Participating in a Virtual Chalk Walk with My Kids

Every year we participate in a local chalk walk for the biggest festival of our city. This is no doodling on the sidewalk!

Chalk Walk overhead from 2019
Pictured is just a fraction of the street that contains over 275 squares for our local chalk walk event. Can you spot my Cinderella clock tower? Awesome drone image from DasFort.

Check out my latest podcast on chalk walking with kids:

We spend an entire day sweating over 8’ squares in the middle of Main Street. It’s intensive and grueling. We might be a little crazy to have done it for 10 years.

And, yes…since I’m the only one pushing it, I realize I’m basically talking about myself in plural. But, technically, I’ve drug my husband and kids into it as well.


This year was a little different…and WE WON!

chalk walk 2020 olympics summer sprint marathon baton pass athletes street art illustration
(sneak peak of our winning piece)

Check out this blog for a brief history of our (my) street drawings and tips for chalk walking yourself!

Chalk Walking Since ‘06

If you didn’t know, I have my degree in art. It’s been a passion since I was little, though that is a topic for another post. In college, I heard about our local chalk walk because a sponsored opportunity came up.

History Center chalk walk art project
Aww, look at how little I was doing this sponsored square for The History Center. It took us so much longer than we planned.

That first year, our piece was semi-terrible. There is a bit of a learning curve for working that big and working in chalk. But it was still fun and I came back the next year ready.

Chalk walk art memory RIP artwork portrait

There are a few things that make chalk walks really fun. In our city, the chalk walk is part of our biggest festival and our biggest art-centered event. Thousands of artists flood our street to create eight foot blocks of art.

Tips for a Chalk Walk

If you’ve never worked on an eight foot square, you’d probably be surprised at just how much work it is and how many things you do differently than with a normal drawing. There are things you have to remember or you will either burn out, hate your final result or regret it the next day. Here are some things I’ve learned from more than a decade of experience.

1. Skew the Image

In our Trolls piece, for example, their heads had to get larger toward the top of the square. If you viewed it from straight above, it looked warped with a larger top and their legs tiny in comparison, but from the sidewalk it looked right.

To get the shapes right, I used a trick from art class: take a picture. For some reason, when you look at the picture of your picture, you get a new perspective and it highlights your proportion or shape flaws.

  • We did this all the time with our still lives and paintings—especially if they were big or you had been working on them a while. It gives you fresh eyes somehow.
  • Draw a quick outline sketch on your square in a mid-tone color (nothing that’s hard to cover over.
  • Take a picture on your cell phone from where most viewers will be standing.
  • If it looks warped (i.e. you want to get higher for a more accurate picture), adjust for the proportions by enlarging the top of the image.
  • Take pictures as you go to make sure the proportions are staying correct.
Little chalk walk helper

2. Paint a Base Layer

Cement will literally eat your chalk. Using tempura paint will give you a base layer to work on for better color accuracy and the good of your paint. You can see those first two examples above from college that I overdid the paint and we didn’t use much chalk at all. Now, I’ve learned to put down a more basic base that helps conserve colors but allows for the chalk medium.

3. Tape Your Square

Use tape to create a clean edge for your square. You might not think it’s a big deal, but when you are done and you pull away the tape, you have a very clean edge that gives the square a professional look. I have used most types of tape and duct tape is my favorite because it holds the best despite the wet paint and dirt. Have someone help you if possible and you will speed up the process for an 8’ square.

4. Pack the Right Chalk Walk Supplies

Aside from the obvious chalk and paint, there are a number of things you will want to bring to an intensive chalk walk.

Chalkwalk art pastel dirty fingers sidewalk street art

Bathroom towel: You might want to sit on something besides the concrete (which gets very hard and very hot) You may want to wipe your sweat. Pick old towels you don’t care about—we have “garage” towels for this kind of thing (the place towels go when they are no longer fit for the bathroom).

Wear real shoes: Not everyone does this, but I find it incredibly important to wear real shoes that I will be as comfortable as I can be on the hard pavement all day. I bring flip flops for as soon as I’m done and ready to just walk around.

