Diary of a Picture - Platypus Diving


Here you will see the visual progression of a pyrographic picture. Often I'm very experimental in my work and will usually have one such piece being worked concurrently with other more standard pieces.
It is not intended to give you written details of this process, but more so to allow you to see the visual stages of these experiments.
I'm doing this for 2 reasons. The first being that I don't usually take written notes about each piece I do. (I do however make extensive technique notes and use thumbnail sketches.) I prefer instead to 'tumble' a project mentally before starting. This process is often so detailed that I can very clearly see the finished piece and each step it will take to get there. (It's like I have mentally burnt each piece several times before actually doing it.)
The second reason for not giving you detailed notes? Well....you want me to keep some secrets don't you?:)
Now...hang on for the ride. I don't know what's coming either, so this should be interesting.

1) It's way past time to get a new visual diary started. This time I thought I would take you on a visual tour of the making of a new piece called 'Platypus Diving'.
Unlike other diaries, you'll be seeing this one evolve as I make the piece.
As you can see, it's a thumping nice piece of wood and a large project, so this diary will be quite lengthy.
I bought this slab of Grevillea robusta at the last Melbourne Wood Show. After setting up my booth, I will always take a walk around and buy up a few supplies for special projects. This slab of native Australian wood was 2 and a half times this length and cost me $30.
I like to make at least one 'signature piece' a year. A piece that pushes my limits to the max and challenges what I know. It's a nice learning curve but can drive me slightly insane, so bear with me when I go a bit wiggy and frustrated.
Here you see me at the very beginning, sketching in the platypus. (Please excuse my messy studio floor.)
2)The wood itself has inspired this piece, both by the way Grevillea burns and the shape of the wood.
I am intending, hoping, crossing fingers to end up with a piece that is realistic and at full scale.
I always like to explore new techniques when I take on a signature piece. This time I'm using relief carving to accent the bubble trail, the platypus and the rocks. It's a first for me and I've been enjoying the carving. The first thing I've learned is to keep the blade super sharp.
Here I have very deeply burned around the bubbles with a heavy duty skew to define them and make stop cuts. I'm starting to relief carve around the bubbles.
3) In this shot I'm doing the deep stop cut burns around the rocks at the bottom of the 'creek'. I sketched the rocks in with pencil first.
Because Australian wood can be very hard and the cuts are to be deep, a burner capable of high heat is necessary. A sharp skew is also essential.
4) Now I'm happy with the proportions of the platypus I can burn the stop cuts around him too.
Note that the rocks below aren't as defined because I've done a lot of relief carving around them. The definition will come back again once I start burning. I need to get the carved parts nice a smooth before I start the burn, so for now the carving continues.
We'll have another look at platypus diving after the carving and before the burning begins.
I might just start burning some of the tannin water as this is a big area and it's going to take quite some time. I might get bored senseless if I don't start chipping away at it.
5) This photo has been taken with just a lamp lighting the shot to highlight the carving. All the stop cuts have been completed using a heavy duty skew and I'm sure this was a lot faster and easier than using chisels. (All of this took approx 40 mins.)
The relief carving has just been finished and a lot of it has been sanded smooth before beginning the burning. I need to do a bit more sanding and I'll be using a Dremel to help me out, plus a good dose of elbow grease.
You can see I have added just a bit of deep burning below the Platypus belly to lay in the darkest of tone. This allows me to work from this dark tone upward, the the lightest. It also let me make sure the technique I am going for to burn the water will work. It does, so now just a little more sanding, then away we go. It's going to be a big project, but I'm excited by it. I've never carved before and so far so good. I've enjoyed it so much that I hope to find time one day to do much more.
6) Okay...I'm back from holidays and really hanging to get moving on this piece. It sure will take some doing so best I keep a up a steady pace.
Last time I left Platypus Diving I had just finished the last of the carving and sanding. I was keen to get the carved bits sanded very smooth because it didn't want any raised areas catching the burning and creating dark patches. It's essential I get the water section smooth so I can apply a gradual, even tone to represent deep water. The water, although technically not the most challenging part of this piece, will be the most important. Everything hinges on the total balance and feel of the water. If I can convince the viewer that the water is believable then the rest will have a better chance of coming together. The Platypus will actually be swimming rather than suspended in dark.
I have started laying down a gradual tone which will be added to as I gain perspective and feel for the water. I want to create a 'mood' so it's going to take quite a bit of balancing and playing with. This is just the beginning, but I have already established the darkest tones around the rocks so I know my darkest value and can then work up from 
7) I'm still steadily working on the water at the moment. It's a matter of adding slowly. I need a very gradual effect and this wont be achieved by rushing it.
You can see here I've started laying in the basis of the rocks. I was going to hold off on this a little but I started getting a little lost in the water and worrying about loosing the unity of the piece, so I've decided to play around with the other tone values so I don't risk mucking up the water.
