Street painting is an ephemeral artistic expression, in that a large drawing or "painting" is created, typically using chalk pastels, on a public plaza, street or thoroughfare. It is a performance based art form that allows the viewer the opportunity to watch art being created right before their eyes. Street paintings are not meant to last - I believe this is what makes them so remarkable. Like Tibetan sand paintings or a musical performance, they live by their creation and then fade away into memory.
Originating in Italy and practiced by European artisans dating from the 16th century, street painting began as a means of communication most often associated with traditional religious celebrations and folk festivals. The artists, know as ‘madonnari’ or ‘Madonna painters’ because they reproduced icons of the Madonna, created works so well executed that they resembled complete paintings, hence the title ‘street painting’. These artists lived (and still live) from the coins thrown onto their work in appreciation for the image and the artist's skill.
I had seen street painting in Europe when I was studying art there as a student but later rediscovered it at the I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival in Santa Barbara, California. I just stumbled upon that event in 1997 and immediately knew I had to try it. I participated the following year and became very enthusiastic about the possibilities of this art form. Encouraged by the other participating artists and friends, I realized I had found something very special to me and just became addicted.
My subject matter ranges quite a bit as I am easily bored! I copied masterpieces for years and still do from time to time, to try out new techniques or approaches. I get most excited about my original designs since they are how I challenge myself. I also like to entertain by creating worlds that are intriguing to the viewer - that seem as though you could step right into them. I am interested in world cultures, symbolism, idealism and universal commonalities, which inspire my concepts. As an artist I am concerned with the way I interpret the world I experience and I often look for opportunities allowing me to incorporate these ideas into my street painting designs.
In the US, street paintings are relegated to public festivals or private events. Unfortunately the US typically does not promote or allow ‘in situ' street painting - spontaneously created on any city street or public space. Many cities will fine you for working on their streets since they often refer to it as graffiti! (My problem with this is that while graffiti can be destructive by being permanent, street paintings are temporary and are easily washed away.) It would be great if major cities in the US created a program like the ones used in Europe, which designates a few square meters on a public pedestrian street for permitted street painters to make amazing drawings. I'd love to see that become a part of American culture!
This depends on the size of the painting. I have done one day paintings - usually on the smaller side of 8' x 8'. It's hard to generalize but on the average it takes me anywhere from 2 to 4 days to make a painting, ranging in size from 8' x 10' to 12' x 18'. Most paintings are about 12' x 12' and take about 3 days. Larger team projects like the Sistine Chapel ceiling for the Youth in Arts festival took 6 days to complete, with a team of over 16 artists.
I have worked on street paintings of all sizes but the largest ones have been group projects, working with a team of artists. I was involved in 2 spectacular reproductions of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling which were quite large. The first was at the Youth In Arts Italian Street Painting Festival in San Rafael, California and that painting was 75'x 25' (approx. 23 m x 7.5 m). The second was at Festival BellaVia in Monterrey, Mexico and that painting was 49' x 19' (approx. 15 m x 6 m). I also currently hold a Guinness World Record for the largest street painting by an individual - 34' x 17' 6" (approx.10 m x 5 m.)
I am a purist with this art form so I only use chalk pastels. I use all kinds of chalk pastels - Koss, Eternity Arts, Sennelier, Unison, Rembrandt, ArtSpectrum - usually color choices dictate manufacturer preference. I am particularly addicted to Eternity Arts right now. They are buttery homemade pastels that glide on like silk! I love them. The best pastels outside of these are my own homemade chalks. I have a great recipe that works particularly well for the street, plus this way my color choices are limitless as I can make just about any color I need. It's also very economical - much less expensive than bought product - which can be an issue with all of the chalk I go through in a year. I do know other artists who use powdered pigment, liquid tempera pigment, charcoal and pastel pencils to make their drawings. Here are some of my suppliers:
Here is a recipe that many street painters I know use. It does take some practice to get the recipe exactly the way you want it. I use powder pigments from Daniel Smith, Sinopia and Kremer. This recipe can yield a few hundred chalks, especially if you double the emulsion recipe. If you don't use all of the emulsion when you are finished, you can store it in air tight containers for future use. I keep my dry pigments in plastic bins for easy storage. Here are dry pigment suppliers:
Every street painter hopes for good weather - rain is the enemy of the street painter! If it rains you can try to save your image with plastic, etc. but this can create more harm than good so we usually just start all over when the weather clears up. Wind can also be damaging as strong gusts can literally blow half of your street painting away. Because this art form is about process I use these challenges as opportunities to rework the image in a new way. I absolutely enjoy the freedom of not being attached to my drawing in a possessive way, which allows me to be in the moment throughout the process.
Chalk pastel is not a highly stable medium that does not bond, like paint, with the surface it is applied to. There really is no sealer or preservative you can apply to it without creating some damage. I have created many ‘street paintings' on artificial surfaces with intentions to preserve them and have been somewhat successful in this effort. These paintings however, are not meant to be walked on or handled, which helps maintain the life of the piece.
It can be very taxing to create a street painting, especially in hot weather. When the ambient temperature goes up, so does the heat on the pavement. This can not only be strenuous but dangerous. Hats, sunscreen and plenty of water are a must; I usually work under an umbrella when possible for hot climates. Street painting is very physical as you are forced to work in awkward seated or squatting positions most of the time. I recommend yoga, stretching and good core strength to help ease the pain of a sore lower back, stiff shoulders and achy legs. Massages, saunas and hot baths really help too!
Depending on location, weather and traffic, a street painting can be visible for many months after it has been completed - not clearly but faintly. Rain, moisture, wind and traffic will diminish its beauty very quickly, but typically it can be seen in a fairly good condition for a few weeks after its completion, if passer-byers respect it by not walking on it. I do find, however, a certain beauty in the way a street painting ages. It becomes a ghost of itself, fading like an old world fresco, mysteriously hinting at what once was.
Yes for some, but a definite no for me! This is one of the things I love most about street painting - the interactive aspect. I thoroughly enjoy explaining, discussing and educating the public about what I am doing. Not only do I feel connected with the community in this way, I appreciate their interest and support. As an artist I mostly work in solitude when in my studio and the interaction with my viewers is a nice way to balance the private with the public.
Yes, anyone with a desire can make a street painting. I have seen people of all ages from 2 to 82 make street paintings. You don't necessarily need experience in art to participate either. Experience comes with practice and application and for the serious student, some art training would be very helpful. Most participants in festivals around the country are not professional artists - in fact for some it is the only artistic event they do a year. If you have a desire for a unique, challenging creative experience I encourage you to try it.