Smoke Plumes

Nachusa Grasslands, Illinois
March 26, 2019
Oil on canvas
12 x 16 in. (30.5 x 40.6 cm)

Private collection

From Picturing the Prairie, A Vision of Restoration:

Frequent, widespread fires caused by humans and lightning prevented the presettlement tallgrass prairie from transitioning to forest. Today, prescribed burning maintains the ecological integrity at Nachusa Grasslands and other prairie preserves. It is both a sublime phenomenon to observe and an exciting challenge to paint, requiring a bit more preparation than my other subjects. I ensure my safety by staying current on my wildland firefighter training and maintaining a good rapport with the burn crew.

With the permission and guidance of The Nature Conservancy’s Bill Kleiman, I tagged along with Nachusa’s fire crew on several burns during the 2018-2019 burn season, exploring the aesthetics of prairie fire through field painting. By focusing on the atmospheric effects of flame and smoke in the prairie’s dormant season I was able to capture something of the compelling aesthetic experience known to prescribed fire practitioners. Due to the dynamic nature of the subjects, all the paintings were done very quickly, with brushstrokes more gestural than I usually employ. That was particularly true of the several small studies made close to the flame front. There was less urgency when the front was at a distance, but even distant smoke plumes, pictured here, changed rapidly. By the time I started a second painting on this location, Receding Flame Front, the foreground had been entirely transformed.

Two paintings that were completed one right after the other, Flame Front Arriving and Flame Front Departing, illustrate one of my favorite field painting experiences. First, I worked from the “green,” staying about a hundred feet ahead of the wind-driven flame front, with all my gear on my back or on the easel. Then, after stepping over the diminished flames when the wind dropped (wearing fire-resistant boots and Nomex clothing), I switched canvases and painted from the smoldering “black,” following behind the flames. I moved my easel about a dozen times over a few hundred yards to finish both paintings. A small dirt road served as a handy escape route should I have needed it, a level of safety practiced while painting all of the works in my series from Nachusa.

Painted on location.

Publication History