Lately I’ve been working with altguild.com on a few leather projects, specifically, those that require a distinct artistic flair. Don’t read that wrong, altguild.com makes some really impressive leather notebook covers that are art pieces all on his own, but when he calls me, he’s looking for my drawing expertise for a particular reason to take his leather work in a new direction outside of what a leather artisan can pull off. Specifically, pyrography drawing.
Which, until he called me, I had no idea it even existed. Let alone that all my time allocated for artwork would be completely focused on pyrography. To those who don’t know, pyrography is the art of burning – wood, leather, whatever. There’s a special tool with different ends or tips that heat up, apply to your material, and bam, you’re a pyrographist. Well, not quite. Pyrography, like all drawing on non-traditional mediums, relies on the artist to work with the material to get the best result. You can’t impose your will onto leather like you can onto paper or canvas (and I know a large group of artists who will say you can’t do that to paper either, but bear with me for a sentence or two). Paper or canvas is a man-made substance that is very predictable due to the manufacturing techniques. Strathmore paper, comic book illustrator’s favorite paper, will be exactly the same tomorrow as it is today. Paper grain goes in the same direction throughout the run of the paper and the lifetime of the mill making that paper so you know how the pencil will go across it every time. Consistency is the goal of the manufacturer, without it, the paper doesn’t perform for the artist and ultimately doesn’t sell.
Leather, well, that comes from a cow, and they aren’t known for conforming to ISO standards. Not only can the grain fluctuate from hide to hide, it fluctuates within the same hide! As can thickness of the hide. With marks and permutations too. And how much moisture or oil is in the hide can vary so the burn stroke can vary as you burn across it. On some hides the tip slides across easily, some times it grabs the tip and you wind up with darker points in your line. Not much mind you but to an artists at a certain level it affects your technique in a huge way. If you try and impose your drawing onto the leather this can be very frustrating, you have to understand the material and realize that each piece you do is going to be unique, there’s simply no other way when you work with leather to this fine of a drawing level. At least, that’s what I have found out in my experimentation. No two pieces of leather are the same. They don’t even bend the same.
Leather, well, that comes from a cow, and they aren’t known for conforming to ISO standards.
There’s two additional considerations the starting pyrographist should know about, heat and time.
You can change the heat level of your burner so it burns faster or darker. Let’s see a pencil do that. Ok, you can press harder with a pencil to get a darker line, got me there. But what happens when you stop drawing and leave the tip of your pencil on the paper? Not much. But when burning leather time of stroke is a major factor in how dark your stroke is. The heat doesn’t stop! Leave your tip on the leather for even a fraction of a second too long and your line has the dreaded blob. And this happens faster if your heat is higher. This is the biggest learning curve in pyrography, it takes a special running start and finish to get consistent lines. There’s lots of great videos out there that can help you with this so I’m not getting into it, suffice it to say, your first 500 lines will have the dreaded blob, best to grab some scrap leather and get practicing to get them out sooner rather than later.
Did I mention there’s no “undo” or erase function? Yeah, THAT sucks big time too. If it’s on the leather it’s done, too bad sooooo sad Charlie. Every mark had better be the intended one as there’s not take-backs in pyrography (ok, in wood, you can sand down a mark a little bit, granted, but I’m working primarily on leather so nope, it’s permanent each time for me. You can scratch away at it, but that changes the texture of the leather and its appearance).
So yeah, it’s a challenging medium AND a challenging method which I’m still struggling to master but it has great potential. Not only is each burn permanently marked into the leather, that’s only the starting point for the piece – you can also dye the leather any colour you can imagine or tool it to make it even more like a bas-relief sculpture with depth in the leather. I’m not a leather worker like my collaborator, so I’ll leave that to the skilled craftsman, but it does speak to the collaborative nature of each piece, we have to plan out how it’ll all come together so we can plan for each stage appropriately.
And the tone. The tone is a beautiful sepia colour. Texture too, the tips can carve at the leather a little to give it some texture. Between the burn and the carve, a pyrographist can pull off lots of texture patterns.
Fellow artists should be aware that raw leather is an amazing surface to ink on. It holds the ink incredibly well with no seepage or spread. Little expensive to be doing a whole graphic novel on, but if you get the chance, try it out.
Lastly, it doesn’t just hang on your wall. Leather is a functional art form with the piece intending to serve a purpose, like a belt, book cover, coaster, or arm bracer. You get to use it! How cool is that?
To say I’m having fun is to greatly understate how I’m feeling about pyrography. It’s rejuvenated my artistic side that had withered away from a year of university so check back often for updates of my artwork. If you’re looking for something unique in leather, head on over to altguild.com and ask Chris Barrett for something special, tell him I sent you, and together we’ll create a leather work that will be a one-of-a-kind masterpiece just for you.