An Afternoon Spent Getting My Portrait Painted with Fire: Zachary Aronson
Say the words “blow torch” or “flame thrower” to someone, and many people will think of Ripley’s epic battle with the queen in the movie Aliens. While I admired how Sigourney Weaver threw around some serious firepower in that scene and stood up for women everywhere, I couldn’t help but feel some trepidation when I asked Zachary Aronson to paint my portrait in my own home. He wouldn’t be using oil paints or even a pencil. Instead, he would use fire to create a lifelike, 8-foot portrait of me on a mahogany panel. This was not going to be your run-of-the-mill 1800s portrait.
Zach is the only artist in the world who paints portraits using blow torches and flame throwers, and he is literally pioneering a new art form. He has been refining his craft since his days as an art student at USC, where he one day forgot to bring paper to an art class and had to improvise with a piece of wood he found. Ever since then, he has been developing his ability to paint with fire, and as word has gotten out about his unique talent, he has shown his work in art galleries, done live events, and painted inside of people’s homes.
Even with this impressive background, I admit that when Zach arrived to set up for our session, I hovered over him, watching for anything that could set my living room on fire and burn the whole place down. Zach, however, knew what he was doing and had the setup down to a science. “Small torches are safe even indoors,” he explained, carefully placing the panel in a well-lighted area. “You’ll be surprised to know how difficult it is to start a fire with this. It doesn’t create that much smoke, and it won’t set off any alarms.” He smiled a little and pointed to a reassuring object off to the side. “I do, though, have an extinguisher, just for peace of mind. Even fire marshals know how safe this is.”
That eased my mind, and I relaxed, letting Zach tell me how to stand for the portrait. I remembered seeing the Mona Lisa once in Paris, with her stoic pose, and I was secretly dreading that I would have to hold a quill or something silly like that. Thankfully, Zach told me that this would be a very relaxed session. “Just be yourself and talk to me,” he advised. He spotted my piano off to the side. “How long have you been playing the piano?”
As I talked with Zach about my love affair with music, he got to work. I have to admit it was fascinating. At first I couldn’t tell anything – it seemed like he was just lightly charring the wood. As our conversation progressed from the piano to the worst 80s movies ever made (something we had fun debating), the dark blob on the wood slowly evolved. Sometimes I forgot to talk because I was so intrigued when I saw an eyelash or the iris of my left eye suddenly emerge. I pestered him with a thousand questions, which Zach never minded answering.
“This is technically a charcoal drawing,” he said, expertly outlining my chin. “I am turning the wood into charcoal, so if you leave it in the sun, it will fade. You are going to need to dust this, but you can also encase it in glass to protect it. If you take care of it, that shouldn’t be necessary.”
The time passed quickly. I got to move around a little, so I never had to be Mona Lisa. Zach was a great conversationalist, and in only one afternoon, my portrait was done. As he stepped back and we both looked at his work, I could sense his deep satisfaction. It was truly gorgeous, and, curious, I asked him what he was thinking at that moment, knowing that he had created this.
“Honestly, I am thinking about how beautiful fire is,” he said. “I have such a synergy with it. Apart, fire is destructive and burns down forests and homes like this.” We both laughed at that, remembering my initial nervousness. “I myself am an artist, but without a medium, I have no way to express what’s inside of me.”
Zach paused, searching for the right words, then continued. “But, you put the two of us together, and this is what comes out. My hands plus fire can create this, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of learning what this medium can do.”
Later that night, long after Zach had left, I studied the portrait, marveling at its complexities. I agreed with Zach: the world is only beginning to learn how fire can create instead of destroy, and Zach will take that knowledge deeper and deeper.
For more information on Zachary Aronson and his ability to paint portraits using only fire, please see: