Sculpting with Fire

To the artist, pyrography can feel like merely drawing on wood (or paper, gourds, leather, or bone), but it actually has a lot in common with sculpting.

The artist burning an image of a howling wolf onto wood.

I used to paint more often, and draw even more. But today, every time I pass by my collection of pencils, I feel them glaring at me in contempt like neglected children with an absentee father. And for a long time, ink drawings were exciting to me—their dramatic contrasts of black on gleaming white. But with mediums like paint, pencil, charcoal, or pen, the artist applies a medium onto a surface, adding to what is there. That’s where pyrography (I prefer “burnart”) clearly differs.

In burnart, the only thing artists apply is heat. Nothing else. When I touch a burning tool to the surface, I add nothing that wasn’t already there. Burn-artists don’t cover the wood—they transform it, bringing out all the shades and pigments waiting to be revealed.

Just as sculptors shape clay, or carvers whittle away the wood to find an image within, burn-artists don’t change the medium, but transform it. As Michelangelo is quoted saying, “I saw an angel in the marble and kept carving until I set him free.”

The simplicity of wood and heat, and the magic that happens when they meet—that’s what I love about pyrography.

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