It's important to me that all aspects of a picture feel 'married' to each other. By that I mean each piece/component of a picture feels like it belongs to the others. Not one thing stands out like a sore thumb in comparison to it's surroundings. No one thing looks out of place. There are several ways to do this and we might have a look at that topic in a Pyro Newsletter very shortly.
So far I have been reasonably pleased with the progress of Platypus, until I struck a physical problem...one I have not come across often before. A 'bloom' has spread over some of the more heavily burnt water sections. Mostly this has happened on the heart section of the wood, which wasn't quite as dry as the rest of the timber. It's like the sap is oxidising. I'm not horribly concerned as it wipes away with a dry cloth and feel once a sealer is on, it will no longer form. I have tried a little turps and metho on the bloom, but it comes back just the same.
8) Okay, in real life Platypus Diving is just about to finish. Today is the last day I'm working on him, but you will continue to see his progress for a few more diary entries yet to come.
In this picture you can see I've been continuing to work on the rocks, creating texture and a feeling of distance as I move around.
The water is very close to being finished but I continue to adjust and balance this as the piece progresses. It's still vital that platypus doesn't feel like he's suspended in black. Of course, except for the large bubbles, there isn't much feeling of movement yet. This is another vital element in making a piece realistic but that will come a little later with the fun finishing touches...the work that makes the platypus breath.
You can see I've started working on the body tone. I will continue to work this off and one for quite some time.
The bubbles haven't been touched yet but is next in line because I am concerned I will lose balance in the piece if I don't get a feeling of how they will look when burnt. First I have to study bubbles to do this. I'll fill a bath and have a play to see how they look...the shadows they caste and so forth. I'm concerned the bubbles will stand out too much and detract from the main subject, so I have to be careful not to let the eye to stay up top. The objective is for the eye to travel down the platypus to the far bottom corner of the river bed. For this I'll have to keep the rocks in that corner lighter and not have the bubbles outweigh them.
I'm off to do the Melbourne Wood Show in the next few days so the diary will have to be finished after that. All going well, 'Platypus Diving' should be competing in the Australian Woodworking Championship at the show. Come along and have a look if you get a moment.
9) Only 3 more steps to look at in this visual diary. A lot has been happening since the last step.
I have added more to the water to smooth it out and create more depth. I have also added more darkness under the back and front flippers.
I have continually added to the rocks to give them depth and texture and to make the back rocks appear to recede.
I have started to add the shadows to the bubbles, really at this stage to get a feel of how they will look and balance with the other elements in the piece.
As you can see, I've been working quite a lot on the platypus itself, especially on the lower part. I'm trying to create a feeling of his head going deeper into the darkness of the river while his top half is being illuminated by the surface light.
I've also started adding some bubble shadows to the til to create a 3D effect. This helps the bubbles 'come alive' and of another level from the platypus. It also gives them a feeling of movement and of floating.
Much of this stage has been spent filling out and adding to the body of the platypus and the rocks.
I was unhappy with the tone at the tops left water, so decided to scrape away a little to improve the balance of the water.
You can see the bubble shadows have been darkend and the platypus body has been filled in a in more, especially the back half/tail and the front leg. The front fliper has also been added to, burning the creases darker to give a sense of shadow and depth.
The rocks have been worked on again. I have been constantly adding to them to give a feeling of not only shape, but of depth also.
The one other thing I have added to this stage are the tiny bubble trails coming from the Platypus's coat.
Finally, the end!:) Well...all apart from the varnishing that is. This has been a long project, but certainly and enjoyable one for the most part. There were some stages that got a little boring, but most pieces have some portion of this. To combat this, I tend to flit around my work so I don't get too hung up or frustrated.
You can see I have finished adding to the body of platypus, trying to keep in mind the play of bubble shadows on the coat. I have also added a lot more depth to the coat and the head area. The bubbles were also added to for more definition.
The rocks drove me a little insane and I feel I could have added to them, but I had had enough and decided to stop.
All in all I'm reasonably happy. I feel some definition was lost, but this is the nature of Grevillea robusta, (silky oak). I will certainly be playing about with this timber again. I still have a wonderful slab left and already have some pictures in my head of what I can do with it.
12) The real end this time...really!:) I forgot to tell you that I had decided to varnish this piece with polyurethane varnish even before I started it. I knew I was going to lose a little contrast and definition in using this varnish, but what I lost I would make up for in a honey glow that would best represent the tannin in the water of my creek. I was a little disappointed that I did indeed lose some contrast and detail, but was very pleased with the glow all the same. I still think it was the best choice but each to their own and you may think the clearer look is nicer.
I entered Platypus in The National Woodworking Competition in the decorative woodworking division and was tickled to have won first place. I hope you enjoyed the journey.
Copyright, Sue Walters 2