Water: Our chalk walk supplies ice cold water and wash stations, but you almost can’t have enough. I also bring a gallon jug of water for rinsing, mixing and whatever, and a canteen of ice water for drinking. You never know when water will run out and it’s just not worth having that happen!

Snacks: Preferably ones that won’t make you thirsty. Fruit snacks, celery, cheese (in a lunch cooler) are all good picks. You won’t want to eat a lot if it’s sunny, but you should take a few breaks.

A cart: Or, in my case, I’ve taken a stroller. It’s super helpful when you can roll all your stuff to your spot from wherever you finally found for free parking. I’m not sure what I’ll do next year when I have no strollers…not sure I’m ready to drag out a Radio Flyer, but it might come to that.

Supplies for chalk walk
My loaded stroller of stuff from last year. People kept stopping me to find out if I had a kid under there!! (I definitely did not. No room!)

SUNSCREEN: I can’t stress this enough. Layer it on. Multiple times in the day. You will still get burned (especially if you are as white as me). My husband and kids have so far, never burned.

Printed reference images: It is SO hard to really see your phone in the sun. Do yourself a huge favor and print out a page of reference images for whatever you are making. All the cool kids do it. You can print it pretty cheap somewhere like Fed Ex Office if you don’t have a color printer. Take two copies in case you spill paint, or water, or smear chalk dust on one. Pin it down with a bottle of paint or box of chalk because it will always try to blow away from you no matter how dead and sweltering the air.

Paper towels: Take a whole roll. They are helpful for smearing chalk to preserve your fingers (and you NEED to preserve those fingers because they will go raw).

Shade: The jury is out on this one for me. Some chalk walkers bring their own tents, but I’m usually setting up by myself and don’t want the hassle. It would be awesome to have protection from the abusive sun, but I’ve also seen peoples tents blowing down the street when a quick wind picked up. And at a certain point, the sun will move to where the tent isn’t helpful to anyone but your neighbor (though it does a nice job during high noon).

Extra pastels: Save all your pastels that you don’t use so you have more for the next year. I have a whole box of pastels and I reorganize them after every chalk walk to condense my boxes and throw away any tiny nubs.

5. Start Ahead of Time

If you are putting down paint (which I highly recommend), then you will need to give it time to dry. This doesn’t take long, but you waste precious cool early morning hours if you do it the day of the event. If at all possible, go as soon as they give away the squares (ours allow us on the squares the Friday night before the Saturday chalk walk) and get the paint layer done.

Painting a base layer for a chalk walk

If you are doing really big characters (like our Pikachu), you will need to do your quick sketch and paint the different sections accordingly to save time and resources. We could save a lot of yellow (Pikachu) by painting his whole shape yellow. The smaller characters could just be done on white. For the mermaid and Cinderella, I painted the background blue to save on the chalk too. Do big sections of color, not the whole thing white, if you want to save on chalk.

6. Create Something Recognizable

One of the most irritating questions you will hear over and over during the blistering hot experience is: “What is that????”

Chalk walk 2012

Now, it isn’t really the fault of the people passing by…they are just wandering around and talking about the art. But, in my opinion, it’s repetitive, semi-distracting and makes you feel like you need to tell them.

On the flip side, when they can immediately tell what it is, you get to hear how much they like it.

Maybe you don’t care.  And that’s cool too. Part of the experience for me is trying to get it to where most people can enjoy it for as much of the day as possible. I’ve realized this makes the whole process even more enjoyable.

Main character first: This feels so counter-intuitive to how I do art. Normally everything leads up to the focal point for me. But, start with the character sketch. When you like the proportions start detailing that character before you build in the background much at all. It also gives you an important boost to get something done before it gets too hot.

olympic art progress picture

Start early: For our chalk walk, the bulk of people come around 10am-1pm. But many artists aren’t starting until 9! I try to get there early and I try to get my character pretty close to done before most people are walking through. Again, totally so I can hear the “ooh” and “ahh” over “Huh???” So, vanity purposes only…well, that and it’s cooler until around 10 anyways.

