Newsletter 8

2004 Copyright Sue Walters


I find it a challenge to try something new and commissioned pieces of a personal nature sure provide that challenge. I'm not talking about the type of commission that comes from someone requesting a subject without anything specific in mind, more so I'm talking about doing work from a photo or something commemorating a moment. This type of project takes more thought and care because you know the subject means something very personal to the client and that they usually now that subject intimately.
I was given a more unusual challenge by a client recently who wanted his honeymoon to Africa commemorated in pyrography. I thought I would share the process with you.


The challenges of this piece were several. I only knew a few things for sure;
1) The client wanted the work done on a gourd because he had seen them in Africa but couldn't bring one back into Australia because of our strict quarantine restrictions.
2) He wanted an African animal or animals on it, preferably from his own photos.
3) If possible, he wanted a picture of him and his new wife on it. The rest was up to me.

This is the type of reference photos provided, but much smaller.
© Copyright Sue Walters


There were several things I had to consider and decide.
1) Even though the photographs were clear and plentiful, were they going to be big enough for me to work up into a much bigger picture?
2) Should I use more than one animal?
3) Was the picture of the couple big enough to discern any detail? (Portraits are difficult to do and a good reference is helpful for accuracy.)
4) Should I try and sort all of this into some sort of theme?
5) Should I use any colour?
6)How should I arrange the subjects?


After a good discussion with the client and a long think, I came up with the following answers;
1) It was going to be a struggle to use the small pictures and I probably wouldn't have considered it before the advent of computers, but I decided that scanning and enlarging would help decipher the photographs where needed. This may seem a touch like cheating to some but I wanted the animals to be as accurate to the clients own photos as possible and with that in mind I'll use what ever may be available to me. Plus the client owned the images so Copyright infringement wasn't an issue.
2) While I talked to the client about his trip I took note of what animals and images meant the most to him. Those images will often be the ones that have the best memories attached to them. I decided to use all of those animals where possible.
3) Even though this part made me the most nervous of all, I decided to try do a portrait of the couple by using just the head and shoulders taken from a full body photograph...a tiny, tiny full body photograph. I thought it was important to give this a shot because of what it was commemorating.
4) Yes, I wanted a theme. Something to joint it marry the images together. One or two big animals alone would have been fine, but several had to have something to tie them together. Those flat Acacia trees (so common in African image) were in many photos. I decided to use two large trees on opposite sides of the gourd to encircle the top and to situate the animals under.
5) In keeping with the natural feel of the gourd and subject matter I decided not to use any colour at all.
6) Deciding how to arrange the subjects was a difficult decision, but after I chose all of the animals I noticed all of them but one pointed the same way. Normally I wouldn't like everything to be so orderly, but I did want to keep the work on the animals as close to those taken. I decided to turn the Elephant around and point everything one way. I had it in my head that it would look like a procession, symbolic in a way of the journey they took. LOL...yeah, I know, I know. That sounds just a bit too blasted artsy for my liking!
7) One thing I did want to keep in mind for this piece was not to get lost in too much detail. There was a lot of animals to do and being too fixated on my behind wasn't going to get the job done in time.


The progression of the piece was as follows;
1) Choose and prepare the gourd by cleaning, sanding the inside and painting that black.
2) Choose the photos, scan them, re-size in relation to each other.
3) Sketch in the trees and start the long job of creating the canopy.
4) Finish the canopy and plot the animals and the happy couple.
5) Outline the animals and start to fill in the tone by using photos and scans.
6) Fill in the ground.
7) Fearing heart failure and having nothing else left to burn, I finally decided to then burn the happy couple.
8) I then smacked myself in the head, took and piece of paper and a pen and made a note to myself to, next time, burn the most difficult part of a project FIRST! See above. (Throwing away a few hours work is far better than throwing away 20 hours work.)
9) Thankfully, the portrait turned out okay and I sealed it all with several coats of satin acrylic spray varnish.


  • Gourds are fun to burn and look really terrific but they can be waxy/hard to burn on compared to most wood. It is possible to have the nib slip if you're not careful.
  • A Skew nib is excellent on gourds to prevent slipping and produce a clean line.
  • Gourd surfaces can be bumpy compared to wood, making subtle/smooth shading more difficult in some cases. This creates a slightly more rustic effect that is very appealing and natural.
  • The tree canopy was done by stippling and squiggling with a writing nib.
  • The ground was done by pushing a shader around in a very loose manner. (As with the tree, it's often fine to get a sense of shape to portray's not necessary to draw every leaf or blade of grass.)
  • Nibs get more dirty burning on gourds than most wood...don't forget to keep them constantly clean by flicking the muck off. It makes for a much neater and easier burn.
  • To save your sanity, make sure you burn what you are unsure of first and not last. Did I mention that already?
  • Because of the curved shape, I find using spray varnish is much more effective than brush on varnish.
  • Size of the gourd: basketball size.
  • Do a search for 'gourds' on a search engine and be prepared to be shocked at the numbers!