Drawing Fire and Flames

Waves of fire
Waves of fire. Pobytov / Getty Images

Flames and fire seem like such simple things, but they can be a challenge to draw when it comes time to do so. You may have spent hours staring into a campfire -- they are captivating -- but when pencil meets paper, how do you recreate that look?

Drawing fire does pose some problems and, for the most part, it's all about maintaining flowing lines and portraying movement. When color is involved, you need to blend just enough to make it look good without losing the details. It's tricky at first, but that's why artists practice.

In this tutorial, we will take you through drawing various types of flames, from simple line drawings to eye-catching pastel works in full color. There is also a step-by-step exercise for drawing a stunning candle flame in colored pencil.

A Simple Flame Line Drawing

a simple flame using line
a simple flame. H South

Despite its simplicity, this basic line drawing is easily recognized as a flame. It might take a few tries to get a result that you are happy with, but it becomes easier once you get a feel for it.

Draw a very simple flame with two "S"-like shapes connecting the top and bottom. For best results, draw them smoothly and quickly. 

3 Ways to Draw Candle Flames

basic line drawings of candles
basic line drawings.

Flames are not stagnant, but ever-changing forms. You can depict something as simple as a candle flame in various ways by drawing it with the most subtle of changes.

  • The first drawing is a basic candle flame in still air.
  • The second shows a candle with a slight current of air that causes the flame to move.
  • The third adds more naturalistic detail. It suggests the changing color in the center of the flame and adds dripping wax.

With drawings like these, it is important to keep your line fluid and casual. A black pen gives a nice definite line. Practice a few times on rough paper because even the still, symmetrical flame can be surprisingly difficult to get right.

Get Expressive With Campfires

Campfire Flame. H South

You can take a more expressive approach to drawing a campfire. First, we must examine the characteristics of the fire.

  • Flames with a large fuel source area, such as a log fire flicker and dance in long, linear shapes.
  • The color varies depending on the heat of the fire and the fuel.

Pastel on black paper works very well for capturing a campfire. Use shades of gray for the ashen timber; bright and dark orange, white, and yellow for the flame. Use an eraser to 'crisp up' the edges; chamois or cotton Q-tips to blend and soften.

Although the colors do often blend into one another, they are sometimes quite clearly defined. Use these areas to add variation and texture and avoid uniform blending all over. Keep in mind that the fire has life and is never perfect.

Flame as a Light Source

flame is a light source
flame is a light source. H South

It's important to remember that flame is also a light source. Use this to your advantage to portray the dramatic light that falls on other objects in your drawings.

  • A candle flame will light up anything within a foot or two and will cast a dim glow further into its surroundings.
  • A campfire will light the faces of those around it. The light typically comes from below if they are sitting close to a low fire.
  • A large bonfire will cast a strong directional light upon people around it, throwing long shadows.

A good reference source is invaluable to help you identify exactly what is in light and what is in shadow when a fire is part of a scene.

A Candle Flame Exercise in Colored Pencil

candle reference photo. © Tellgraf at Stock.xchng

Now that we've studied a few flame drawings, let's put it into practice with a simple candle drawing in colored pencil.

In order to begin, you will need a good reference to work from. You can do this as a drawing from life or by using a photograph. This is the reference photo for the exercise, but feel free to use your own.

Studying the Flame

Using the reference, we can see the following characteristics in our candle:

  • The 'tail' of a candle flame is usually a pale yellow, but it appears white to the camera because of its brightness.
  • In the larger version of the photo, I can see a slight band of blue at the bottom of the flame, where the combination of fuel and oxygen makes it burn very hot.
  • The inner part of the flame near the wick has less oxygen and so it is cooler and therefore darker.

The Colored Pencils

I've chosen Derwent Artists traditional colored pencils for this drawing, as I know they are popular, so many readers might have them. You'll get better results with a softer, denser pencil.

Colors used are: white, ivory black, ultramarine, chocolate, deep cadmium, deep chrome, deep vermilion, and scarlet lake. You'll also need a kneadable eraser to lift any mistakes.

Candle in Colored Pencil: Step 1

Copyright H South

First, sketch the basic shapes: the candle, the wick, and the main parts of the flame.

  • Use the lightest touch you can, so you don't press a line into the paper. (This drawing has been darkened so you can see better it on screen.)
  • Then, use an eraser to lift off as much graphite as possible, leaving only the faintest hint as a guide.

For a really clean drawing, you might want to sketch the light areas of the flame with a light yellow colored pencil. This will leave no graphite in that section of the drawing.

Once you've worked out the basic drawing, add the bright yellows. Start drawing these quite lightly as well, we will build up layers as we work.

Candle in Colored Pencil: Step 2

© H South
  • Next, use a mid orange pencil to shade in the orange parts of the candle, again still quite lightly - we'll be adding layers later.
  • The small bands of blue are added at this stage too.
  • Red is then used to darken some of the oranges in the center of the flame and on the candle base.
  • A halo of red is shaded around the candle. This looks too large at the moment, but it will be overlaid with black to create a gradually shaded effect.
  • Shade in the background using black. A vigorous, directional shading can add energy to the drawing, or you might want to create a smooth, velvety finish. It is up to you.

Candle in Colored Pencil: Step Three

copyright H South

It looks like a big jump to the final image, but it is really just a matter of continuing to observe your source photo and layering the colors.

  • Continue shading the colored pencil onto the background to get it really dark.
  • Shade the black in towards and over the 'halo', pressing more lightly nearer the flame. At the same time, add a little more red in alternating layers near the flame, until you get a smooth, blended effect.
  • Draw the black wick with the burning red end and reserving the white tip against the orange flame.
  • The hot candle wax is shiny, so highlights will be crisp-edged and bright. Use a very sharp white or light yellow pencil for these.
  • Use layers of brown and black pencil to darken the lower part of the candle. Red and orange layers create the translucent glow in the top section of the candle.

Most areas of this drawing are almost 'burnished', with heavily layered colored pencil giving an intense amount of color. However, the Derwent Artist pencils that I used are rather hard and chalky, so the background isn't as dark as I would like. A good dense black makes the contrast of the white flame much more effective.