With Wonderful Models and a Fascinating Medium, Can There Be a Favorite Portrait?

Since I first picked up a butane torch at USC and decided to see what it could do as an artistic tool, I have created thousands of fire portraits. While you can see the progression in my skills in each one, I still like all of them because there are memories behind them. They tell a story about my evolution as an artist and about the people I have been fortunate enough to meet. That’s one reason why when I am asked which portrait is my favorite, it’s hard to say. Also, I am innovating and getting so much better that my favorite portrait is almost always one of the last three or four I’ve done because of the improvements and new techniques I can see in it. It’s one of the things that keeps me working on the medium. If I ever master fire, I will work on something else. As I am constantly learning new techniques for this medium, I suspect that day may be far off in the future.

I have kept everything I have created, and I do mean everything. I’ve got my earliest artwork from back when I was five years old, when I knew I was going to be an artist. Even at that age, I was signing and dating every drawing. That artwork may have been made by a child, but he was still a very serious artist. As I reflect on how devoted I was to my art as a kid, I respect what I was able to do even then. Today, I have shelves that are full of the drawings, paintings, sculptures, and burnings I have done throughout my life. I like to look through them sometimes and see how much stronger an artist I have become. 

I do have ones that I am partial to, but it is less for the technical ability behind them and more for the history. Therefore, each object is sort of linked to a specific memory for me. Many times that memory is of the model, whose essence I worked to capture in the portrait. I like to relive the moments that went into creating each picture and to remember how I was changed by the encounter as much as the person was. There may have been a joke told that cracked both of us up, or perhaps I heard a sad story that affected me deeply. I am never the same person after I make a fire portrait.

There are a few pieces at home that are valuable to me, including the very first burning I did. That was an experiment or turning point for me as an artist, and I like to reflect on it and on who I have become since then. I enjoy those portraits because as I pioneer this medium of fire painting, it’s important to look back and see the steps and progression that have allowed me to get to where my work is now.

One of my favorite portraits is from just a few weeks ago. It was the first one I have ever done on cherrywood, and I really liked the grain of the wood and how I was able to blend the model’s facial features into it. The portrait is of a teenage singer/actor, and it looks just like her. In particular, I was able to capture her emotion, especially in the eyes, and I am very proud of it.

So, what is my favorite piece? I can’t really say definitively because I still have more portraits to do. Each one, however, will bring me an indescribable gift: the opportunity to really see into a person and to forever capture their soul using only fire and hardwood. For that reason, I think I will always see every portrait I make as being my favorite. It could be no other way when I work with such highly interesting people who let me into the essence of who they are.

Learning to Paint with Fire Is An Ongoing Journey

There’s a lot of hyperbole out there, whether in the art world or elsewhere, with so many people saying that they are the best at what they do or that they are unique. To my knowledge, though, I really am the only one in the world who paints portraits using fire. That means I have pioneered a new medium and have had no teachers or mentors to learn from. Forget instruction manuals or YouTube videos - from the moment I first used a blow torch at USC, I have been figuring out on my own how to use a destructive element to create incredibly detailed portraits, and I have loved every minute of it. 

As you might expect, my biggest breakthroughs have come from the mistakes I have made along the way. Isn’t that always true? You can either be knocked to the ground by your screw ups or get over them and instead analyze what went wrong and do something differently next time. I chose to learn from them, and as a result, I have seen my ability grow.

In the beginning, I drew on wood panels and then began integrating the use of blowtorches. Their effect was so intriguing to me that I stopped using pencils altogether. As I progressed, I did more wood burnings and noticed that the flame would do something unexpected. Maybe if I shifted the blow torch in my hand in a certain way, that would make the flame respond with a specific movement, and there would be a cool effect. I had discovered a new technique, so I leaned into it. By experimenting like this for months and even years, I was able to build an arsenal of techniques that would give me the ability to create fire portraits that no one else can make.

It’s been this sort of discovery process but almost playful at times. Take my hands, for instance. How I use my fingers is the latest technique I’ve developed. I use them to put claw marks into the portraits, and I love what that does to the portrait. I’ve also begun discovering what happens if I focus on a black section and set it on fire to make it crackle. It results in wood that has this wonderful texture to it, and it feels great when I run my fingers over it. There are so many new things I can do with fire that I plan to push this medium as far as I can go. I want to really see what is possible and where it takes me. 

Honestly, ten years ago, I never would have thought it would be possible to do what I am able to do now. It’s just been a decade of trial and error, and what I have discovered has both blown my expectations and given me a deepening respect for fire as an artistic medium. The portraits I create quite frankly look like magic.

When people come to my studio, they have already seen my website and pictures of what I have created. They know that I am a fire painter. Even though they are familiar with what I do, they still can’t believe that I use fire and nothing else. They expect it to be some kind of trick, I think, and are amazed when they see that I use only a blow torch or flamethrower. I believe that’s part of what they enjoy about the experience: understanding that they really are encountering something completely new.

I am just getting started on what’s doable with fire. Each portrait results in a new discovery, and that’s exciting to me as an artist. I will continue to explore this medium as long as I can continue to learn, which I suspect will be for a very long time. 

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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