Saturday, February 07, 2015


Smoke has no shape.  Scientists describe it as "matter in a gaseous state" because its atoms move freely and dissipate into the shape of whatever container it happens to occupy.  

So why is art nouveau smoke shaped differently than art deco smoke?

Art nouveau smoke (by Rene Bull)

Art deco smoke (by Leslie Ragan)

And while we're at it, why is Japanese smoke shaped differently than Italian smoke?

Japanese smoke (by Uttagawa Sadahide)

Italian smoke (15th century)
Clearly there are mysteries about smoke that science has yet to explain.

Of course, it's not all the fault of science.  Some artists must've slept through physics class because they don't remember the difference between a gas and a solid:

 Mud slide smoke (by Frazetta)

Even worse, some mistake a gas for a liquid:

Daniel Schwartz

This is all very confusing.  Smoke is supposed to have no shape, yet here we see all these strong opinions about the shape of smoke, and none of them match.

And if that weren't bad enough, along comes that smart alec Richard Thompson and picks "all of the above" for the shape of smoke:

Explosion in a shape factory (by Richard Thompson)

There are artists who love to paint billowing smoke with rich, blended colors:

Attila Hejja

Ashley Wood
 And there are artists who illuminate smoke from behind with a golden glow, and make you think "this is truly the way to paint smoke." 

N.C. Wyeth

 Yet there are other artists who can make equally astute observations about smoke merely by scrubbing a dry brush with one color:

Noel Sickles
At this point, I'm so baffled I can't even remember what I started out to say about smoke.  My idea is gone in a puff of I don't know what.

So let's just end this way:  when artists set out to affix a shape to something that has no fixed shape, they are really transforming a gas into a solid.  This task gives artists a broader license than they'd have when transforming one solid into another (for example, capturing a face on canvas).  It can provide a Rorschach test for artists who choose to take it.  

As you can see from the pictures above, artists who make full use of their broader license, rather than relying on conventional symbols for smoke, can achieve some pretty interesting results.



Tom said...

"Smoke has no shape. Scientists describe it as "matter in a gaseous state" because its atoms move freely and dissipate into the shape of whatever container it happens to occupy."

David it looks like artist's all have different shaped "Containers."

Fun post!

Tayete García Mazariegos said...

I have enjoyed a lot this post!
Thanks a lot for your research!

kev ferrara said...

Fun post. This topic has actually fascinated me since I was a kid.

Some of my faves not mentioned: Leyendecker produced some rather acrobatic nouveau smoke, and Franklin Booth was able to achieve a sense of vastness with it.

I don't seem to recall smoke being an oft-used element in art until after smokestacks started dotting the landscape in the early 19th century and illustration became big. I guess smoke is one of those go-to elements that can really be used expressively to add to the composition even by a morose realists. For illustrators on a deadline, these kinds of things are a godsend. Sorta like a tail in fantasy pictures, a cape in a heroic picture, a fence in landscapes, or the shape of the neckline in portraits... each can add movement and contrast to an otherwise dull images.

I wonder what the first (known) artistic uses are of smoke are?


xopxe said...

Actually, smoke is not a gas. It does not expand to occupy all available space. Smoke is a mist of very small particles, either solid or liquid, drawn around by the air currents. The size and weight of said particles (among other characteristics), and properties of the air such as humidity, density and turbulence is what determines how smoke looks and behaves. Tough as fas as I know it never ever does it as depicted by illustrators :)

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I think you're right.

Tayete Garcia Mazariegos-- Many thanks.

Kev Ferrara-- I remember those Leyendecker images well. That art nouveau look fit gracefully into Leyendecker's early works, but by the time he had developed his own trademark style, I think that art nouveau smoke looked like a transplant that just didn't take. (I actually preferred Leyendecker's own more successful paintings to the art nouveau solution for smoke, anyway.)

"Sorta like a tail in fantasy pictures, a cape in a heroic picture, a fence in landscapes, or the shape of the neckline in portraits."

Well put!

xopxe-- I'm not a specialist on this, but I did look up this specific point before I posted this treatment and there seems to be a whole flock of internet sources that disagree with you. (I happened to look into it because I wanted to use the great Turner painting, "Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway" so I checked to see if I could get away with blurring the distinction between smoke and steam. I'm sad to say I couldn't, but I hope people will go back and take another look at it anyway.) The sources I came across said that both smoke and steam are matter in a gaseous state-- both include water vapor, but smoke also includes other gases, such as carbon dioxide and sulfur oxides. They made your point that smoke also contains tiny particles of soot, etc., just as steam contains droplets of water, but I didn't come across any source that shared your conclusion that such particles robbed smoke of its "gaseous" state.

I stopped looking after four or five sources; it's possible that I should have continued looking before posting. But tell me: if you don't view smoke as matter in a gaseous state, the other three possible states are a solid, a liquid or plasma. Which of these are you suggesting that smoke is?

xopxe said...

Wiki: "Smoke is a collection of airborne solid and liquid particulates and gases".

