Hakai Magazine

Etched into the sand of a Bermuda beach by Tony Plant, this drawing is an example of the beautiful, ephemeral work done by sand artists. Photo courtesy of Tony Plant

Lines in the Sand

These artists see the beach as an enormous Etch A Sketch.

Authored by

by Mark Garrison

Article body copy

If you ever built a sand castle on the beach as a kid, you know exactly what happens when the tide comes in: your masterpiece quickly becomes a blank canvas again, and you have to choose whether to see it as a tragedy or an opportunity. Here are some artists who didn’t give up on playing in the sand, but instead took to drawing bigger and more elaborate creations.

Tony Plant, Cornwall, United Kingdom

Tony Plant’s enormous drawings have swirled across seashores around the world, from the many beaches of his home turf in southwest England to the sultry sands of Bermuda. “I live and grew up on the coast, and I’ve always drawn,” explains Plant. For the lifelong surfer, the beach is “a very natural place” to make art. Of all the inherent challenges of the process, his most pressing concern is time. Planning a piece may involve multiple seasons of sketching and countless trips to the coast to create a composition that has a relationship with the beach’s natural features and boundaries. But when it comes time to make the final drawing, Plant is limited to the relatively brief span between high tides. He jokes that when he’s working on larger drawings, which can reach a few hundred meters across, “tides seem to move faster.”

Andres Amador, California, United States

Since 2004, Andres Amador has created hundreds of sand drawings on the beaches of Northern California and beyond, only to have them predictably wash away as the waves jostle back up the beach. He rarely stays to watch this process because, by then, he feels finished with the work: “The space is cleared for the next thing, both on the beach and in my head.” This spiritual approach is reflected in his flowing creations, which include mandalas and works inspired by trees and flowers. For Amador, the moment the tide starts to erase his work is actually a release—as long as he manages to get a photo first: “Once that happens I am complete.”

Sand In Your Eye, Yorkshire, United Kingdom

The sheer scale involved in sand drawing is a huge challenge, but the UK-based group Sand In Your Eye fully embraces it. On International Peace Day 2013, the group brought out more than 250 volunteers from across Europe to help draw 9,000 silhouettes on the beach at Arromanches-les-Bains in Normandy, France. With The Fallen, they made palpable the enormity of human loss that paid for the success of the D-Day landings.

Sand In Your Eye also lays claim to being part of the world’s largest stop-motion animation. In a project sponsored by Nokia and shot from a crane using one of the company’s phones, the team and its collaborators combined sand drawing and 3D props to film the animated short Gulp.

Constanza Nightingale and David Rendu, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand

From floating castles to seemingly treacherous pits, Constanza Nightingale and David Rendu add a coastal twist to the artistic tradition of trompe l’oeil. Their sand drawings are carefully planned so, when viewed from the right angle, they appear three-dimensional—an impression that often delights the public, especially kids. Nightingale recalls an amazed 10-year-old who, upon spotting one of the duo’s optical illusions, started jumping and screaming “What? What? How did you do that?” When they finish a piece, they leave it for people to play on and take pictures with.

Edmond Stanbury, Cornwall, United Kingdom

When the beach is your canvas, your brushes are rakes, and the paint is always sand colored, but Edmond Stanbury has managed to work creatively within these limitations: “I quickly learned that I could create three different tones in the sand by adjusting the tooth spacing of my rake.” He uses this technique to add depth and variety to his curling, almost tribal compositions. Adjustable rake in hand, he usually arrives at the beach with only the seed of an idea in mind, letting the design evolve as he works. The result often surprises even him.

Though sand art’s roots likely come from the time of cave paintings, it isn’t immune to the whims of the technology age. In 2013, Disney Research partnered with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich to build BeachBot, an autonomous sand-drawing robot. Resembling a cartoon turtle with a rake for a tail, the cutesy robot traces geometrically perfect shapes and images into the sand. BeachBot’s portrait of Walt Disney is impressive, but art is nothing without emotion and the subtlety of the human hand; the true sand artists needn’t hang up their rakes just yet.