This is a portrait of Sir Roger Norrington created by Michael Fennel using just smoke. Not charcoal, not ashes, no fingers, no brushes — just actual smoke coming from a flame, pushing carbon particles into the air until they get stuck to the canvas.
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.
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.)
This image shows a glimpse of his process.
Looking at his work, it seems that he burns stuff under a panel that is positioned horizontally. The smoke particles then gets stuck on the panel, wood that is probably treated with some finishing material, like gesso. That’s an additive process, in which he keeps adding layers of smoke until he gets what he wants, but there’s more. Like the fine detail of the highlights. I assume he uses a subtracting technique, just cleaning smoke using some liquid or perhaps scrapping off some of it.
Fennel is not the first artist to use smoke, but he seems to be the one with the tightest command of this difficult medium. He explains that the nature of smoke gives the image a truly unique nature:
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.
He claims that photography makes his drawing look flat, as “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.”
His paintings are not large at all, which adds to the difficulty of getting these results. This Amelia Earheart, for example, is just one meter (3.2 feet) tall:
tHere’s a video of his work, which sadly doesn’t show him drawing.