Let’s Play with Burnishing Spirals

In one of my favorite movies, “North by Northwest” (Gary Grant starred, Alfred Hitchcock directed), there’s a scene where Grant’s character figures out where the femme fatale is going by rubbing a pencil over the paper that was under the paper she wrote down an address.  That’s the premiss of this particular creative activity.

The use of spirals is inspired by the spirals found at the Newgrange Ireland Megalithic Passage Tomb. In 1996, my husband and I spent the last afternoon of our last day in Ireland in this area. It was amazing. I want to go back so I can spend more time exploring.

Newgrange Spirals
Newgrange Spirals


  • a burnishing tool, this can be anything that has a smooth point to it, like a knitting needle, a nut picker, the tip of a pen cap, etc.
  • a piece of paper to draw & color on
  • color pencils (for this example, I used prismacolor canary yellow, scarlet lake, and true blue

Step 1:  Take the burnishing tool and draw a spiral on the paper.

Draw Spiral
Step 1: Draw Spiral

Step 2:  Draw as many spirals as you want on the paper.

Draw more spirals
Step 2: Draw more spirals

Step 3:  Using a color pencil, in this case I used the red, color over the spirals.  In this photo, I used the side of the pencil tip and colored with a light pressure.  What you’ll see that where the spiral was burnished into the paper, remains white, while the rest of the area takes on the red color.

Add Red Lightly
Step 3: Add Red Lightly

Step 4:  Now color with hard pressure.  When you do, the white of the burnishing shows up even more.

Add more pressure
Step 4: Add more pressure

Step 5:  Add another color, in this case I added yellow.  Color over the existing red (it will become orange) and into the uncolored area.

Add more pressure
Step 5: Add yellow

Step 6: Now add some blue.  Here too, color over some of the existing red, and then into the uncolored area.  Notice what makes that spirals stand out more, and where they are less noticeable.

Add Blue
Step 6: Add Blue

In the End:

Final Piece
Final Piece

This particular exercise was about showing you how to create a unique look to your coloring.

Here’s an example of an mandala I did using this very technique.

Spirals Mandala
Spirals Mandala

Happy Coloring!

Maureen, The Mandala Lady


  1. Hello there! I have no clue why no one has commented on your wonderful site. I found it through someones suggestion on http://www.deviantart.com. I really liked the Mandela. What kind of color pencils did you use? I’m going to try out the burnishing one of these days. It works better on Bristol board?

    1. My favorite brand of color pencils is Prismacolor. They work especially well with the burnishing technique. Bristol, illustration, rising board, or any heavier weight paper will work. For the mandala in this blog, I used back side of mat board (it was a cut-out for a mat I used on another painting).

      Maureen (The Mandala Lady)

  2. Beautiful mandala! I am curious about whether or not this technique would work with watercolor pencils? And can a CD be used as a template to draw the circle or is there a specific size that it has to be? I am somewhat of a beginner so I could use all the help I can get. I recently started using colored pencils and now I am using watercolor pencils.

    1. Mandalas can be any size. I’ve made them as small as 4″ diameter up to 3 feet in diameter.

      Watercolor pencils are fun to use and always a surprise when water is applied. As for this technique working with w/c pencils…that’s a great question. Try it! I’ll try it as well and make it another post.

      Happy Coloring!

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