yours and the choice of what medium to use is up to you. What I might suggest is to experiment with different mediums until you find the look that you want to achieve. 

This page was last updated 8/25/12

Using color in your pyrography

There are a variety of methods you can use to add color to your work but the most important thing to remember is that it should be the last thing you do before applying finish. Do not burn over the color, stain or varnish of any kind. Remember to burn only on bare, raw wood.....

Some people apply a finish over the burning before adding color. I do not apply any finish until the entire piece is complete. I have had no problems with this method and none of the burnings shown here have had finish applied before the use of color. 

I also use a brush on Polyacrylic finish on all my burnings including the ones with color added and have no problem. If you have used a paint thinner to blend or set your color into the wood it should not smear when applying the finish with a brush.

If you have added color with a pencil and not set it with a paint thinner you might want to use a spray on finish. 

Options for adding color

Pencils: oil, watercolor, clay-based (softer shades than oil and blend easier), pastels - all can be easily blended...some easier than others.  Blending can be done with finger, tissue, chamois, blending stump or tortillon depending on the effect you want to create. You can also use a thinner such as turpenoid or turpenoid when using oil pencils. The top two burnings (Sitting Bull and Lighthouse) were done with oil pencils. They were used with a blending stick to blend colors with no thinner. 

Acrylic or water based ink: available in a variety of colors. Allows the wood grain to show through. Colors are more vibrant than pencils.  Please check out the Alcohol & water-based inks in my store. These inks work well on wood when mixed with paint.

Paint: oil, acrylic, watercolor all are a bit messier than pencils but can be used on most surfaces. I have experimented with a variety of paints and have found that Jo Sonja and Lumiere and Neopaque paints are the best quality and give me an unlimited palette of colors. I use and love Jo Sonja acrylic paint and have used it for years. The burning above was colored with Jo Sonja acrylics which were mixed with an extender to create a wash. 

All will work and all will create a different effect. The choice is strictly personal but remember that you don't want to use color on the burned areas. If you intend on doing a lot of color or mostly color so that it looks like a painting then perhaps you merely want to outline your work. If you are using color just as an accent you might like the effect of using a wash with pencils rather than paint and it's easier to use and clean up. Using Oil pencils is one of the most commonly used forms of coloring for people who are incorporating color into their woodturnings. The technique described below creates a thin "wash" that will be soft but you can control the depth of the color by how many layers you use. If you want bolder colors you can also use the pencils without any thinner which is what I did on many of my small lighthouse plaques and the portrait of sitting bull when I first started burning.

Using oil-based colored pencils:

Any wax or oil based color pencil works well for this technique. I use Prismacolor pencils but you can use any brand. Walnut Hollow is another choice and those are also made by Prismacolor. I use them like a watercolor pencil...but rather than blending them with water I blend them with a blender stick and/or cloth and a paint thinner such as turpenoid or turpentine. I use an odorless formula available from Dick Blick. Some people mix their oil pencil with other mediums to achieve a different look but using a paint thinner gives you a "washed" look rather than being thick. 

  1.  using the side of pencil to apply color...usually WITHIN burned areas (to avoid color bleeding) but not on the burned area.
  2. using a dry blending stump or tortillon...rub the color into the raw wood vigorously. Direction of rubbing should be considered, depending on what you are coloring (i.e.; sky-work with grain; fur-rub in direction fur is growing, etc.).
  3. When color is well 'rubbed' into the wood...decide if you need to apply more...if not dip your stump into paint thinner (turpenoid or turpentine) sparingly and then re-rub with the slightly wet stump to dissolve oil and 'wash' it deep into the wood.
  4. Set it aside and wait for the paint thinner to evaporate.
  5. After the paint has evaporated the color will be distinctly 'lighter' than when you applied it and it will look like a "wash". At this point you can reapply color if you want "bolder" colors. Layer colors to taste ... you can have as much 'color as you want or just a hint of color. Another option is to substitute Step 6 & 7 below for Step 2 & 3 above:
  6. using a cloth dipped in paint thinner and rub it over the color with a finger to blend. You can also use your finger without a cloth.
  7.  If you need more color you can apply it and go over it again with the cloth (or finger). The paint thinner is friendly to the wood and doesn't disturb or raise the grain like water tends to do. Your perimeter burn lines will keep the color from bleeding. You can also use paint thinner and a similar technique with oil paint and a paint brush.

Happy Burning ©!

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