People love to stand, sit, stomp and jump all over Chris Carlson’s work.
He encourages it.
Watch a time-lapse video of Chris drawing Ralphie for the Coloradan cover.
A full-time professional artist based in Denver, Carlson (Bus’08) travels the world painting and drawing directly on sidewalks, plazas and pavement. His artworks are pelted by rain and hail, walked all over and, eventually, washed or rubbed away.
You won’t find them in climatecontrolled museums and galleries (“Don’t touch the art!”) — but they’ll stop you in your tracks as long as they last.
Carlson specializes in 3D, or anamorphic, chalk art, a genre that makes you feel as if you’re falling into a pit or staring face-to-face with, say, a larger-than-life cartoon character. Now six years into his career, he’s emerged as a premier practitioner of the form, creating original pieces at art festivals and conventions as far away as the Netherlands and Paris and working with the likes of Nintendo, Nickelodeon, Hershey and Disney.
It’s a line of work that traces its roots to the 16th century, when itinerant artists called “Madonnari” traveled Italy painting on the ground, primarily religious figures.
Today, the subject matter is broader. Carlson draws heavily on pop culture, including video games and cartoons, to great effect.
“Chris is an artist who really understands how to bring joy to people,” said fellow chalk artist Nate Baranowski, who calls Carlson’s work “whimsical and playful.”
Chalk art combines elements of fine art and performance art: Spectators watch the creative process unfold and chat with the artists as they work. Anamorphic chalk art is specifically designed for people to jump into the scene and pose for photos.
It’s not how Carlson, now 33, expected to make a living. For most of his childhood in Lakewood, Colo., he wanted to be a stockbroker; he bought his first stock shares in fifth grade. That’s what led him to CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.
Supply list for a professional chalk artist:
- Tempura paint, to make a base layer on the pavement that can be washed away later, or acrylic paint, for permanent installations.
- Soft pastel chalks.
- A tablet and pen for digital drawing.
- Sunscreen — lots of it.
- Knee pads, elbow pads, padded gloves and a gardening pad (to sit or lean on).
- Water, for drinking during blazing hot days.
- Inspiration, wherever you can find it.
But as he got deeper into his finance courses, Carlson realized he didn’t have the stomach for playing with other people’s money. After graduation, he and his sister opened a hookah bar in Lakewood.
That’s when, out of necessity, he discovered his artistic spirit and aptitude: They couldn’t afford decorations.
During long, late nights checking IDs, Carlson worked through instructional drawing books and tried to sketch photos he saw in Time magazine. Eventually, he painted a backroom floor black and began experimenting with 3D art.
Carlson can thank his CU marketing professors for what happened next: He made a time-lapse video of himself drawing the video-game character Mario. It went viral on YouTube, and before long, he was getting chalk art gigs from companies, festivals, trade shows and conventions.
Carlson had never considered that chalk art might become his career. He didn’t imagine there was a market for the work, and he doubted his abilities as an artist. He still gets nervous before he starts drawing in public.
It’s a long performance: Each project takes between 18 and 55 hours, depending on size and complexity. On average, he completes about 20 large drawings per year. Some of his favorite projects depict a mash-up of a dog (inspired by his English bulldog, Banksy, who’s named after the world-famous street artist) and a purple dinosaur. Another combines Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” with a Darth Vader mask.
“His style is very fine-tuned,” said Naomi Haverland, a professional chalk artist in Seattle who met Carlson at the Denver Chalk Art Festival. “He’s a perfectionist. He makes sure the blending is perfect and the colors are just right. He doesn’t rush anything. But, then, his concepts are super creative, too. He’s got a well-rounded artist’s arsenal.”
A Marie Kondo-esque attitude has also served Carlson well, in work and in life. He describes it this way: “Just be open to what really brings you pleasure and joy or contentment and satisfaction."
In the Fall 2019 print edition, this story appears under the title "The Everywhere Canvas." Comment? Email email@example.com.
Photos courtesy Chris Carlson