A New Feather Technique and The Blessings of a Mistake

A New Feather Technique and The Blessings of a Mistake


I probably should have titled this article with something more “keyword” intensive. Something more likely to be found by search engines. Something to increase traffic to my site.

I declined the “wise” course, because I felt it was more important to really explain WHY mistakes are so valuable. And not in some esoteric philosophical way, but in a way that is practical for you and demonstrates something you can use.

So this article is about burning feathers AND the blessings of a mistake.

But make no mistake about it, the most important thing I can share with you here, is the gift that a “mistake” can hold for you.

I discovered this technique years ago, while trying to master smooth burning on the side of a train. My efforts were doomed from the start when I began by pressing down too hard and burning too hot. Then, in an attempt to “correct” the problem, I pulled away too quickly. I wound up with a funny looking train. Honestly, it was just plain ugly, I was sure I had messed up.

But after the initial shock, I realized what I had created. My train looked like it was covered in black feathers!

Bad for a train – great for an eagle!

I quickly sketched out a small eagle and tried out this “new” technique. I’d love to say it was stunning and perfect, but it wasn’t. It did however hold great promise and so I embarked on some experimentation to see just what this “smudge and drag” technique could do.

In this article I will take you through my process of exploration that led me to develop one of my most successful and most requested burning “hacks”. It is my hope that it not only helps you to better understand the technique itself, but that it also helps you to see YOUR mistakes in a very different light. The light of discovery and curiosity!

The initial “mistake”…

basic drag

The smudge and drag looked a bit like a feather. I played a bit with this at first but found it limiting. I was able to drag it further and further to create longer feathers but at some point it looked flat and formless.

I was becoming tired and frustrated. I began getting sloppy. Instead of pulling straight back and keeping my iron flat, I twisted the pen, digging one side into the wood and creating a curve and a hard edge. A few more attempts and the same thing happened.

At first I decided that it was time to quit. I had lost my concentration and would try again later. Then I looked at those marks again. They curved slightly and had a hard edge.


I played some more with tilting. Slight tilting created an edge with a soft fade, harder tilting created a dramatic edge with lights and darks. I was on to something!

heron closeup

Then I ran out of room!

I maxed out how far I could drag these stylized feathers. I began blending the edges to make them longer and longer but soon got off track. My stroke curved into the body of the feather instead of skimming the side. Again, I thought I had messed it up. I tried to “fix” the damage and accidentally made another inward curve. Again and again. Standing back I began to see a pattern.

It was rough but had begun looking a bit like very long scalloped feathers.

feather detail

After a bit I developed a rhythm that began to look more like a large (perhaps primary) feather. By combining curved smudges and drags I could go larger with this technique and still preserve the illusion of a feather.


To smooth out the scallops, which were now becoming too pronounced, I dragged the shader over the entire section keeping it flat and smoothing out the contours. This created softness and greater realism.

Woodburning 2-2011.Image 25

I’ve been using this particular technique for years now and it never fails to amaze students and viewers when I demonstrate it. I’ve created a video showing how I use this on a small eagle. You can watch it here https://youtu.be/uGVge9Sv8Mc .

The prospect of getting value out of mistakes is not natural to us. We are taught NOT to make mistakes or to immediately correct them.

I was fortunate in growing up that my father is an inventor (in addition to an artist). I saw him make many many mistakes when designing machines. I worked with him in his laboratory as he experimented with mechanical, electrical, and chemical processes to create what he imagined.

I was his confidant. I understood. Most importantly, I never told my mom the crazy and flat out dangerous things he did. It was our little secret.

I was also there in his studio as he experimented with different ways to create foliage, rocks, sand, mountains and clouds that were so realistic they appeared photographic. I became used to this system of mistake and step back. The challenge of playing with the materials and processes. And the ability to see this as a source of information and a gift that inspires curiosity.

In this article I have endeavored to share with you a little bit about the process I go through when making mistakes. I would love to say that each mistake yields a new technique, but that would not be true. Most of them just mess up the artwork. But then there are the precious few that become something more, they are my “Golden Nuggets”.

What “golden nuggets” are your mistakes holding? Are you willing to look at them with curiosity? Are you willing to release any expectations and simply play?

If you have enjoyed this article and are interested in diving deeper into pyrography? Be sure to sign up for my FREE Burning Basics Video series  to get more information on burning techniques, projects, and more!



3 Responses

  1. Luigi podrias mandarme a mi e-mail los mejores ejercicios que solo se centren en ganar grosor . Te lo agradeseria . Saludos desde Argentina . Muy buen contenido . Nuevos suscribtor youtube.
    replique cartier baignoire http://www.ventemarquemontre.com/fr/

    • Sharon Bechtold
      | Reply

      You are welcome to subscribe to my Burning Basics Videos for more instruction and to receive tips and techniques via email. You can register at http://www.FreeBurningVideos.com

  2. Judy
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for the videos. I will refer to them again and again. Especially the cloud and feathers vids…

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