What started as a happy accident with a candle flame and an oil paint soaked canvas, has developed into a unique artistic process.
Sitting in my tiny flat, over 20 years ago, I had an image of a painting I wanted to create. An idea for a self portrait which moved from skin, blood and tissue down through to my DNA.
I wanted a very visceral texture and began experimenting by dripping melting wax into layers of oil paint. I heated the back of the canvas with a candle flame. It burnt through. So I tried heating the front of the canvas. It instantly set alight. But after blowing out the flames I liked what was left behind.
At the time this was a rather singed, sooty blend of oil paint and wax. I stuck with it, slowly increasing the area I was burning; moving from a small candle to a large cathedral candle. Then from candle flame to a blowtorch. Finally replacing the cotton duck canvas with wood.
I’d finally found a technique that perfectly suited how my brain worked. While everything was on fire I was totally focused. It was exhilarating working with something that was destroying itself, constantly having to adjust my intentions and giving in to having the process itself creating the direction of the painting.
The scale quickly increased. I went from working on tiny 20cm by 20cm pieces to huge 1.2m by 2.4m supports.
The areas of flame went from a few square centimetres to expanses that took huge breaths to extinguish. Yes you read that correctly. I was indeed controlling the flames by taking in a huge lungful and blowing out the air. It was only when I started having lung problems that I figured a mask might be advisable. But even then I would take in a huge breath through the mask, remove it and blow.
Amazingly or foolishly, it wasn’t until many years later that I started using a compressor and air gun to extinguish the flames.
I had to figure out a few things in order to develop the process. Firstly oil paint really doesn’t like being set on fire. It tends to boil, destroy itself and is left unstable and frankly a complete mess. So I had to create a brand new paint. It is still an oil paint mixed with wax paste. It is similar to encaustic painting except here all the melting is done on the support.
The wax paste uses white spirit and pure beeswax. I wouldn’t normally use a petrochemical spirit in a paint layer but here it is the main component that burns and is essential to getting the paint mixture on fire. As the spirit burns above the paint layer it melts the additional wax mixture, which blends with the oil paint. This creates all sorts of skins of paint and soot and it’s this that makes these paintings so dynamic.
The paint is solid when cold as are the wax mediums. All the paints are mixed in jars then heated in boiling water. This molten mixture is applied to the painting by dripping, flicking or pouring. More wax medium is added and finally a resin medium. The whole thing is then ignited with a blowtorch.
Once the whole thing is alight, the painting takes off in a new direction.
I guide the blowtorch to intensify the fire and sculpt the flames. I use an extractor and a compressed air gun to move air over the painting, directing flames and smoke before finally extinguishing the flames.
This is a critical moment.
It is essential that all of the paint has melted and blended with earlier paint layers. But there is a fine line between melted paint and boiled paint. If it burns for a fraction of a second too long the whole painting is ruined; a fraction too short and the paint layers will be unstable.
Add to this the heat generated by the process and the next problem is the support. A little too much heat is catastrophic. The primer will lift and the painting is ruined.
This balancing act between creation and destruction is exhilarating. While I’m working I have no room in my head for anything else. I’m calm and I’m creating at a speed and intensity that I simply cannot find with any other way of working.
There is a point with every painting when I know it’s finished. I really struggle to explain how I know. A brief thought flies through my brain telling me not to apply any more paint. The brush and jars are put down and that’s it.
Well not quite. Then I start varnishing. This step too is far from conventional. The initial varnish layer has to be applied immediately and I do mean immediately. A hot wax varnish is sprayed from a heated spray gun. This thinned mixture fixes the soot laid down by the flames. This soot is critical. It gives me almost all the shading and depth. Without it the fire paintings would be a very different beast.
Put simply. Soot is carbon. I manipulate it by adding resins to the paint mixture on the support which then make the flames burin with a a black edge. This leaves a footprint as it touches the painting. It is a delicate dusting of black. The hot varnish helps to fix it to the frame.
At least two or three additional layers of hot varnish are applied over the next couple of hours. With up to ten more over the next few days. Each layer has a slightly different recipe. Gradually increasing the resin content to give a protective layer. The whole process, from priming the original support through to a dry, cured and varnished work takes a minimum of four months, often longer.
The intense period of painting with fire is a very small part of the creation process. These artworks require a huge amount of patience and care. But they are undeniably unique. I don't know of another artist using the same technique. And given how much I still enjoy creating them are definitely worth the effort.