FACE THE RIGHT DIRECTION: Most people are walking on one side (the side walk side), but so many face toward the center of the street. Face where people are walking and they’ll be more captivated.

Don’t leave your reference paper out: Okay, totally differences of opinion here…I do NOT like to feel like I’m being compared to the reference I’m using. Some people tape a big version to the bottom of their square so passers can see it. I’m guessing it’s definitely so people won’t keep asking what they are working on. But, then you get to hear them mumbling about if you are off or not.

Choose something identifiable: It doesn’t have to be a cartoon character—it could be a beautiful country scene, animal, logo or artwork. People love pop culture references and movies, though. They get excited when they know what you are working on. Especially the kids. And, as much as you don’t turn around (there are just too many in the constant flow), it’s really neat to hear a little girl scream, “MOMMY, ARIEL! SHE’S SO PRETTY! AND FLOUNDER! OOH POKEMON!” and that happens a lot. I appreciate recognizable characters even more now that my own kids are that way. As I’ll share, they weren’t super jazzed by my latest square in tribute to Ernie Barnes).

Little Mermaid Chalkwalk Disney black Ariel street art

My Little Mermaid square is a good example of what I’m talking about here. I wanted to reference the fact that Disney had just announced the live action Ariel will be played by Halle Bailey. We were excited about it, but I didn’t want her to be mistaken for “just some mermaid” because she isn’t the traditional Disney Ariel yet (and the movie itself hadn’t been made).

So, to help with the recognition and validation factor, I drew Flounder and Sebastian. So, clearly I didn’t draw Ariel’s face wrong because I know how to draw a character. It was a popular square and I got mostly positive feedback from people passing by.

Little Mermaid Ariel live action Halle Bailey Disney art fanart chalk walk street art Flounder Sebastian

Ooh and did you notice Goldeen in the corner? Yep, we had a floater come over from our neighboring Pokemon square, which only the truest of Pokemon nerds caught.

Pokemon chalk walk art pastels fanart charmander psyduck wobbeffet squirtle bulbasaur munchlax

And the Pokemon square was another example of recognition because everyone knew Pikachu, most saw Charmander or Squirtle, and only a few knew background characters, like Meowth, Psyduck, Muchlax, Haunter and Wobbuffet. So it combined easy recognition with that deeper layer for the true fans.

7. Don’t Really Take a Break Until the End

It is super tempting to stop and walk around or go take a break. Take short breaks, but know it’s going to be a lot harder to come back. Once you go into the air conditioning, it’s basically over.

Stand up and stretch your back or sit down to give your feet a break, but don’t get too comfy. When it’s all over, you will have plenty of break time. The cold shower might be the best part of the day.

Street art chalk walk in Italy
Chalk walk piece I saw while in Italy–done by an art student there (they would often put out little bowls for donation money too).

Chalk Walking with Kids

The big change came with the kids. There were a couple of summers where I had a tiny baby or was too pregnant to do it. But I missed it.

But, taking kids is hard. They don’t last nearly as long (heck, I barely last), and they either do their own thing or need to be told every step. I really wanted them to be able to participate so they would learn:

  • Focus: it’s hard to stay focused on something big for so long
  • Flexibility: You never know what the weather will be like. Last year, ours got washed away. This year, we did a virtual version. They have expectations, but they learn to adapt.
  • Letting go: It’s hard to spend so much time on something and watch it get destroyed in the next day or two. It’s a great way for them to learn that we can spend a lot of time and effort on something and not have to keep it.
  • Family Bond: We do this as a whole family (even including extended family!). So it has become a really fun tradition and the kids look forward to it. This year Kniya told me she would “never forget doing it on The Main Street.”
Rained out chalkwalk little mermaid street art
My quick-fix for our washed out Ariel wasn’t the same, but it was better than nothing!

I could not do this without my MiL, FiL and husband, though. There is just no way I could do something very complicated if I had them all the whole time. Most years, we all go get the square(s), tape and paint the background on Friday night. Then, Saturday morning I get up early and leave to start.

Pikachu artwork pokemon

Knick’s parents come to help with the kids while I’m free and clear at the chalk walk. A little after noon, the bring the kids over so they can help. Last year I had their square ready!

