Rocking the Chalk

Rocking the Chalk To be honest, I never thought much about chalk art…until I was invited to do a piece for the Taste of Orleans festival at California’s Great America in July. I was surprised by how much fun I had trying this temporary, yet satisfying, art form for the first time.

By “Chalk Art” I’m referring to fully rendered artwork on pavement or concrete outdoors, using pastel chalks.  You might have seen examples online or at fairs and festivals.  The annual Luna Park chalk art festival in San Jose and the North Beach festival in San Francisco are two local examples.

Want to give it a try?  Here’s a supply list:

  • A chalk pastel set, at least 12 colors – you may want to bring two or more sets. You’ll use more than you think.
  • Chalk line, called “snap line”, available in hardware stores. Buy the blue chalk powder, if it’s not included in the package.
  • A square, gridded version of the artwork you plan to do. Working in a square helps, since the dimensions are easily scalable to whatever space you’re given. (This part is optional – you can always create something looser and unplanned.)
  • Retractable measuring tape, to mark out the grid.
  • Framer’s square, to keep the corners of your grid straight and square.
  • Small “traffic cones” or stanchions to keep people from walking on the design.
  • Sun protection. Whatever that means for you – a large sunshade or 10 x 10 tent, a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, etc.
  • Be certain to bring drinks CAPPED.  I knocked over a bottle of water in the first hour, so…yeah, don’t do that!
  • Knee protection. Knee pads and/or cardboard to set things on and to kneel on.  (Pillows are great to kneel on….I duct-taped a pillow to a piece of cardboard.)
  • Whiteboard/Chalkboard erasers. I found that the Dry-Erase board eraser worked tons better than the traditional chalkboard eraser on rough pavement.
  • An assistant! I was so lucky to have a willing and talented art student at my side.  I can honestly say that I was pushed to my physical limit, and without youthful, able-bodied help I would have not been able to finish on my own.  With or without an assistant, you’ll probably be sore afterward…there is a lot of bending and stooping involved.

Detail of chalk artFirst, lay out your enlargement grid with the snap line, and use that grid to draw the outlines of the design. Starting at the center of your grid, color everything in just as you would a coloring book.  Try to finish the center first, saving your work from excess smearing as you gradually work outward toward the edges.  Rub the chalk dust into the surface for basic coverage, followed by shading layers over the top.  Be careful using the color black – since it can dull your other colors if you smear it at all!  Lastly, outline and detail the work, saving the brightest highlights for last.

Sarah Cade uses pieces of carpet scrap, rather than her gloved fingers, to rub in the first layers of chalk dust. Sarah also recommends wearing gardener’s knee pads (available at Target, Home Depot, etc.) to allow you to move around freely without having your pillow or cardboard accidentally erase the picture underneath.

Doing chalk art can be on a volunteer basis, but can be a paid gig if an organization or company sponsors you.  Chalk artists can be hired performers at public and private events, too. Does chalking make up part of your art income?  If so, feel free to leave a comment about it below!

Like sand-castle building, ice sculptures, or earth/land art, your creations will disappear – sometimes after a week, a day, or even hours. It’s about the real-time performance, and shared experience in the present between you and your audience.  At Great America, I loved getting the instant, positive feedback.Chalk Art by Leah Jay

Sure, take plenty of photos of the work to remember…but in my opinion, you might as well let go of the end result, and just enjoy the moment. No chalk art piece goes unsmudged!  Sarah Cade, who has been doing this for four years, comments that unlike her other artistic endeavors “…chalk art is public and impermanent. It’s made for everyone and I’ve found I don’t really mind once I’m finished that people are literally going to walk all over it. I actually find it quite liberating not to have to worry so much about the finished product. I can experiment with new ideas and techniques on a large scale then let it be washed away.”

Chalk Art by Sarah Cade

Chalk Art by Sarah Cade

I encourage every artist reading this to stay open to these types of opportunities (or create your own!) – and give chalk a try.  And if you’d like a taste, the (free!) Luna Park Chalk Art Festival is coming up soon on Saturday, September 17, 2016, from 10AM to 5PM at Backesto Park in San José.


See you there!

Leah JLeah Jay (Jakusovszky) has been an artist and illustrator in San Jose for 25 years. She creates using a variety of media including watercolor, acrylic, pastel, ink, and collage. Her illustrative work has been featured in many books, and highlights from her career include directing 2001’s WTC Memorial Art Project to facilitate artist’s responses to 9/11 and successfully crowdfunding her artbook “Amphibian Love” to benefit Save the Frogs in 2015.

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