Stare at the Flame // Light the Candle With Your Mind

Light the Candle optical illusion #1: Dripping Candle

As part of my continuing experiments in visual perception, I set out to create a series of simple linocut prints that use an “after image” optical illusion to create an image literally completed only in the viewer’s head.

Light the Candle optical illusion #2: Birthday Candle


  1. Stare at a fixed point – in this case, the blue candle flame – and (importantly) do not move the position of your eyes. Stare for 15-30 seconds. You will begin to see a glow around the flame.
  2. Quickly look at the tip of the unlit candle’s wick. The imprinted flame shape hovers over the wick.

The Body’s Color Balance

The illusion works using a phenomenon called retinal fatigue: fixating on one color overstimulates the color-sensing cones in the eyes. The eyes then attempt to “color balance”, as they might to compensate for changing light conditions, and produce a lingering image of the opposite color.

Light the Candle optical illusion #3 Twisted Candle

Accidental Relaxation

During the process of designing and printing this series, I have been testing out the illusion often as I experiment with different colors and shapes of flames.

I noticed that every time I take even ten seconds to stare at the fixed point on the flame, my body relaxes and my mind calms down.

In a similar way that an office-wide power outage produces a silence that reveals that its computers make a lot of noise, I’m aware of how, most of the time, my eyes are always moving around and my mind never stops racing.

Light the Candle optical illusion #4: Pure Elegance

It’s a mild effect, but it happens every time, and each time I’m struck by how physical–and how involuntary–this moment of quiet is, even when I’m doing it only to check the color or shape of the printed flame. That is, to get something done, not to relax.

After the silence, the satisfaction of lighting the candle is a rush of pleasure, like a microdose of the feeling of doing something fun after resting.

Light the Candle optical illusion #5: Tea Light

It reminded me of a study showing  playing Tetris after trauma can reduce PTSD: how something that seems inconsequential can affect deeper parts of the body, mind, and emotions.

I’m now planning on hanging prints from this newly-created “Light the Candle” series as a reminder to relax: that is, times and places where I wouldn’t take the time and effort to light a real candle, but would be tempted to use the power of the eye and mind like a magic trick to light an imaginary one.

Light The Candle linocuts are available for purchase at Smokey’s Tangle in Oakland, and online at the Smokey’s Tangle Online Shop.

While supplies last. Happy Holidays Everyone!