Zach Aronson might be the only artist in the world who paints with blowtorches.
He came up with the idea for his pyrography (writing with fire) several years ago when he was a student at CalArts. One day he forgot to bring paper to class and, after wandering around for a while, found a piece of wood. He did a charcoal drawing of eyes on it and really liked the way it looked, so he continued to use wood. He experimented with different media, like fire and pencils, but then at some point he starting working only with fire.
My favorite thing about working with fire is the idea of using a traditionally destructive element to make something new and beautiful.
Aronson uses sandpaper to create different tones, but his main tools are two blowtorches:
If I have a blowtorch, the hottest point is the tip, the blue part of the flame that’ll burn the fastest. But if I hold the torch even closer to the wood, that flame splits into two parallel fine lines, which are very useful for doing detail work like strands of hair or eyelashes.
His work resonated with many passerbys on the Venice Boardwalk. From a distance they really look like charcoal drawings. The paintings are so huge that it’s hard not to stop and stare. He’s got seven birch plywood panels he’s painting on that are eight-feet tall by two-feet wide
Aronson has done some mural work, installations and theater set design, but most of his income comes from commissioned portraits. Prices for his work can go from $150 to over $7,000, depending on size.
He also creates work at events such as art walks, private galas and parties. A hallmark of his process is that he only works with live models. He loves interacting with his subjects and feeds off the energy of the crowds that gather to watch him.
I actually sometimes feel more stressed working when no one's there … that energy, that excitement that builds up [at an event] inspires me.
Miraculously, during all those live events, Aronson says he’s never burned himself nor started a fire. He insists his technique is totally safe:
I've done many art walks and festivals and live events with hundreds of people and frequently have had fire marshals come up to me but, once they see my technique, no one's ever had an issue with me doing that.
Wood selection is key to Aronson’s process. He uses redwood, white oak, birch and pine. Each has distinct qualities. After selecting a type of wood, he then chooses each individual piece for the particular wood grain itself. Oftentimes he works that natural texture into the composition of his piece.
I sort of think of my process as a collaboration with nature. I’ve always considered my pyrographs half-finished before I’ve begun just looking at the wood grain.
Aronson wasn’t a pyromaniac growing up. For him it’s not about the wow! factor or the cool edginess of fire. In fact, he’s a really calm, quiet kind of person, totally opposite from the fire breathers and eccentric circus acts you normally think of who work with flames.
I don't work with fire because I love watching things burn. I think of my process as repurposing fire, [which] gets a bad rap. Honestly, everyone talks about it burning me or setting fires or whatnot and I just think it's beautiful … if used properly.
For more on Aronson's work, check out his website.