If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.




Painting with fire

by Linda Wang
July 4, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 27


Artists create works with flare


A painting of an owl created by ignited gunpowder.
Credit: Courtesy of Danny Shervin
Art with a bang: Shervin ignited gunpowder to create this picture of an owl.

Fourth of July celebrations give pyrotechnicians an opportunity to paint the night sky using fireworks. For two artists, fire and its unique chemistry help bring their creative visions to life on the canvas all year round.

Credit: Courtesy of Steven Spazuk
Burning passion: Spazuk’s paintings evoke the fragility of life.
A painting by Steven Spazuk.
Credit: Courtesy of Steven Spazuk
Burning passion: Spazuk’s paintings evoke the fragility of life.

Danny Shervin of Jackson, Wyo., says a “happy accident” about 12 years ago led him to begin painting with gunpowder. “Some friends and I were trying to make rockets using gunpowder as a propellant, and I ended up spilling a bunch on our linoleum tabletop. I moved the gunpowder around into a pattern of a tree, and I burned it into the table.” That experience ignited Shervin’s passion for painting with fire.

Shervin begins each painting by spreading gunpowder into a pattern on a canvas or piece of wood. He then sets the gunpowder on fire to permanently etch the pattern into the material and applies a fixative to finalize the piece. He uses a smokeless gunpowder that creates burn marks but doesn’t burn hot enough to set the canvas on fire. “It’s always a surprise to see how it’s going to burn and what the finished image will look like,” he says.

Using gunpowder is just one approach to painting with fire. Steven Spazuk of Quebec creates his works of art using the flame of a candle. He holds the flame close enough to the canvas that it deposits the soot without burning the material. “What I like about using the flame of a candle is that there’s always a randomness in the shape that I obtain by the smoke,” he says. “It’s like creating clouds.”

Spazuk says this so-called fumage approach to painting came to him in a dream in 2001. “I was dreaming that I was in an art gallery and I was looking at this black-and-white landscape, and in my dream, I knew that the artist had done this landscape with smoke coming from a candle. The morning after, I remembered the dream and I thought I should try it. It was so much fun to paint with fire, and I’ve never stopped since.”

To create details in the soot, he gently scratches off areas in which he wants to create contrast with the shadows. “When I’m drawing birds, I usually scratch off the soot with real bird feathers, so it becomes very realistic,” he says.

Both Shervin and Spazuk draw their inspiration from nature. “For the last year or two, I’ve been working on the fragility of life,” says Spazuk, who is particularly fond of painting birds. “Most of my paintings are about the environment and our place on Earth.” Shervin’s paintings are similarly expressive. “I’ve always had a love for nature and wildlife.”

Linda Wang wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.