Beauty can be fleeting. The coral and azure streaks of a sunset, overtaken by darkness. A bright red leaf blown away by the autumn winds. And a colorful outdoor work of art that will soon fall victim to rain, sprinklers – or even just pedestrian feet.
Using sidewalk chalk to create ephemeral works of art is Clifton Gold’s side business. By day, the Milpitas-based artist works in print production for San Jose State University. On weekends, he travels to sidewalk art festivals, from Bay Area community events to invitation-only festivals, including Santa Barbara’s prestigious I Madonnari Italian street painting festival.
So we asked him for his insider’s perspective on the genre.
Q What do you like about this medium?
A The ephemeral character. Because the work is not permanent and the supplies are inexpensive, it allows you to experiment and try techniques and subjects that you wouldn’t normally do on paper or canvas. It’s fun to get together with like-minded people, create colorful artwork for the public, and enjoy the sunshine and live music!
Q You are a colorblind artist who has succeeded in a visual and dynamic field. Tell us about that.
A Yes, I am color blind. Browns, reds, and greens look alike, as do blues and purples, and greens and yellows. My family and friends help me label my chalk. Over time, I also learned what colors were in the boxes of different brands, and I have an app on my phone that also helps detect colors.
This challenge led me to create my own style and my own chalking techniques. My basic art style is inspired by pen and ink drawings and doodle patterns. So I use a lot of black chalk in the base of my pieces and then accent with white colors and highlights. It’s kind of like a giant coloring book. The audience sees the piece change from black and white to vibrant color throughout the event.
Q Which of your sidewalk designs stands out in your memory?
A “The Garden Keeper” which I did at the Chalk Festival in Venice, Florida in 2019 was one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences. It was the largest, most detailed piece I’ve done (12ft by 12ft), and the first two days of the festival were riddled with rain and high winds. But the play came out better than I expected and was well received. I also love doing the Chalk It Up festival in Sacramento with my nieces. We always create a piece based on their ideas, and they help do all the coloring.
Q What would you like people to understand about this genre?
A I don’t think people realize how physically difficult it is. Imagine doing planks and burpees all day – that’s pretty much what it’s like to paint a wall with chalk, crawling on the floor all day. You are at the mercy of the weather. One day during the Italian Street Painting Marin event in San Rafael in 2018, the temperature soared to 100 degrees and at noon the asphalt itself was 130 degrees. You’re also at the mercy of attendees not looking where they’re going, so sometimes they walk through your mural and you have to fix the footprints.
Q How does it feel to see your art disappear?
A When you start doing it, it’s a bit sad. But you get used to it. Some festivals leave the murals and the environment eventually wears them down for a few weeks, so you can see them aging. Other event organizers have to wash the streets immediately afterwards, so you see the coin disappear in five seconds!
GOLD’S TOP 5 TIPS FOR HOBBY ARTISTS
— Use a light touch with the chalk. Spread a very thin layer, then blend it into the sidewalk with a piece of carpeting, craft foam, or your finger to achieve a solid color and fill in any crevices.
“It’s all about diapers. Slowly build the chalk, colors and highlights, lightly applying the chalk each time. This will reduce dust and you will use a lot less chalk.
— Apply the darkest colors first, then layer the lighter colors. Why? Because the black chalk stains that overlap the light colors look like grains of earth. However, flecks of light-colored chalk on darker chalk look like sparkles, creating a shiny effect.
— Work on the focal point first, on what you want the audience to see first. Usually it’s the eyes. Then you can work from there. This way you don’t step over completed areas to get to other areas or paint yourself into a corner. And, if you’re short on time, you can work more freely in the outdoor areas.
— Use knee pads, wear a hat, apply sunscreen, drink plenty of water. And take plenty of breaks to stretch!