Peninsula native Marlon Yanes gives us insider info on chalking like a street art pro

Marlon Yanes blends the oranges and yellows in his chalk mural during the Palo Alto Festival of the Arts in 2018. (Photo by Adam Pardee)

Have you noticed? Lately, our sidewalks have transformed into one very long art collaboration.

If you’ve taken to stretching your legs for long neighborhood walks during the shelter-in-place, you might have noticed chalk art cropping up almost as frequently as California poppies and columbine. Messages of encouragement and hopscotch grids, geometric patterns and giraffes all add a blush of color to those grey cement paths. It seems our sidewalks have become a crossroads, a gesture of unity and connection in a time of isolation.

Marlon hanging out on his canvas. (Image via Chalkfest at Arbor Lakes)

“It’s a community thing. It’s a way to be closer to people around you,” says Redwood City native Marlon Yanes. And he’d certainly be the one to understand the medium’s magic. As a well-traveled professional chalk artist, he’s competed in chalk art festivals across the United States (as well as Canada).

Though he might be our local pro, he realizes chalk isn’t an exclusive kind of art form. “When I first started, I came in with a box of chalk and knee pads and a photo printout of what I wanted to try,” he notes. No easel. No digital drawing tablet. No fancy brushes.

“Anyone can do it,” Yanes confirms, “from little kids to adults. It doesn’t have an age [limit].”

So get inspired by Yane’s journey as a chalk artist — then become one yourself with his tips and tricks of the trade.

Scenes from the 2018 Palo Alto Arts Festival. (Photos by Adam Pardee)

Meet Our Local Pro

Before competing in festivals, Yanes flexed his creative muscle as the Regional Chalk Artist at Whole Foods Market, decorating the chalk boards of nearly two dozen stores across Northern California and Reno. But when Whole Foods made a donation to renowned California chalk art fest Palo Alto Arts Festival in 2008, the company asked if their resident artist could participate too. As a matter of fact, yes, he could.

The festival was an unforgettable experience for Yanes. Imagine joining him at that first event. As the crowd mingles, an artistic expanse spreads out beneath their feet, jewel-tone colors flourishing across the blacktop. Onlookers chat with chalk aficionados about their craft and watch on, mesmerized, as this commonplace surface slowly morphs into a series of asphalt canvas masterpieces.

“I’ve done it every single year since,” Yanes says. “Even the year I went to France [to paint a mural], I came back to make sure I was there.” And he’s participated in many more chalk festivals besides. One year, he competed in no less than 20 events.

“It’s more of a performance art,” Yanes observes. “You get to see the whole process from beginning to end. I think that’s the part that I like because you get to interact with the guests. People come and they ask you questions… If you go to a museum you see the finished product and never really get to see how they got to that point.” Plus you get to go beyond those enclosed gallery walls to enjoy art with an open sky.

Because apparently 2D was too easy. (Images via Marlon Yanes)

For his most recent project, Yanes will be chalking a piece for the prestigious I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival of Santa Barbara. The event — inspired by a sister festival in Grazie di Curtatone, Italy— will be hosted virtually this year with participants sharing time-lapses, videos, and photos of their progress.

Yanes will develop his entry from March 22nd to 24th at his mother-in-law’s house. “She has a better driveway,” he chuckles. He’s also hoping the area’s residential location will attract more curious neighbors. “The interaction with people is part of what attracts me to doing the festivals… I have no idea how it’s going to be.” In fact, he welcomes any and all visitors to swing by and watch.

Picture yourself walking the streets of the festival. (Image via Marlon Yanes)

Tips and Tricks

Ready to channel your own inner chalk artist? Yanes offers a few tips to help you on your way.

Soft pastels make those colors pop. (Image via Marlon Yanes)

Tip #1: Not all chalk/pastels are created equal

Here’s an insider secret: the pros don’t use Crayola sidewalk chalk. “The pigment on that is not that strong,” Yanes explains. “It’s more of a white chalk with a little pigment on it — so you don’t get that contrast, those bright colors.” Sure, use them for kids’ projects, but know that they pale in comparison to the intense hues of soft pastels. Koss is the go-to brand of choice among street artists. They’re technically intended for paper, but they are long-lasting, easy to blend and affordable. Make sure to avoid white board chalk, oil pastels and hard pastels altogether.

Tip #2: Surface matters

Because chalk has less “stick,” make sure your surface has texture. “It has to have something to help the pastels stay,” Yanes says. “If you’re trying to do it in the inside of your garage, that concrete is smooth so the chalk will not stay.” Driveways work much better. “The rain has removed some of that smoothness off it, so it will stay on that surface a little better.” Black top is a bonus because the dark surface makes the colors pop. Also, don’t forget to clean your surface before you make your first mark, sweeping away dirt and pebbles.

Tip #3: It’s okay to start small

Sometimes simple is better. “Don’t start with something too complicated,” Yanes says. He also recommends starting with squares measuring 4X4 or 6X6 feet. “My first one was 12 X12 so it was a little overwhelming because it’s a huge area.”

Ocean beauty. (Image via Marlon Yanes)

Tip #4 Consider drawing a portrait

If you’re going for a show-stopper, Yanes recommends drawing faces. “I think it’s the eyes that get people’s attention the most.” The other most expressive part of the human face are the lips. “If you get those two correct, then you already have the crowd’s attention.”

Tip #5: Make use of a grid

It can be easy to get warped proportions when you’re coming at your image from a weird angle. Creating a grid with a tape measure helps. “When we print the reference photo, we put a one-inch to one-foot ratio,” Yanes says. Then “we only draw one square at a time.” And don’t forget to step back once in a while to take in the bigger picture.

Tip #6: Get messy

Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and blend those colors with your hands. This technique will create shading and much more color variety.

Tip #7: Be patient, but persistent

At the end of the day, Yanes says, “The only way to learn is by practice.” You’re not going to create the Mona Lisa of chalk art on your first try. And that’s okay! Keep going.

Tip #8: Embrace the temporary

Chalk art is a little like a theater production — both are one-time performances. When the show ends, it’s over. But for a brief, brilliant moment in time, we witness it. Nothing lasts forever. Not even quarantines. So keep your head up, Bay Area! And make chalk art.

Chalk art sightings around Bay Area Neighborhoods

Clockwise from top: Christine Penland (artist), Marielle Cressio (photographer), @ChalkArtRWC on Instagram, Lauren Kate Garcia (photographer), Thomas Foss (artist), Dan Fenstermacher (photographer)

Watch this video and pretend you’re wandering the Palo Alto Festival of the Art admiring these chalk creations. (That first piece belongs to Yanes.)

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Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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