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I was enjoying a coffee and spreadsheeting (yes, I love spreadsheets) at Popovers, a café in downtown Portsmouth, when out of the corner of my eye I saw smoke curling up against a bright blue sky. At the same time, I saw the telltale signs of something going down—the domino effect of one person, then two, then large groups stopping, turning, and pointing. I swallowed the inner voice that said, “You’re too cool to be a gawker” and quickly packed up my bags to follow the smoke (and shamelessly snapped a picture along the way).


I was able to worm my way into the alcove of a shop entrance and pull out my sketch book. I think this is the first sketch I’ve done standing up. It wasn’t easy, but it was made a little easier by my bike, which I was able to somewhat lean against. I took a few reference photos:

Blog - Fire

There were a lot of emergency vehicles and plenty of action scenes to capture. I settled on the ladder trucks—I liked the challenge of perspective. I sketched the scene on site and then left the crowds and finished the painting back at home that same day.


I played a lot with shadows on the ladder trucks, trying to show the reflections of light in the windows of the trucks, as well as capture the darker shadow side of the trucks (and their shadows on the street).

To create the smoke coming out of the roof, I first painted the sky and then dropped in a dark ultramarine/burnt umber mix wet on wet to form a background haze of smoke. After that had dried, I added some more of the mix to get the hard lines that create the billowing effect.

As always, after finishing I noticed a few details that I would have liked to have done differently. The firefighter on the roof is walking away from the fire and out of the painting. While that’s likely what he was doing when I sketched him, it would have made for a better composition to have him walking into the painting and toward the fire. Another similar detail is the firefighter descending the ladder (Ellen thought he was ascending with some very strange arm and leg angles). Again, he was actually descending as I sketched, but a much more interesting painting would have had him moving toward the fire. As it is, two of my three firefighters near the fire are moving away from it—not how you want to portray firefighters!

This happened about 4 months ago, and the residents and businesses in this building are still displaced while the building is being cleaned up and renovated. I’m not sure how I feel about portraying a serious event like this (thankfully no one was hurt!) in my slightly whimsical style. The juxtaposition of my style with the seriousness of a fire leaves me feeling curious about this issue. I’d love to hear what others think about it.