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Nature’s canvas: Artist Ian Ross shares the magic behind his temporary sand designs

Ross is an artist, muralist, installation artist and painter based in San Francisco. He recently traveled down under and graced Dunedin’s beaches with two temporary sand art installations: one at Brighton Beach, and the other at Doctors Point.

But he is especially well known for his sand art, where he uses the beach as his canvas and a rake as his paint brush to create swirls, circles and curving lines across large expanses of sand.

They are then washed away with the changing of tides, leaving no traces behind.

The sheer size of the pieces means they’re best seen from above, with viewers usually in awe of the magnitude of the installations, as well as confused about how exactly they’re created by one person. 

Here, Ross explains the techniques he uses to design the installations, as well as the deeper meaning behind their creation. 

Idealog: What made you come all the way down to Dunedin, New Zealand to create these two beautiful works of sand art?

Ross: A few years ago, we worked with Damien Van Brandenburg (the architect behind the ambitious redesign idea for Dunedin’s Steamer Basin) and his wife Ashleigh in an exhibition in my gallery in San Francisco.  We became good friends and came out for their wedding, and the opportunity to make work while in New Zealand was perfect!  The landscapes around Dunedin are great for the sand drawing work, and I was excited to finally see New Zealand.

What’s the idea behind it?

Initially, I started making ephemeral works like this because of the scale and impermanence.  I paint some murals in a style I call “1 Brush” where I use a single tool (paintbrush) and a single colour. The rake is like a paintbrush and the contrast created in sand when it is raked is beautiful. I saw another artist do a rake piece in San Francisco and I thought it looked fun. That artist put a GoPro on his rake, posted the video to Instagram and that is what enticed me to try it. 

Brighton Beach

Where does inspiration for your sand art come from?

All the work I create is one connected process of self-discovery and exploration. I feel like a teenager doodling on class notes because that innocence and peaceful mind is what I strive for in my work. The sand installations are an evolution of a ‘freestyle’ manner of drawing that I have practiced for over 20 years, after seeing graffiti artists working really fast on huge pieces for the first time in Italy in 1997. The evidence of speed and pure lines matter the most to me when I make the marks I make. I enjoy reflecting on the spatial relationships of the forms and lines that I draw. When an artwork is much larger than the people standing and looking at it, I think it has a power.

What tools do you use to do it?

It’s an adjustable leaf rake with a broom handle or similar object attached with duct tape. I also prefer flatter sole shoes like skate shoes, which make less of a footprint than bare feet or hiking shoes, gloves to prevent blisters, and some kind of sun hat.

Doctors Point

How long does a piece like this take to create, on average?

Average duration is two to three hours for the good ones. Sometimes a one hour piece can be really great, like the one from Doctors Point, but there seems to be the optimal window for beach art. There are ways to spend a longer amount of time on bigger pieces, but the practical use of my body and focus that I require to make the best designs is a balance that isn’t easy to perfect.  

What are some of the challenges involved with drawing sand art?

The biggest challenge is chasing the sand itself. The most successful works involve some type of factor that really makes the setting unique.  Typically, these factors are hard to predict. For example, the shape of an ‘island’ inside the mouth of an estuary, riverbed or bay changes constantly. Swell can remove an entire beach elevation in a matter of hours, this happened to me in Portugal. I had a spot picked out for dawn, the waves got huge overnight and when the tide went back out again in the daylight the beach was essentially gone. Tides are 100 percent predictable, but factors like erosion, texture, local wildlife and beach use that day have to be investigated. When everything comes together it really feels special. I want to share the notion that this work is a celebration of each place where it is created!

Doctors Point

Is it hard to visualise what it will look like when you’re creating it considering the artworks are so big and sprawling (and most easily seen by air?)

The way I work in a freestyle manner means I have no idea what the work will look like. As I draw on the sand, I have six feet of elevation (my height) to see how the curves and lines connect, and that’s surprisingly enough most times. I also have muscle memory of my footsteps and a rough map in my mind of where I have walked. The spaces are so large and the shapes so large, I have lots of time to plan my next moves while I am in the process of drawing each shape. When there are surrounding rocks or headlands, I will usually jump up on them to see the progress at some point, or send the drone up for a progress shot. Some venues are really exciting, because they offer the viewer a first-hand look at the process. The north end of Ocean Beach in San Francisco has a restaurant on the bluff with pathways that wrap around above the beach creating a wonderful viewing experience for passers-by.  

? New Zealand! Celebrating the union of two amazing friends, Damo and Ash!! ??

A post shared by Ian Ross (@ianrossart) on

What about working with the tides? Have you ever had any unpredictable interruptions to your work?

I have had lots and lots of learning experiences. That is what makes the work so exciting, and so demanding.  I am celebrating a beautiful place, and adding beauty that washes away without leaving a trace, but if I focus too much on me, I might learn a lesson! It is the most important moment for me, when the ocean takes back the work, that feeling is incredible. I love it.  

How do you use this type of art to raise awareness for marine and coastal issues?

By showing people a familiar landscape in a new way, I can capture their imagination. The nature of the work, being impermanent, communicates immediately to the viewer and usually will raise questions in their mind. These days one of the hardest things to do is capture people’s attention in new and exciting ways. This work gives me a platform for communicating with people in person or on social media that is unique. I am going to a place that is physically threatened by sea level rise, climate change, ocean acidification, etc, and creating work that can only exist in that place for a short amount of time. Hopefully this helps people realise nature is precious, nothing should be taken for granted, and we all can do something to help! I also represent organisations that have much larger and far reaching missions to protect the environment, like Surfrider Foundation and Pangea Seed. I am also open to collaborating on future projects with those making a difference!

Happy Earth Day! ??? #earthday #highway1

A post shared by Ian Ross (@ianrossart) on

Are they non-commissioned, or there is a commercial component to it too?

So far, there hasn’t been a commercial aspect to it. I started doing these works because it was a bit of a vacation from making a living as an artist. This work felt pure, exciting, and free from any client, building owner or art collector having an effect on the current or future state of the work.  This was purely an act of creativity at the ocean! That being said, I have been documenting the best works, and plan to make prints and a book in the future. But I believe the most important thing I can do is find a way that this work can help protect the environment.  

See more of Ross’ work here.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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