Fire painter turns copper into canvas

Colin Flanagan has done what few artists have achieved since prehistoric man rendered line drawings of horned animals on the cave walls at Lascaux,…

Colin Flanagan has done what few artists have achieved since prehistoric man rendered line drawings of horned animals on the cave walls at Lascaux, France — he has invented a new medium.

Flanagan is a painter of sorts. He coaxes delicate colours from sheets of pure copper with a roaring, blue-flamed propane torch.

He calls it fire painting.

Although craftspeople have been pulling colours from copper for decades, Flanagan has searched high and low and hasn’t found another artist who pushes the boundaries as far as he does — he renders complex figures in the metal.

“Don’t be afraid; it’s certainly safe,” he says as he sparks his torch during a demonstration Tuesday evening in the Arts Underground studio.

“There’s no special skill involved; anyone can do this,” he says spraying fire on to a shiny sheet of copper.

As the fire warms and burns the metal’s oxide coating, rich colours blossom across its surface — changing its tint from red to purple to a deep indigo blue.

“The colour of the actual copper doesn’t change at all,” he says. “What you’re dealing with is a layer of oxides on the surface that change the way they refract light when they heat up. 

“You often see these colours in ugly things, like oil in a puddle of water, but there’s so much beauty in them. They heal my eyes, in a way.”

He’s dubbed the coloured explosions “blooms.”

Flanagan, now 27, has been perfecting his art over the past five years.

He uses large sheets of 12-ounce copper, and, because they run more than $150 apiece, Flanagan reuses them, layering image over image.

It’s about incarnation and reincarnation, he says.

“It’s nice to think that under this picture is a self-portrait of me,” he says pointing to a brightly coloured portrait of a young woman.

What a viewer sees depends on where they stand. Activated by sunlight, the pieces change depending on how the light reflects and refracts off of their surface, he says.

It’s like painting with light.

“The first time I activated a piece in my studio it brought shivers down my spine.”

Fire painting is all about control.

“We just have to learn how to tame it — to tame the fire, so to speak.”

The fun of inventing a new medium is experimentation.

After a year of painting with the torch, Flanagan got the idea to change the colour of the whole sheet by baking it.

So now, much like a painter primes a canvas with gesso, Flanagan ‘primes’ his sheets by putting them in the oven at 400 degrees Celsius.

After about an hour and a few colour changes, the sheet emerges from the oven a deep grey. He uses etching and graded sandpaper to bring out the highlights.

Flanagan is circumspect about his artistic achievements.

He demonstrates how he can create most of the colours of the spectrum using just the flame — for the others, the deep blacks and the greens — he uses liquid patinas.

The green patina is similar to the colour copper turns after it weathers, like the colour of the Statue of Liberty or the roofs of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa.

Many of Flanagan’s images are figurative.

The human form is one of the most challenging things to depict, which is why Flanagan is tackling it head-on to prove his medium.

His aim is to produce colours and shading as delicate and lifelike as those from more traditional mediums, like paints or pastels.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of the masters to see into the unknown,” says Flanagan poetically.

“Artists are like father figures to me — I’ll be drawing something and I’ll ask myself: ‘What would Degas think of this?’ It’s like holding hands across time.”

Flanagan’s interest in the metallic arts began as a child in BC.

He used to watch his grandfather weld copper pipes together.

The vibrant colours made by the torch’s heat imprinted in his mind.

Years later Flanagan discovered his knack for drawing and made some coin drawing portraits on the streets of Galway, Ireland, before returning to Canada and enrolling in art school at Malaspina University-College on Vancouver Island.

Flanagan went to school to further his skills in classically depicting forms.

“I wanted to learn the rules of drawing before I threw them away,” he says.

But he butted heads with instructors who were intent on teaching abstraction, so he quit.

“We were pasting things to canvas and indiscriminately throwing paint on the canvas and then talking it up — it made me feel like a fake,” he says.

“I decided I would bring classical figure work to every critique and there was no end to the conflict.”

When Flanagan brought his early coppers to class, the feedback became more negative.

“It was terrible. The instructor said I used cheap and unorthodox materials and it was absolutely not the assignment.”

But out of every so-called failure came success for Flanagan.

After quitting school, he opened his own studio in Nanaimo, BC, and sold out his first solo show.

Soon, Flanagan moved to the Yukon with the seed of an idea — and a few copper prototypes.

He has spent the past two and a half months at the Ted Harrison artist retreat cabin at Crag Lake working on wall-sized figurative fire colours — and honing his technique into a medium.

Seclusion is necessary for an artist, says Flanagan, who refers to himself as a bit of a recluse.

In the meantime, he’s painting murals throughout Whitehorse to support his newfound medium.

Arriving here, he saw potential on all the city’s empty walls.

“On my first day here, I saw some of the murals and I said, ‘I could do that’ and I had a vision that I could cover all the buildings in town.”

“I’ll paint the whole town, if they let me,” he adds with a smile.

Over the past two years, he has completed a figurative mural for Dana Naye Ventures; painted the musher heading into a red sunset on the side of the Chocolate Claim; depicted historical radio personalities on side of the CBC building and famous Irishmen on the walls of Shenanigan’s Pub.

Flanagan sketches out an idea for a mural, then approaches local businesses with a digital representation of what the image would look like superimposed on their building.

“That usually sells them,” he says.

Now, Flanagan plans to bring the local murals to a world-class level and has his sights set on the broad walls at Yukon College.

He isn’t overly proud of the murals, but they pay the bills, he says.

“This is all part of a larger plan.”

Flanagan hopes the new fire-colour medium will catch on internationally.

He is hosting an open studio at Crag Lake January 28 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. He hopes to show his coppers at a Whitehorse gallery in the spring before taking them to Victoria for exhibition.