Pyrography 101 Tutorial Using Photographs as Patterns - Create Lifelike Woodburnings with Photographs

Nedra's pyrography tutorial helps you learn how to use a photograph as a pattern for more natural, realistic woodburnings

I have been doing pyrography since 1999 and after using patterns briefly when I first started wood burning, I now work primarily from photographs. There are some very definite advantages to using a photo instead of a pattern made by someone else.

This page was last updated 3/13/16

Pattern vs. Photograph

With a pattern you are never sure if its accurate and more often than not it's not me on this! When I first started burning I was relying on patterns in books and often found that after I got the pattern on the wood and started burning there were several inaccuracies. Some of the most common problems I've found in patterns are: improper lighting, improper shading and shadows (shadows in the wrong direction based on the location of the light), facial features inaccurate or look animated, a particular flower such as an iris didn't look anything like an iris should look like. If there's going to be a mistake in a piece I'm working on, I want it to be my mistake. I don't want to start with a pattern that is already flawed. The other problem is that patterns (and their go-by's) are not going to be able to give you the details you need to create a realistic burning.

My goal is for my work to be natural and lifelike, but not to be a photocopy. I cant accomplish this by using a pattern. I'm relying on another person's ability to create a life-like pattern and most of the time I have been disappointed. I also want my work to be original and you cant be original if you're using someone else's pattern.

Pattern's are good for when you are just starting out and don't have the confidence to work from a photograph. Once you gain confidence in your burning it's time to move on and try to gain more experience and more natural pyrography by working from a photograph.

Creating your pattern from a photograph

Making your own pattern from photos is easy if you have the right tools and I highly recommend it. One of the main reasons I recommend it is that if you truly want your work to be realistic it's the only way to go. You will never capture the essence of a design by using a pattern, no matter how good that pattern is. You can only get fine details, proper shadows and shading working from a photograph.

If you are going to use a photo, the first thing is to find a very clear photo with good contrast. You can enlarge the photo or shrink it to the size you want. If the photo is in color, you will want to convert it to a black and white so that you can see where the shading is. This will give you a better guide for shading and tonal values than trying to use a color photo. 

The easiest way to work with a photograph is  to use a scanner. If you have a scanner and photo software you can scan it and convert any photo from color to black and white, making any adjustments needed to ensure clarity, contrast and brightness, etc. 

If you do not have a scanner or photo software, just make copies on a photocopy machine, adjusting the contrast and darkness, until you get a clear photo. Make two copies, one for tracing on the wood and the other to use as a reference. I usually put my reference photo inside a clear Lucite photo stand so I can easily look at it while I am working.

You do not need to convert your photos to line drawings, all you have to do is get it into a workable black and white photo to use as a pattern.

I do highly recommend investing in an inexpensive scanner if you can afford it so that you can use virtually any photograph you have and convert it and work with it from your computer. There are so many on the market and they have really come a long way since I bought my first one. They are worth their weight in gold if you are going to be making your own "patterns" or if you want to scan the burnings when you finish them for advertising, websites, etc. 

I'm not a computer expert and this is not intended as a tutorial on photo software but I will tell you that there are a wide variety of software programs available to help you take ordinary photos and turn them into workable patters. Most people probably already have something loaded on their computer and may not even know it. But, a good photo software program can be a blessing when you want to create "patterns" from photographs not to mention all the great uses once you finish your masterpiece.

If you already have a photo in your computer, perhaps from your digital camera or downloaded from a public domain website you can use make any adjustments to the photo using your photo software such as adjusting contrast, brightness, size, etc. I recommend printing it in black and white and making two to trace and the other to use as a reference.

One thing you must keep in mind that even photographs are protected by copyright. So, be sure that if you are not using your own photos you have permission to use them. 

Creating a line drawing from a photograph

For those of you who feel you need a line drawing as a guide rather than working directly from a photography there are many software programs that can do this too. 

There is also free software online that can be downloaded that will allow you to create a line pattern from a photo. It is called IrfanView and can be downloaded for free from I do not use this method and have not tried it but I have heard that it works well for those that feel the need for a line drawn pattern to work from.

Using someone else's photos and copyright

I must also caution you here about copyright. 

Now, I am not a copyright attorney, so I will keep this part very general. You can use copyrighted material and photos in your art as reference photos when the finished piece or project will be for personal use. This means that if you are woodburning a white tail deer it is very OK to go browse the net to find photos of deer. It's OK to print those photos off and then use them to determine how shadows, highlights, muscle structure, that sort of thing works in the animal.

It's not OK to slap a piece of tracing paper on top of it, make an exact pattern, burn it exactly and then put either the pattern or the burning up for sale as 'original' artwork. Nor is it OK to take those photos to your local pyrography class or woodcarving club and pass them out as give aways. Yes, there are people who are doing it but if they get caught (and they do) then the legal owner isn't going to be happy.

Unless you are using your own photographs be sure that you have permission from the photographer to use their photos. There are some copyright free photos that are considered in "public domain", but always err on the side of caution when using photos on the internet and get permission. One site that is worth checking out is Wet Canvas.

Disclaimer: Some of the information contained on this page is based on public domain information that is believed to be reliable & information used in my classes. The information in these tutorials is furnished free of charge. The information is to be used at an individual's own risk. Nedra Denison and Sawdust Connection makes no warranty as to the completeness or accuracy thereof.

Happy Burning ©!

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