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How to Paint with Candle Smoke

Updated on December 1, 2016
The soot produced by lit candles can produce some interesting shapes on canvas.
The soot produced by lit candles can produce some interesting shapes on canvas. | Source

What Is Painting with Candle Smoke

Painting with smoke or fumage is a technique whereby the practitioner uses the smoke from a lit candle to create images on canvas or a piece of paper. The technique is thought to have been invented and popularised by Austrian-Mexican artist Wolfgang Paalen. One of the most famous practitioners of fumage was Salvador Dali. He coined the term “sfumage.” The technique can be used alone or in combination with traditional painting techniques to add more form and meaning to the images created. The images produced are often more delicate, intricate and interesting than anything that could be produced using charcoal alone. The effects can be stunning and very interesting. Below is a description of one way of painting with smoke.

Things You Will Need:

  • Fire extinguisher
  • Candles of varying thickness’s
  • Practice canvas or surface
  • A canvas on which to work—(If you are using paper, this should be 100lb or more. Illustration board can be used if gessoed. Wood can also be used.)
  • Fixative—(Fixatives used for charcoal or pencil drawings are appropriate, and may be purchased at your local art supply store).
  • Matches/lighter
  • Flame retardant floor covering/work bench
  • Bowl of water
  • Damp cloth
  • Candle holder with a good ledge to catch falling melted wax

Prep and Prepare Your Work Surface

It is important to ensure your work surface is prepared adequately.
It is important to ensure your work surface is prepared adequately. | Source

Prep and Prepare Your Surface

Paint your canvas surface with Gesso primer if you are using illustration or bristol board. Gesso is an acrylic primer which when painted onto surfaces, makes them more receptive when mediums such as paint and in this case the carbon from smoke, are applied. At this point, also prepare any other surfaces you want to try the real thing on. Allow the Gesso to dry thoroughly before proceeding further. Ensure your work area is safe and only work on a fire retardant floor or work bench.

Try Different Candle Sizes

Try out the different candle sizes to see which one produces the smoke effects which you find most pleasing on your practice canvas first. The thinner the candle, the more delicate and transparent the resulting images will be. The thicker the candle, the more smoke is produced and the darker the resulting images will be. Very thick candles can fill in areas of the canvas very quickly.

Light the first candle and place it in the candle holder on top of the flame retardant work bench. If at all possible, suspend the canvas so that you can have both hands free to move the candle around underneath. If this is not possible, use a small canvas and hold it in your non dominant hand so that you are looking up at it. Use your dominant hand to hold and guide the candle.

Experiment to Create Different Effects

Hold the painting surface just over the lit candle, so that the flame is very close to the surface. Do not hold it there, guide the candle underneath the surface in varying directions. You will soon see dark shapes comprised of soot begin to form on the painting surface. This is what you want.

Continue and move the candle in different directions and at different speeds. Note the effects you see when you move the candle slowly as opposed to quickly. Tilt the canvas at different angles over the flame and note the effects. When you hold the canvas directly over the candle, so that the flame is perpendicular to the surface of the canvas, you will notice that you get a perfect circle on the canvas. Vary the distance between the candle and the canvas. The closer the candle is to the canvas, the darker the soot. The further away the candle is from the canvas, the lighter the soot.

Keep experimenting until you are comfortable with the effects that your movements produce before moving on to a more serious project. Once you have enough different shapes on the canvas to satisfy your eye, experiment with brushes and your fingers. Use your fingers and brushes to drag out the edges of the smoke patterns to produce varied and interesting effects.

Fix the Image in Place

Once you are happy with the smoke image you have on the canvas, fix it in place using a fixative spray. The most suitable fixative for this type of project is charcoal fixative spray.

Examples of Candle Smoke Paintings

Lessons from an Alchemist: Size: 48" x 38" (122cm x 97cm) Medium: Fumage & Oil on canvas
Lessons from an Alchemist: Size: 48" x 38" (122cm x 97cm) Medium: Fumage & Oil on canvas | Source
 Astros and Actual Time: Size: 22" x 30" (56cm x 76cm) Medium: Fumage, Gouache and Color Pencil on Paper
Astros and Actual Time: Size: 22" x 30" (56cm x 76cm) Medium: Fumage, Gouache and Color Pencil on Paper | Source

Turning It into Art

Depending on how the image turns out, you can either leave it as is or take it further by emphasising the shapes and images with oil paints or acrylics. Some artists use charcoal and oil pastels. Use whatever medium suits you best to enhance your smoke painting. It does not really matter when you apply the fixative spray. It can be applied before or after you have completed the piece with paint.

Paalen was well known for using candle smoke as the starting point and catalyst for his paintings, often adding many layers of oil paint around the images he created with smoke.

Warnings

  • Keep your fixative spray away from any lit flames. Do not use it when you have candles lit.
  • Spray fixative in well-ventilated areas only.
  • Ensure there are no flammable items close to the work area.
  • Always keep your eyes on the surface of the canvas and the candle so that you can monitor the situation. If you hold the candle too close to the canvas, you could burn it or cause it to catch fire. This is easily prevented by being extra careful and vigilant at all times.
  • Do not hold the candle in the same position on the canvas for long periods of time to prevent scorching.
  • If you are a child under the age of 18, do not try using this technique without close adult supervision.

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    • profile image

      festus 6 weeks ago

      Great!! Thanks a million.

    • btrbell profile image

      Randi Benlulu 4 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Very interesting. So many different mediums to consider!

    • adelaidewrites profile image
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      Adelaide Damoah 4 years ago from Kent

      Thanks very much!!

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      a unique article. Haven't heard of smoke painting. Looks dangerous but worth to try out. Voted awesome