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Mind-Bending 3D Chalk Illusions

Whether it’s recess or summer vacation, it’s not uncommon to find kids drawing on the pavement with chalk. Maybe it’s creating a hopscotch guide. Maybe it’s a riveting game of tic-tac-toe with a friend. Or perhaps it’s a work of art so detailed and angled in such a way that it appears 3D.

Well, that last one might be better left to the professionals.

"Building the Snowman" by Julian Beever
“Building the Snowman” by Julian Beever. Image credit: Julian Beever

Using nothing but chalk and their own skill, artists around the world are turning perfectly flat asphalt into seemingly three-dimensional scenes. It’s all an illusion, of course; even if it looks like the sidewalk plunges into an abyss, you can walk over it with ease. (But please don’t, as it might ruin the drawing.) The illusion is done with a technique called anamorphosis.

Like all illusions, 3D chalk illustrations fall apart when viewed from a different angle. Some only work when viewed through a camera lens. Seeing the illustration in person won’t have the same effect. In a way, though, some may see that as adding to the charm. Being able to see through the charade makes the illustration itself that much more special. It highlights the talent and planning that goes into each drawing.

Kurt Wenner, an artist from Ann Arbor, considers himself to be the creator of 3D chalk drawings. He studied at Rhode Island School of Design and the Art Center College of Design. Before college, however, he was already making a name for himself. Wenner was first commissioned to create a mural at age 16. According to his website, the 3D chalk movement can be traced back to a piece of street art he did in 1982. Using pastels, he transformed the streets of Rome into a form of pop art. While the exact progenitor is up for debate, Wenner was among the first.

Smoothie ad by Kurt Wenner.
Smoothie ad by Kurt Wenner. Image credit: Kurt Wenner

Perhaps the most popular chalk artist, at least online, is Julian Beever. Located in Belgium, several of his drawings have gone viral. His series of 3D chalk drawings only came about in the early 2000s because of curiosity. “I got started when I was in a pedestrian street in Brussels where an old garden had been removed,” he recounts on his website. “This left an unusual rectangle of paving slabs which gave me the idea to convert this into a drawn swimming pool in the middle of the high street! It worked so well I tried other variations such as a well with people falling in. I soon realized I could make things appear to go into the pavement you could equally make them appear to stand out of it.” A book titled Pavement Chalk Artist showcases much of Beever’s work.

Unlike many styles of street art, there’s nothing illegal about 3D chalk art. It might require some special clearance to draw on important thoroughfares, but with permission, it’s safe and could even attract a crowd. This makes it especially appealing to beginners. If you’re curious on joining the movement, supplies are easy enough to get at any craft store. Time-lapse videos like the one below are available online to show you the whole process. The illusions are small and the 3D effects minimal, but even experts must take simple steps.

Hopscotch seems like a simple game but imagine hopscotch across a deep canyon. One wrong step and you’ll be in freefall. It’s all a trick, naturally, but the exhilaration of drawing something so realistic and mind-bending might be the same as the plummet. Chalk art isn’t just for kids. All you need is imagination and the space to bring it to life.

Oh, and chalk. Obviously.

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