The gaseous part is there only because you can not avoid it, but it's not what makes smoke smokey. Gases are actually invisible for all practical purposes. Even steam is only visible when it condenses into droplets. Overheated steam as found in industrial applications is perfectly transparent. Or think clouds: it's the same vapor of water than everywhere else in the atmosphere, but because it condenses interesting stuff happens, like having shapes and lightenings.
Or, black pigment obtained from smoke:
Or, smoke on very cold and quiet mornings, that rises in perfect plumes that do not disperse at all up to a certain height: particles are actually floating up in the dense atmosphere.
Particles and droplets do not behave like gases, due to electrical charges, surface tension, inertia and a host of other physical reasons. And they can be seen.

Donald Pittenger said...

Glad that you included Ashley Wood. His highly limited palette (mostly blues and browns) fascinates be because it seems to work well even though I can't figure out his system. That is, use cool-warm colors for defining receding and advancing objects or surface features doesn't seem to apply for him.

I like his robot war paintings, but think he took a wrong turn when he got into a semi-porn sex kick.

chris bennett said...

In a sense, Leonardo, Turner and Dewing (to name a few off the cuff) saw everything as smoke coalesced, a sort of ether or common substance from which all things are made. The holy grail of plastic realisation; to express everything in terms of forms arising from and suffusing back into, a continuum.

To realise form by bonding particles or abrading them. Modelling or carving.

chris bennett said...


David Apatoff said...

xopxe-- Since your position is that smoke is made up of "gasses" along with "particulates," and that the "gas" portion of smoke is essential "because you can not avoid it," I'm not sure what we are debating. Your position is fine with me.

You say that the gas in smoke is "not what makes smoke smokey," but I'm not sure what you mean by "smokey." Aroma? Color? Makes your eyes water? Waft upward? Whatever it is, the only "smoky" attribute that I am concerned about for purposes of this blog post is smoke's amorphousness, and what happens when that shapelesness is assigned a shape by artists. As discussed, I think it has different challenges and different freedoms than matter with a fixed shape. But it's always good to learn these things because I never know when other, non-gaseous attributes of smoke will interest me.

Donald Pittenger-- I suspect there is a direct link between the billowing clouds of smoke in Ashley Wood's war paintings and the women's breasts and buttocks in his other pictures. (Seriously-- I think they both have a plump, bountiful fullness which Wood finds it fun to paint.)

xopxe said...

Just as a disclaimer, I make some stuf up as I go.

I didn't say gas was essential, I said it was unavoidable. Because we do not live in a perfect vacuum. Tough now that I think of it, you can have perfectly a smokey thing without adding no gases beyond what there is in the atmosphere: a dust cloud.

And what I mean by smoke being smokey is that it can be drawn at all: it has volume, shape and color. Pure gases have none of these. Well, some gases have color, but barely. And it doesn't matter because they have no shape (or because they would kill you, like chlorine and fluorine).

In other words, I think your point is completely valid: artists giving character and representation to a continuously shapeshifting chaotic structure. Only that gas is not what captures this structure's nature, because gases are way to thin. Perhaps "cloud" is the keyword. Ok, I'm being way too dense now :)

Aleš said...

Kev, this might not be exactly what you want but here is a smoke coming from a pipe on an old Aztec wall and it's shape seems to be designed to reflect some parts of the ornamental headdress.

God G smoking

kev ferrara said...

I love that! Thanks Aleš!

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett wrote: "The holy grail of plastic realisation; to express everything in terms of forms arising from and suffusing back into, a continuum."

It is a feat of imagination to find the continuum in ostensibly disparate objects, but having done so, many artists fail to find worthy standards for re-assembling forms out of that continuum. If Dewing or Turner were to rise above mere soup, it was incumbent on them to serve a set of internally consistent principles. I think Turner did a better job than Dewing of finding what xopxe might call the particulates in the smoke that allow us to ascribe volume, shape and color to gas.

Aleš and Kev Ferrara-- Great example.
(Aleš , I looked for earlier examples of smoke but I couldn't find one.) Well done!

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chris bennett said...

David, I agree about Turner being a superior artist to Dewing. Turner's work, particularly in the latter half of his career, had more breadth and profundity than Dewing's. He realised the full metaphysical implication of the sfumato principle in all its sublime undertones.

I believe Constable had a similar vision, except that he built/thought in terms of larger particles - clumps of matter rather than mites of smoke. But the principle is the same, and you can see this thinking manifested in the large sketches; particularly The Leaping Horse and Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows (the one with the rainbow).

David C. said...

I think everyone missed the real point on this subject and that being that Richard Thompson is a "smart alec."

Richard said...

xopxe is correct, Smoke proper and steam are not gasses. They are a colloidal aerosol suspensions (

In most cases, the primary visible elements of smoke are tiny solids and liquids that are in suspension in the air.

Visible gases, on the other hand, move quite differently than smoke, as visible gases are all heavier than the elements that make up air (which are invisible gases). For example chlorine gas which hovers just above the ground.