Copenhagen on fire 1807 by CW Eckersberg
Observing Fire Before Painting
Painting fire can seem complicated at first. The way in which fire flickers and moves can make it seem intimidating to the novice artist. However, just like with anything else in art, understanding fire, the way it moves and the various gradations of warm color within it, can make it a lot easier.
Start with simple observation. If you have a fireplace at home, turn it on and observe the various colors within the flames. Observe how the flames flicker and dance around each other. Look at the basic shapes of the flames. Observe them and register them in your minds eye. If a fire place seems too intimidating, simply light a candle and observe the shapes in the candle. Start off by practicing drawing the shapes and observe how the shapes change when a little bit of air causes the flame to move slightly.
One tip for your practice which helps is to photograph a flame against a black background. Use the photo as a reference to practice from. The black background highlights the intensity of the fire and makes it easier to paint. When you start off with a dark background, this adds stark contrast which will ensure that you keep the painting focused on the fire and nothing else.
Common shapes in fire include teardrop shapes and tendrils as well as an elliptical or oval shape for the space that the whole fire takes up. This article will focus on a few tips for painting fire which will get you started in the right direction. After that, the best thing you can do is to practice and practice a lot.
Things you Will Need
- Oil paints or acrylic paint in black, red, yellow and white. If you are a beginner, it may be wise to use acrylic.
- A medium sized paint brush.
- An old rag
- Paint thinner for oils or water for acrylics
- Painting surface
Whether you are using oils or acrylics, select your color palette first. Select the color you want for the dark back ground. The darker the better. Choose red and yellow for the flames. Mix varying degrees of red and yellow to get different gradations of orange. You should have at your disposal a very light yellow, which increases in intensity, followed by varying degrees of orange and finally red. If you are using acrylics, you must work fast because acrylics tend to dry quickly. With oils, you don't have to worry about this.
Traditional painting rules dictate that black is simply an absence of color and should therefore never be used in painting. Whether you agree with this or not is up to you, but it is not essential to stick to the rules of fine art. Using fast drying acrylic paint or a watercolor wash, paint the background very dark or black. Cover the whole of your painting surface.
Once the background is dry, select a medium sized old paint brush. Use your reference photo's at this point and make a note of the basic shape of the fire. Notice s shapes and how they join together about a third of the way up the fire. Notice how no two flames within the fire are never the same height.
Select red paint with your brush and load the paint onto it, being sure to get the paint into the brush really well. Starting from the base of the fire, the widest part, place the loaded brush onto the painting surface and press the brush onto the surface. Follow the forms of the brush in a free and light way. Trace the brush up the paper in the shape of the fire. Do not worry about specks of paint getting onto the neat black background. They will end up looking like sparks from the flame.
Wipe off the excess with a rag and repeat the process with orange paint. This time, trace the brush within the edges of the red paint, so that the red is around the edge and most prominent at the top of the fire shape.
Use a rag to wipe the excess orange paint off your brush and select light yellow from your palette. Trace the shape of the flame within the confines of the orange fire shape you just made. Observe the yellow in your reference photo and notice how the lightest yellow part of the flame is located near the base of the fire. Increase the intensity of the yellow by selecting a deeper yellow from your palette and continue tracing the shape of the yellow part of the flame, within the orange part. All the while paying attention to your reference photo. The colors will naturally blend. This is fine.
Add a little white paint to your brush and gently trace the brush in the center of the fire toward the bottom. This is the hottest part of the fire and often looks close to white. You can make this as bright or as dull as you like.
Will you try painting fire now?
Practice painting fire using different reference photos. Once you get comfortable with the very basic technique described here, try shaking things up a little. Try varying degrees of blending to get different effects. Use reference photo's with more detailed backgrounds or more violent fires. Try painting fire from life, maybe a log fire in hour house or a simple candle flame.
Warren Harvey on March 30, 2020:
Great tutorial - many other tutorials seem to have the flame colours in reverse eg: yellow at the top - red at the bottom, whereas this not really how flames are. Having said that, I think generally painting flames is much like painting clouds...they tend to follow any shape you can imagine.
adam evans on July 23, 2014:
@adelaidewrites Thanks for all the details, your post really compliments well with this video that I found while searching for how to paint fire: http://www.jerrysartarama.com/art-lessons/Artists/... Thanks for both of you. :)
Adelaide Damoah (author) from Kent on February 26, 2013:
Thanks very much! I actually don't use acrylics very much either. Much prefer oils, but I think they work well for beginners who want to get more comfortable with painting.
David Steffy from Southern Ohio on February 26, 2013:
Interesting. Very detailed account of a simple way to look at painting fire. I like it. I don't use acrylics though but I have in the past. I like the works of Brenda Harris and would someday like to experiment with acrylics while trying some of her techniques. Voted up and useful.