How to Look at Smoke

© Copyright 2017 Moss O’Flaherty-Chan, Ryerson University.


The nature of wind and water are not dissimilar, and observing their dynamicity can be approached in a similar manner. In one regard, you can look towards water as the manifest version of wind, and how smoke, as a substance in between multiple states, imitates the unique laws of its constituent states of matter. Watching smoke rise is not unlike watching water pour from a faucet; because liquids and gases are governed by many of the same laws, an approach to studying smoke is through its fluid movement.

The way smoke moves is situational, varying with the properties of the air in which it burns and depending upon the source of the substance burning. When watching the smoke of a  burning ember, I would encourage continually repositioning your frame of reference — not to move the source of smoke — but to move the degree at which you observe. By readjusting your view you will gather a multiplanar understanding of the smoke and the way in which it moves dimensionally. Every stream of smoke is unique and dependent on its environment. Light allows you to see your environment and with greater intensity notice its minutiae. Since smoke relies heavily on light to be fully visible, a dimly lit environment may not fully reveal directional changes and smaller streamlines.

Morris, David. “Incense.” Flickr, 28 Sept. 2010,


The brightness of a burning ember might draw the attention of your eyes, but it is away from the source and towards the gradual diffusion of smoke where your most careful attention should be directed. When incense are ignited before ritual, the flame is gently blown out and the incense allowed to send streaming smoke into the air. From the point of release the flow of smoke is smooth and predictable, it will steadily speed up and at some points slow down, creating a wave like path that will vary the most as the stream dissipates. The initial path is steady, but notice how as the smoke begins to react to its environment, the rise upward is interrupted with coiling and volatile distribution. This less predictable latter half of the smoke’s journey is where you will see it behave in a more dynamic manner, before it branches off towards complete diffusion.

Some streamlines are more dense and opaque, they appear more grey and often curl with wisps of varying, darker, and more distinct shades. While the dispersion and density of smoke will depend on its source, all kinds of smoke can be looked at with consideration to their movement through space. Movement in the surrounding medium, air, has the most significant effect on smoke diffusion. As smoke drags through its medium, any slight draft will create turbulence and the smoke will clump into falling waves or cling and remain suspended. Once an ember has burnt out, residual smoke drifts through the air for longer than you might expect. As individual streams collapse into smaller streams, these often minute, final paths of smoke will appear more cloud-like than the smooth base. A drop of watercolour paint into pure water is a more vivid, but gravitational application of the same concept.



Works Cited

Elkins, James. How to use Your Eyes, Routledge, 2000.

Morris, David. “Insence.” Flickr, 28 Sept. 2010,


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.