Love of detail brings artist to firepainting

Lincoln City artist Cynthia Longhat-Adams is a firepainter, using a burning pen in a slow process that covers about an inch an hour. This puffin was a resident of the Oregon Coast Aquarium when Longhat-Adams created this image with a burning pen. Detail is vitally important to fire painter Longhat-Adams of Lincoln City. Cynthia Longhat-Adams paints with pyrographic methods — i.e., with fire. In this piece, she used milk on the canvas and a torch to burn the milk.

Cynthia Longhat-Adams has been devoted to drawing and sketching for years, but she found a home with firepainting — a medium that sounds counterintuitive but allows the artist to create the detail she craves.

“I’ve had my hands in many things — from a very young age, I’ve been a creator,” she said, describing herself as a self-learned multimedia artist and a creator of things. “Through that process, I became familiar with wood-burning tools and was introduced to a burning pen around 2000 or 2001. It was adjustable and temperature controlled — not hot, not clunky. I loved it right away.”

Now she creates through a slow burning of wood or paper. “I work with a low temperature and build my burn up to create photo-realistic paintings,” she explained.

Longhat-Adams said it took her five or six years to develop her skill with the burning pen, but found using it to be much like drawing. “That’s very important to me,” she noted.

While many people use a variety of tips on a burning pen, she has found that a 1/8-inch tip does everything she needs — “all my background, all my detail,” she said. “I found that the techniques of drawing with a burning pen are very much like using a pencil.

“Drawing is my thing, which is probably why I took to the burning pen so well. It’s very much like drawing,” she explained. “It took me ‘til I was almost 50 to discover it.”

A master scrimshander, she keeps returning to her love of detail. “I appreciate impressionistic work and think it would be nice to be able to create something faster, but I finally realized I like detail and photorealism,” she said. “The image comes to life.”

Longhat-Adams said it takes her up to two months to create one piece. These days she works mostly on 100 percent cotton paper, commonly used for watercolor painting. She also continues to work on wood.

While it sounds counterintuitive to burn paper, Longhat-Adams said 100 percent cotton paper burns dark and does not flake. “Wood and paper burn differently,” she explained. “I get much more contrast with paper.”

Her choice of subject, often taken from a photograph, determines whether she firepaints on wood or cotton paper, but she sees herself moving away from wood. “Paper has the ability to change the way I paint with fire. Instead of using a pen and burning tool, lately I’ve been painting the cotton paper with milk,” she said.

That was a discovery she made by accident, recalling that several years ago, upset about something in her personal life, she was crying while she worked and found splatters of tears on her paper. She talked with a carver, who described painting her whole canvas with milk because it burns faster, and Longhat-Adams decided to experiment with milk herself. “I found it was amazing,” she said.

“I turn the milk into carbon material — milk burns before the paper does,” she said. “It helps me get away from detail and is much faster.”

Longhat-Adams is part Native American and was raised in California. She uses her maternal indigenous ancestral name as a Longhat in her art.

She moved to Oregon in 1983 and to Lincoln County in 2014. She now lives in Lincoln City and has a studio in Depoe Bay.

“When I moved to Oregon, I started out in Silverton, then spent 18 years in Grand Ronde working at the (Spirit Mountain) casino, then gradually moved in this direction,” she said of the coast. “I love it, and I’m glad to be here. About 10 years ago, the coast started pulling me, and my art started generating interest here. This medium is small, so it’s easy to move — you set up a table, and you’re ready to go.”

Longhat-Adams said she loves to solve problems, something often reflected in her choice of subject. She learned to solve problems from her mother, she said, noting her mother could fix anything, whether overhauling a car or repairing a toaster.

“She gave me the gift of innovation from the time I was about 6,” she said.

Longhat-Adams recalled that her mother was working on a painting about the size of a postcard but did not have the right size brush. Instead, she chewed a toothpick into a paintbrush.

That captured Longhat-Adams’ imagination.

“From then on, I was involved with art,” she said. “I started drawing at a young age, and my mom showed me how to shade when I was still coloring with Crayolas.”

Firepainting is an ancient medium, harkening back to poking a stick into a fire and using it to burn a picture on wood. But it’s only in the 21st century that firepainting has been recognized as fine art, Longhat-Adams said, adding that she prefers to call her work firepainting rather than pyrography, which literally means fire writing.

These days she adds color to her work, although she notes that some pyrography purists shun its use. How she adds color depends on the medium she is using as her canvas. She will use colored pencil or ink on wood, but on watercolor paper, she naturally turns to watercolors. 

Among her favorite subjects are birds. “They’re always challenging,” she said. “Every pose, situation and scene is a challenge, and they are lots of fun. And birds are such a part of our coastal culture.”

Longhat-Adams said she grew up in trauma, leading to her drive for perfection. “Now I just try for excellence, as perfection is impossible,” she said. “I can now appreciate my childhood for having made me who I am.

“The need for perfection was really important to me when I started drawing,” she added. “In my 30s, I realized the search for perfection was destructive — it was striving for the unattainable — and now I can appreciate that I don’t have to do that in my real life, but can appreciate photorealism in a better way.”

She finds it interesting that people viewing her work are never sure what medium they are seeing. “They have no idea that it’s burned. They often think they’re looking at a photograph,” she said. “Working with fire is just another painting medium, changing the composition of paper into carbon, with color added after the fact.”

And her venture into firepainting almost two decades ago hasn’t wavered. “I knew I wanted to focus with fire, so I did,” she said. “It’s paid off really well.”

Longhat-Adams is a member of the Artists Studio Association in Lincoln City and has shown her work in its Beachstone Gallery. She is also a member of the Coastal Carvers and is a regular demonstrator at its shows — canceled this year because of COVID-19. Her webpage is: twospiritcreations.com.

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Lincoln City artist Cynthia Longhat-Adams is a firepainter, using a burning pen in a slow process that covers about an inch an hour. This puffin was a resident of the Oregon Coast Aquarium when Longhat-Adams created this image with a burning pen. Detail is vitally important to fire painter Longhat-Adams of Lincoln City. Cynthia Longhat-Adams paints with pyrographic methods — i.e., with fire. In this piece, she used milk on the canvas and a torch to burn the milk.