SMOKE PAINTING PROCESS
The idea of smoke as a medium first came to me approximately 12 years ago when I saw a purely random abstract monochrome image which had apparently been created by a plume of smoke. I was taken by its delicacy and free form, ironically it seemed to resemble water more than anything. I was quite excited at the possibilities, particularly of vagueness, something that had always interested me. My first smoke paintings were executed with the thought that the medium was like a fully loaded brush, there was no initial drawing out and it was very much serendipity. I don't want to reveal my working processes in too much detail here, but it is important to explain what smoke is, as a medium. Obviously anything burned or lit will produce smoke, whether this is from paper, rags, a candle, or a blow torch (alla Yves Klein) it really doesn't matter. The vehicle in watercolour painting is water, in oil painting it is linseed oil/turpentine and in the medium of smoke it is air i.e. the particles of carbon are carried by warm rising air to the support (paper, card etc.)
It's more than possible that our prehistoric ancestors may have created some of the first images on cave walls and ceilings with carbon from a basic lamp,and the artist Wolfgang Paalen (1907-1959) used smoke in a cursory fashion to draw images, and used it as a beginning to many of his oil paintings. So why do my smoke paintings strike some people as new? I think drawing and painting media is limited to some extent in some people's minds. Yes there are a few conventional mediums to consider but also there are many unconventional like cigarette burning, sgraffito, etching with acids, drawing with glue etc. A lesser known artist, Chaletain, used a piece of chewed tobacco taken from his mouth to make admirable little drawings; but perhaps the answer lies in a quote by Egon Schiele:
"There is no new art, only new artists".
Smoke as a drawing medium is of course fundamentally flawed - it is tremendously volatile and a line cannot be drawn with it, but perhaps more importantly you can easily ignite your paper and burn down your studio! Smoke is a unique medium that is not drawn, painted, printed, rubbed, flicked, blown or sprayed on - so what could we say - air borne? It can create the most beautiful blacks, that are 'luminous' and have depth to the extent that charcoal is flat and pale next to it. It an also create melting, nebulous edges and a great range of tones to rival those of photography. Of course in my last two statements there is much hidden in them, the role of the artist to control his medium is absolute, and just as in every other medium, skill and experience come into play greatly. Whilst this medium has extensive tonal range, I don't set out to make the smoke painting "like a photograph". Yes obviously I used a photographic image as reference when producing the large heads of Hedy Lamarr, Gene Tierney, Kay Kendall and Amelia Earhart that I showed as part of the Theo Fennell 'Show Off' Exhibition at The Royal Academy recently. But the photograph is only a starting point, a vehicle to make something more interesting hopefully. I suppose I think of the reference photo as a still life to work from - I hope this doesn't sound too pretentious, but it's difficult to describe in other terms. I am not a big fan of photography as an art form in itself, but most artists since its invention (Delacroix and Ingres were some of the first) have recognised its usefulness. And it's difficult for example to imagine Degas' work without its influence.
I think the dullness of photography is very apparent when I photograph my smoke paintings for reference. They revert back to the mechanical bland look of photography. Not only is the scale lost but the physical look of the painting is lost, for example in the darker, denser passages these areas are ever so slightly raised by their nature of having received more smoke. I know I am only talking about a nano millimeter, but the eye is conscious of this. A similar effect might be the slightly raised areas in paint on a painting where the artist has wanted to bring something forward or to create texture - in these areas there will be a prismatic effect of light happening. It's a physical thing and only to be seen in the original. This is completely lost in a reproduction making these areas look as flat as the rest.
When I state here on my website "Creator of the Smoke Painting" I don't at all claim to have made the first mark in history with smoke, as indeed Paalen wasn't the first. I do think in 12 years of experimentation that I have made smoke into a 'serious' and sophisticated medium, with all the properties previously mentioned (and the results of which can be viewed on this website) . I have been able to find a way of fixing the image securely and permanently even in the dense, dark passages of the works. Contrary to what might be said, these areas cannot be fixed with conventional fixative. Each new piece of work I do in smoke is different from the last, this is due in part to the nature of the medium and my experimentation with it, and also my individual approach to the subject. I always look forward to new ventures with this volatile medium.
Copyright Michael Fennell 2010