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What is Fumage? The Magic of Painting With Fire and Soot

Steven Spazuk uses this technique to create smoky, haunting images.


Chickadees on a violin #spazuk #fumage #blackcarbon #harmony #musique #art #sooninboston

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When it comes to art, one thing is true: anything is possible — even painting with fire. The mesmerizing technique, which involves using the soot from a flame to create an image is called fumage, and it's Canadian artist Steven Spazuk's specialty.


A quick scroll through his Instagram will leave you questioning everything you thought you knew about the natural element. How does the paper not erupt in flames? Why did he choose this medium? These were all questions we asked ourselves before catching up with the talented craftsman, where he was happy to unveil the inspiration behind what he calls "smokey, figurative, and engaged art."


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Cardinal #soot #spazuk #birdsofinstagram #cardinals #fumage #fineart

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In a collaboration video with the popular lighter brand Zippo, Steven mentions that the idea of working with fire came to him in a dream. However, he told us, the process has been around for quite some time. "They say in art books that [fumage] was introduced in 1936 by the surrealist movement, but I say it was used way before that by cavemen... I mostly use it to talk about life's fragility." In this technique, impressions are made using the smoke of an open flame such as a candle, match, or kerosene lamp on a piece of paper or canvas.



Sold yesterday at Papier #contemporaryartfair thank you new partners @station16

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There's a kind of spiritual element to watching him work, moving the flame around a blank canvas, creating a masterpiece out of charred residue. And so it feels sort of perfect that Steven uses his craft to raise awareness for global and environmental issues. His work often highlights endangered species like African elephants and rhinos and, like a genius metaphor, exposes the "fragility" of our ecosystems via a common pollutant — soot.


But just like the Earth, that soot is fragile, Steven said. One wrong move can create unwanted marks. Say, for instance, he wants to remove dust and blows on the thick canvas, if he accidentally spits (which can sometimes happen), a trail of white spots will be left behind. Basically, proceed with caution!


Besides manning the various challenges associated with working with an open flame, Steven stresses the importance of preserving his work with an "extremely fine" layer of varnish before it can be displayed. His most recent exhibition was at Adelson Galleries in Boston, though he provides a sneak peek at his life (read: creative process) on social media, because, as he says, "It was always clear to me that my life would be in art."


What do you think of fumage — would you try it? Watch Spazuk's technique in action: