Candle light is a beautiful subject for an artwork. It creates drama, mystery and the dynamic lighting has so many opportunities for creativity. I love using chalk pastels because they are inexpensive and so darn easy to blend. As long as you have a plan for the mess, chalk pastels are great for the classroom.
This video lesson will walk you through all the steps to create this chalk pastel candle artwork. It is great for reviewing information, showing students visual steps and giving students independent work time at their own pace.
We start by practicing blending gradients. We all do red, orange, yellow and white as a class so students can gain confidence with the concept of blending. Then I ask students to pick their own sets of similar colors and create four more gradients experimenting with light to dark and color combinations. This allows students to get familiar with blending, using toned paper and how to control the dust storm of chalk pastels. I also use this time to train students on how to clean up their tables with a rag and cleaner after each class period.
After we practice blending gradients, we move on to simple candle practice artworks. I have a bunch of reference photos with a variety of colors to choose from. This free download is copyright free, I took all the pictures myself! Feel free to use it in your own classroom or creating art at home.
Each background includes at least 3-4 colors or values and just one candle. This is a simplification of what they will be expected to do for a grade, and helps them understand the lighting before they take their own pictures.
I do directed drawing showing them how to draw a cylinder and make it look like a candle that is melting. I like to do this using my Elmo document camera in person, but I post this video for absent students or those that need more help.
As they are working on their practice artworks, we take turns taking photographs for their final piece. Students pick one piece of construction paper in any color of their choice. They set up candles and take pictures making sure to capture dynamic light and shadow. Sometimes students use multiple papers to create more colors and some students bring in their own decorative candles.
Once students are finished with their practice, they sketch out their composition on their final pastel paper. I love the Strathmore pastel paper, the colors pop and students can tell they are using a quality paper. Students sketch the basic shape of their candle, but also where the light and shadow changes the colors in their background. Students feel more confident with this because they have practiced this technique before.
If you want a simplified lesson using oil pastels instead, try this!
I recommend blocking in the colors in the background first. This is the largest surface area by far, and the chalk dust is at its highest level. We lay down scratch paper, frequently wash our hands, and tap our paper on more scratch paper to contain our “chalk dust piles”. I remind students to remember what color is on their finger if using them for blending, as well as Q-tips and any other surface that may get chalk on it unexpectedly.
Last, students use white and other subtle colors to blend the details of the candles. You can spray your backgrounds with spray fixative first to avoid smudging. I remind students to see where their hands and arms are laying on their papers so they don’t smudge unintentionally. Most students are looking at the LED candles I provided, but the flames are not as dramatic as a real candle. You just don’t get that wick burning blue flame mystery with a battery operated candle. I encourage students to Google flames so they have more information than the subtle glow of the “wick” from their still life photograph. In a perfect world, they would be sitting in a peaceful dark room drawing their still life from direct observation. I have almost forty students in every class, and we sure aren’t lighting any matches in here.
Chalk Pastel Materials
These are two great materials, I adore any Strathmore toned pastel or charcoal paper. Blick also has a great set of chalk pastels that have lasted several years in my classroom. That is saying a lot, because I have close to 40 students in each of my six classes!
***This post contains affiliate links to products I truly love and use in my classroom. If you use these links to buy something I may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. #sidehustle #publicschoolsalary
Art History Connections
My favorite art history connection is George de La Tour’s The Penitent Magdalen. There is so much symbolism in this painting and many students connect with the religious undertones. De La Tour’s composition of enveloping darkness with a single (but that reflection!) flame is a great conversation starter. It helps students understand how lighting, contrast and dynamic shadow and light create a statement in a work of art.
If you want to hear another master artist discuss this work, check out Barbar Earl Thomas describing why she loves George de La Tour. It is a great glimpse into two artists’ mindsets.
We do weekly sketchbook warm-ups that structure art history, criticism and aesthetics based on the Feldman’s Method of Art Criticism. Here is my free template, feel free to use this in your classroom.
Another artist that used candle light is Gerhard Richter. His shockingly simple compositions always shock students at first glance, but the more you look the more his subtle and restrained approach impresses. I did not know much about this artist, but the more I read the more I was intrigued. This link has a great video describing some of his motifs and his place in history.
Here is my free sketchbook/bellwork/warm-up template for this artist.
Chalk Pastel Candle Artwork Finished Pieces
I am always so impressed with students’ abilities to create art that has excellent craftsmanship and creativity. Candles may seem like a simple subject matter, but dynamic lighting lends itself to beautiful and thoughtful compositions with opportunities for symbolism.