Every once in a while, I hear about an artist who threw away some of their work when they were younger. It makes me want to dig through trash cans and landfills to find it and give it back to them. No matter what it is that an artist creates, it’s so important to keep everything, even if they just put it in a box and never look at it again. I can’t imagine throwing away my artwork, and I have been keeping all of it since I was a little kid. I have every drawing, sculpture, and painting I have ever made. It’s my history or memories captured in art. It’s evidence of the process I have undergone to get better and of my past.
I have thousands of pieces of personal artwork in my collection, and each one represents a stepping stone that has led to the artist I am today. I can learn about my medium just by looking at the evolution of my techniques over the years. For that reason, I think that all artists should keep that evidence of progression, whether it’s through hard copies or photographs. Documentation of your work can really be useful in so many ways.
I would say that now, keeping that record is a very important ritual in my process. It’s second nature at this point. I have alway felt the need to do it, and it continues to be that way. I am so thankful that I have had that instinct from a young age. It has resulted in a huge collection of art that shows my history, and it’s my most precious belonging. It’s who I am today and how I got there.
With fire, I don’t create my work in order to have a picture at the end of the day to put on the wall. I have a different motivation: I create my work because I am in love with the process and with going into the creative zone. That’s where I am able to give that gift of being seen and to lose myself in the process. It’s a deeply personal place, one where my hands work with fire to create the person’s likeness. It’s where I have discovered I have a synergy with fire, so much so that sometimes I can hold conversations with people even as my hands take on a life of their own and paint the picture. It’s an intense experience for both me and the model.
Eventually, of course, that process comes to an end. When I finish the portrait and step outside of the creative world, it’s a bit disorienting for a few moments. So much of me has gone into the portrait that to finish it is a moment I need to reflect on. I stand with the model, and as we look at it together, I can see that the artwork is a remnant of the experience. It is what has been left behind.
When I look at it, I remember the conversations, people, and everything around that experience. It tells a story for me and for the model. I remember how I laughed with the person while I was painting their eyes. When I look at the hairline, I think about how the model was introspective then and didn’t seem to want to talk. There is a memory behind every line and every angle, and I love to see that history throughout the portrait.
That, then, is why keeping artwork is so, so important. Anything I create is more than a picture. It is ultimately a record of the journey, and I will never want to forget a single moment of it.
All artists are compelled to create, but what exactly that is varies. I’ve known plenty of people who are awesome at pencil sketches of buildings, and I’ve seen some incredible paintings of scenery. For me, though, it’s always been about portraits. I think it’s been kind of intuitive for me from the start. When I was little, my urge to draw people was irresistible. I was always walking around with a piece of paper and a pencil, drawing my mom or dad and trying hard to get every line just right. Even then, I enjoyed the process of trying to recreate a person’s likeness and their essence and to capture a very personal moment for all time.
Maybe that’s it, then: all portraits are snapshots in time. Life moves so quickly that in a month, a year, or a decade, the person will look different. The portrait I create for them is an indication of who they were. It is a very visual memory for them, and when they see it, they will remember both the experience of sitting for the portrait as well as the events and thoughts around it.
I like this aspect of my art because I want to be able to document things. A lot of people try to do the same by journaling or taking photographs, both great ways to lay out their memories. Portraits are my way of doing the same thing, and it is an enormous privilege that what I do can bless those who sit for me.
I also believe that drawing portraits is the most challenging form of art, though I may get some disagreement on that. In many ways, it’s very unforgiving - I can do an excellent job on the person’s eyes, hair, and chin, but if I mess up their nose, it won’t be their face. That, however, is part of the fun of it: the challenge of getting every line and angle just right the first time. It’s a puzzle that I never tire of putting together.
One of the best moments is when the portrait suddenly looks like the model. I will have been putting in lines and angles and shadows that are all well-done, but together, they’re not quite enough to make the portrait recognizable. Then, it suddenly comes into focus when I put in the last line around the lips, and there it is - the face of my model. It’s an exciting moment for both of us, I think. I find satisfaction in being able to capture that likeness and essence.
Painting a portrait from life, for me, is far better than doing it from a photo. In that moment, I don’t get to make mistakes. It’s three hours of an ongoing struggle and process, and I enjoy it. I thrive on solving the problem of how to rebuild someone’s face in a way that doesn’t age or change. The portrait will be there forever in the wood.
Beyond that, I love painting fire portraits because I have the ability to share that experience with people who very rarely - if ever - have had their portraits done from life. I am able to use my skills to give people the gift of being seen and recognized. They feel worthy of being captured forever in art, an unfamiliar feeling for many of them.
All artists evolve as the years pass, and I don’t expect that I will be any different. No matter where I go with my art, it’s hard for me to imagine that portraiture won’t continue to be a part of it. It is just too much fun for me to get to know the people who sit for me and to give them something they have never experienced before: a portrait that encapsulates who they really are and why that is, indeed, beautiful.
I often get asked by people if I was “that kid” back in school, the one who liked setting garbage cans on fire and blowing things up. The answer is no. I was never a pyromaniac, and I don’t believe I was ever more attracted to fire than anyone else. I started working with fire in my early twenties because it was the most efficient way to create the illustration. It really was as simple as that. Since those days, it has evolved into more of a tool, one that I still appreciate for how quickly it can create the vision in my mind.
However, in the last 10 years, as I have continued to explore fire as an artistic medium, I have encountered other facets of it that I have found myself drawn to and enjoying. The main one is the idea of using this destructive element for creative purposes. This is extremely interesting to me. How incredible it is that I can create something beautiful out of something that’s so destructive. How many times have we all heard on the news about the acres and acres of land in California being destroyed by forest fires? Fire has the power to cause so much damage, yet it can also be used in a new way: to create unique art that will last for generations.
I think fire has fascinated humans since we learned how to make it roughly 2 million years ago. No matter how technologically advanced we get, we are intrigued by it. How many times have you sat at a campfire and just stared into the flames, entranced by the blue, red, orange, and yellow colors? It can be mesmerizing, don’t you think? It’s also a really compelling force that can be used for cooking our food, keeping us warm at night in the winter, or burning down villages.
I love the idea of taking this sort of timeless and powerful element and finding a new purpose for it after thousands, even millions, of years. It makes me wonder, honestly, what else is out there to discover. Fire itself hasn’t changed. You light a match, and poof, there’s a flame. It must look the same to us as it did to the humans who first discovered it. Yet, here we are today, using something we’ve known about for so long in a different way. Our perception of it is changing.
So, what else is out there to be discovered? I think that’s one of the biggest challenges for today’s artists: to think outside of the box and reject the idea that there’s only one way to use something. I encourage them to step away from the traditional way of thinking about something and to view it with fresh eyes. Take mud, for example. I’ll admit that it’s not something I am particularly interested in, so don’t expect any mud portraits from me anytime soon. However, is there an artistic use for it? Can it be more than what gets caked on our shoes? I would be fascinated by an artist who was able to take different types of dirt - be it from a beach, a riverbank, the desert, or elsewhere), add water to it, and make something beautiful out of it. That’s the kind of innovation I respect in other artists: those who are not afraid to reject the definition of an object and to instead shake it up and see what happens.
Ultimately, I love making portraits using fire because I am creating a new medium. It is exciting to me that everytime I turn on my flamethrower or blow torch, I know that I am about to discover something new about using it to make portraits. It means every day is an adventure for me, one that I hope continues for years to come.