Friday, 3 August 2012

The Fire in my Oil Painting Looks like a Red Ribbon

Painting fire presents challenges in what pigments and art techniques to use for its ethereal quality. In truth not all flames are merely red or yellow or appear solid. What are the best colours to capture a scene featuring a fire in art?

Problems with Painting Fire

The notion that fire is merely a bright colour can result in a childish depiction of flames in a painting. Bonfires, candlelight and a log fire will all appear different. The following painting practices can result in an unconvincing portrayal of fire.

How to Paint Fire Rachel Shirley
Reaching for any red or yellow colour to express the colour of flames, regardless of how it actually looks

Treating fire as a solid entity with opaque colours.

Giving harsh outlines to the fire, resulting in a cardboard cutout impression of fire
An insistence to make fire stand out within a daytime scene, even though the flames may not actually appear so bright in context, resulting in an overly garish impression of fire.
Using a red or orange colour that is actually darker in hue than the surrounding colours.

How to Paint Fire

Fire is not always red yellow or gold. Depending upon the nature of the fire, can be many colours. Consider the following when painting fire.

A lone candle flame will appear very different to a large bonfire. The former will often appear golden-yellow or burnished in hue; the latter a smouldering orange or crimson. The tones within will also shift in different ways.
Fire can often contain the most unlikely colours such as violet, blues, greens and even browns.
The size of the fire as well as the materials being burned will have an impact upon the appearance of the hues and the tonal shifts to be expressed. In other words, no one set of colours of art technique will fit every type of fire.

Tips on Painting Fire

Although nothing can replace honest observation, there are things the artist can do to avoid the pitfalls of painting fire, such as the following:

Remember to consider fire in context of its surrounding and lighting conditions. Because it is inherently bright, it will appear almost blinding in a darkened room, but almost indecipherable on a bright sunny day.

Fire will usually appear brightest at its core in that the lightest tones will be observed at its heart.

Flames are not merely attached to the object under combustion, but appear to hover slightly above it.

Fire will not exhibit harsh outlines, but ghostlike formations that appear to ‘fade’ abruptly on its outer reaches.

Cooler colours will often be apparent above or away from the heart of the flame, such as crimsons, blues or violets.

How to Photograph Fire

Fire can be a tricky subject matter to paint, rather like reflections or mist, which has little definite outlines and doesn’t adhere to the rules of solid objects. The following art techniques might help when painting fire.

As fire is constantly in flux, it might be best to work from photos. Take several to be sure of getting at least one good one. Try doing so in the dark, so the fire will be easier to see. Set the camera on fast setting to prevent blurring of the fire pictures. Take a light reading from the flame itself rather than the background or the fire will appear merely as a white smudge, revealing little of the detail within. Take separate light readings of the background if this is also vital to the painting. This means you will have 2 sets of photos: those of the fire and those of the background. The two can then be combined in the painting.

Art Techniques for Painting Fire

Rather than take photos of flames in isolation, place objects nearby to create some ambience. Objects with interesting contours will appear dramatic when placed near a candle in a darkened room. Examples might be a person’s face, a Roman bust or an ornament.

Use a similar colour palette on the candlelit object as for the flame itself. This will give the painting some coherence.

Bright colours on a white background will appear tarnished or dull, making it difficult to key in the tones of the flames. To counter this problem, apply a thin wash of a neutral colour over the art surface first, so that the bright colours will be immediately appreciated. Diluted acrylic paint will dry quicker. Such an underglaze is also known as an imprimatura and any colour can be used to set the mood.

Work on the background of the painting before the flames, working just up to (but not too close to) the outline of the flames. Working thinly around this area will prevent colour contamination when it comes to applying the bright, clean colours of the fire. Knit the two areas together with a clean soft brush once the dark colours and the bright colours have been applied. Use 2 separate art brushes for both tones to prevent continually cleaning the brushes to mix different colours.

Art Techniques for Painting Fire

Setting the scene for the fire is half the battle. A dramatically-lit object in a darkened room will help make the fire appear more convincing. Paint the shaded background area first and then the brightest colours last, which will be the highlights of the object and the flame itself. I use the following colours for painting fire (in order of prevalence): white, lemon yellow, cadmium yellow (pale) permanent rose, cadmium red, ultramarine, pthalo blue and burnt sienna. Useful others are: burnt umber, carmine red, alizarin crimson and viridian.

Observe the colour temperature of the fire (different to the actual temperature of the fire). A little cadmium yellow (pale) or burnt sienna will make the fire appear warm in hue. Adding a dab of crimson will cool the colour a little. Adding a little violet will cool it further, regardless of the tonality of the fire.

Look out for cooler colours on the outer reaches of the fire. Ultramarine, pthalo blue, permanent rose or burnt umber might be in order here.

Observe how the colour shifts in the fire. It might be white to cream-to-violet, with no orange to be seen, or it might be gold-to-blue.

Work the paint in the direction of the flames’ growth, i.e. upwards. Allow the paint to glide over the art surface to suggest the strands of the flames.

Oil Painting Techniques for Fire

Don’t end the colour abruptly. Blend a little of the flame colour into the background colour to reinforce the ghostly quality of the fire. Move a clean, dry brush upwards. If an unwanted colour stains the bristles use another clean brush.

Look at how the fire blends out into the background which might be different at various points of the fire. A smooth glow might be apparent in the centre, yet more defined structures can be seen on the outer reaches. Does the fire radiate straight upwards, or does it corkscrew?

Different elements and materials will generate different hues in the fire, some of which might be green, violet or bright blue.

Look out for sparks in the flame. Apply these last, dabbing the paint neat from a fine brush.

Fire in Art

Fire is not always easy to paint for its ghostly quality. Due to its constant flux, consider taking several photos to work from. Take light readings from both the flame and the background to garner 2 sets of photos that reveal elements of each. Applying a dark underglaze first will make adding a bright colour on top easier to key in tonally. Set the scene before painting the fire. Dispel idealised notions about fire such as it is always red or yellow. Some fires will display neither. Look at how the colours and the tones shift within. Move the paint in the direction of the flames’ growth and apply detail on the flames lastly in the painting. Remember to look at how the fire looks in context, as it will appear blinding in a darkened room, yet a similar tone to the surroundings within bright daylight.

Advice on Painting Bright Coloured Objects

How to paint gold
How to paint silver
Sunset painting demonstration
Anatomy of yellow

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