Kids coloring in a chalk walk square

And, while they are helping, the other adults watch the babies (so far there’s always been at least one too young to help) and Knick helps the kids with their coloring. I’m usually still working on a different part (last year I was working on Ariel’s background).

Virtual Chalk Walk 2020 driveway sidewalk art with kids and social distance visiting

This year it was a bit different because it was virtual. We still packed up and headed over to my aunt’s house to work in her driveway. The kids were not focused or into it! Ha. But they had a blast in her yard. And, when Knick came later with Klay, he helped me smooth in some backgrounds and got the kids to help me finish up.

moana gigantosaurus sonic chalk walk squares art

Definitely not my best squares ever, but for four, I felt like it went well. And technically, my square was just the huge giraffe.

A Tribute to a Master

Normally, I don’t do the categories. I just get too competitive.

They usually aren’t really things I would naturally work on and I’d hate to work extremely hard all day on something I picked for a category with the sole purpose of winning. I tell my kids that’s not the point of the chalk walk at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever really entered unless I happened to do one that fits a category. I know in more than 10 years of chalk walks, I’ve never won before!

But, this year, after finishing four, I saw the category I couldn’t pass up.

I was preparing to submit my work for the virtual online gallery, when I noticed “Olympics” was one of the categories. Ernie Barnes was my favorite artist for a long time and has been one of my biggest influences. His fluid and powerful figures are not fake, but their realism is exaggerated. I was drawn to the elongation and how he seemed to capture the feeling of the moment.

The Olympic Experience Ernie Barnes

In college, I had an assignment to contact a professional artist and interview them. We were supposed to try and pick someone famous and they had to be living (so we could actually interview them). I sent out requests to Kadir Nelson and Ernie Barnes.

Kadir Nelson New Yorker cover
Kadir Nelson 2019 New Yorker Cover Illustration

Kadir Nelson emailed me back and was willing to answer my questions via email. Ernie Barnes’ assistant responded by passing me to another assistant. I’m not sure who I talked to or how many layers, but I finally convinced them that I had read every book on him (I owned them!) and just really wanted to talk to him. They had me send over a list of questions and told me I could call at a specified time for a 10-minute interview.

To say I was over the moon is an understatement. I floated on clouds.

The interview with Mr. Barnes started off a little stiff. He seemed unsure of why I wanted to talk to him or what we would have in common. I had read how much he didn’t like the more abstract and modern forms of art. I led with how I shared his perspective. As soon as I told him that, he opened up like a fire hose and told me so much. How he would take in a scene and just feel the rhythm before attempting any shapes. How important the feelings conveyed were and not just realism. I respected the 10-minute limit, as much as I could have listened to him talk for hours.

It is the 16th century master painter Michelangelo in whom Barnes can be said to have found his strongest influence both spiritually and philosophically. Michelangelo’s figures of heroic proportion and spiritual nobility are far removed from the heretofore classical concepts of bodily movement and heft. Barnes’ symbols, like Michelangelo’s, derive their power from portraying the convolutions of the soul through the contortions of movement.

(Preface by Joan D’Arcy for From Pads to Pallets Ernie Barnes)
Artist Ernie Barnes

He was the 1984 official Olympic artist. This was a big deal, considering he grew up during Jim Crowe laws when he didn’t have access to museums and finding famous artists as inspiration. When he asked about where he could find “paintings by Negro artists” as a senior high school student on an art trip, the museum docent responded, “Your people don’t express themselves that way.”

He went on to become an NFL player before having the connections to start opening doors for his art! After retiring, he connected with NFL owners before eventually picking up commissions and getting a gallery opening.

He so influenced my own style, that I had to do a tribute.

So, during nap time, I grabbed my pastel box and got to work on a pavement section in our back yard during nap time. When my kids saw it, they were highly disappointed it wasn’t a Mickey Mouse square. But that’s okay. I did this one for myself.

I updated the jerseys a bit and I swapped out his lead runner for a Ussain Bolt reference. And I did it in my own style, which is a little softer.

Two days later it all washed away.

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