10 Years of Experimentation Have Developed My Process for Creating My Fire Portraits

Every artist, no matter what their medium may be, has a process for creating their art. If you ask them, they’ll probably tell you that it is tremendously personal to them and that when they finish, they feel a little bereft because they put so much of their heart and soul into their creation. It’s no different for me, I suppose, because every portrait has so much of my dedication and intention behind it that when it’s finished, I feel both elated at the outcome as well as drained in a way. In other words, while I capture the essence of my model in the portrait, the portrait captures my essence, too.

Most of the videos I show of that process focus on the painting itself, but there are a number of steps taken before that begins. The first thing I do is source the wood. I typically use only hardwoods because they burn more slowly, an obvious advantage when I’m using a blow torch or flamethrower. I’ve mostly been working on mahogany panels that are 6-8 feet tall, but I like to branch out to other types (no pun intended). I just did a piece on a gorgeous cherrywood panel, and I have also sourced a lot of pine and oak. 

Once I have the wood prepared, I will then have the model meet me in my Los Angeles studio. From there, I have many options laid out for consideration before I begin painting the portrait. There are different sizes and widths to look at, and in order to choose the right wood, I have the model step into the light. I have a closer look at their face and see the angles or expressions to capture. I move the person’s head around to see their features and then begin considering and rejecting different pieces of wood. 

All compositions are based around the pre-existing wood grain, so I look for a piece of wood whose grain matches the angles I see. I study where the eyes or the nose will go and connect facial lines with the lines in the grains of the wood. I tilt the face of the model until it lines up with the wood grain. I have one important goal here:  to create a smooth synergy with nature.

That has always been a big part of the portrait process, but I have developed that process a lot in the last year, when I introduced the flamethrower. As it is now a vital part of how I create portraits, I then move on to coat the wood with a layer of ash from the flamethrower. Once I do that, I bring the wood into my studio, where I have controlled lighting and can start the portrait.

What I particularly love doing is using my hands to dig into the ash to lay out the composition and pull out the highlights. It feels wonderful to engage with the portrait this way. I also go in with smaller torches for the bulk of the portrait and continue to pull out highlights with my fingers.

At the end of my portrait, I will hit it again with my flamethrower, coating it with an additional layer of ash. At this point, the portrait is very dark, like a veil of shadow obscuring the face. What I do then is put down the torches and go back in with my fingers, digging deeply and pulling out highlights by wiping away the ash.

I’ve recently introduced a new technique that is intriguing to me. When I made a portrait a few days ago, I started using my fingers to put in claw marks, in this case in the person’s chin. You could see where my fingers had been. In another portrait, I put in the hair and made it flow down, getting blacker and blacker. At the bottom, you could just see my fingers. I love it when other artist’s use their hands in this way. Whether it’s chisel lines or claw marks, I think it’s an amazing technique that really adds so much to art.

Once I am done, I seal the portrait with polyurethane. This is especially important with ash because if I put in a black area without doing that, it will have my fingerprints in it. The polyurethane seals in the burns and helps to protect it.

You can see, then, that every portrait captures who a person is, but it also captures me, too. It is tremendously satisfying to finish a portrait, stand back and view it, and remember everything I did to create it. I am just grateful that I have an ability that allows people to have an experience that they cannot find anywhere else and that they feel worthy of being immortalized in this way. It is a gift to them, I think, but also to me.

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