Natural Media

Stencil art created by Drew Brophy Street art executed by Jim Bowes.

Stencil art created by Drew Brophy Street art executed by Jim Bowes.

Guest Post by Jim Bowes.

Natural media is used to produce outdoor advertising campaigns that have a lower impact on our planet while having a higher impact on your audience.

Traditional outdoor advertising not only has a huge negative impact on our environment but it also can be expensive.

Natural media has been used in Europe for many years and is now making its way to North America. It’s been used by established brands like Nike, Timberland, KEEN Footwear, Sony, LG, Heineken and Sonos that are dedicated to lowering the environmental impact of their advertising activities but it is also perfect for SMEs, NGOs and cities themselves. They are affordable and many are perfectly suited for businesses that want to do it themselves.

Natural media are a collection of communication techniques that use water, sand, snow, moss, grass, chalk, and milk paint to produce communication messages.

The most popular technique is known as “reverse graffiti” or “clean advertising.” Using only a template, water and a power washer, messages are literally cleaned out of the dirt – no paper, no plastic, no toxic inks, no electricity for front or back lighting and very little waste. One template can be used hundreds if not thousands of times. Reverse graffiti uses precious water but it uses less than 1/10th the amount of water that it takes to produce a piece of paper of a comparable size. Many natural media companies compensate for the water they use by contributing to water projects around the world.

Sand printing.

Another popular technique is sand printing where an image is created when a mixture of sand and natural binders is pushed through a screen that is attached to template. Sand printing is a cross between silk screen and rangoli printing. When the sand mix is activated by water, when it dries it forms a bond adhering to the surface.

Chalk and milk paint are also popular. Which material is used depends on how long you want your messages to last. Sand prints can last up to a week or two while milk paint and some chalk paints can last up to several months.

Flowers, plants, moss and grass are ideal for posters, signage or “living billboards.” These are usually adhered to a template and trimmed producing stunning communication pieces.

Sand and snow stamping are easy to use techniques that are somewhat temporary but placing them is so quick that one person with a stamping template can place hundreds of images a day.

Sand stamping at beach. Image courtesy of EarthStamps.

Sand stamping at beach. Image courtesy of EarthStamps.

The natural media industry is growing quickly and there are many companies you can hire to execute your campaign for you. These companies have the equipment and the knowledge and will normally charge you per “impression.” Natural media campaigns are affordable. But the real beauty of many of these techniques is that you can produce campaigns yourself if you have the right tools, materials and the spirit. For a few hundred dollars you can execute your own outdoor campaign and take advantage of this very effective form of communication. If I can figure out how to use these techniques, believe me anyone can do it!

Natural media techniques are not new. Most have been around for decades or centuries. Milk paint was used to paint cave walls. If you have ever written, “wash me” on a dirty car, you have already used “reverse graffiti” or “clean advertising.” Sand stamping was used in hotel ashtrays to produce hotel logos. What is new about these techniques is how they are being used for marketing and advertising purposes.

There are some challenges that the natural media industry is working hard to overcome and risks you need to be aware of. Natural media is in a legal grey zone so to speak. There are no laws against cleaning a public space. Municipalities would be hard pressed to arrest or fine you for organizing sand into a shape that your eye recognizes as a letter or an image. However, there are some valid concerns about monetizing the public space.

Billboard made of moss for Becks Beer.

Billboard made of moss for Becks Beer.

For those of us who like to challenge the way the system works, getting in trouble can be the best possible outcome if you are prepared for it. Why? Because getting into trouble for being a responsible business, acting in a way that matches or fulfills the sustainable ambitions of almost every country, city and town is at best a waist of the civil servants time and at worst hypocritical.

We have had clients that were thrilled to get into trouble. I wouldn’t be surprised if they got themselves in trouble because they had a strategy and public response in place. Even a simple strategy like contacting the local press to innocently apologize for using sustainable media can work wonders. You are after all, just trying to be good corporate citizens almost forced to use natural media because the outdoor media companies who have a virtual monopoly on our cities do not offer any sustainable forms of media you can use. Getting into trouble for being a good corporate citizen is a story most journalist love to tell.

If your goal is to generate attention for your business than landing on the front page of the local newspaper will make sure 100 times more people will see your campaign than those that past by it physically. A whooping success by any measure, with the worse case scenario being you are asked to return and remove the messages by simply washing them away leaving the side walk cleaner than before you arrived and who doesn’t like clean!

Sand stamping brand awareness campaign for HI.

Sand stamping brand awareness campaign for HI.

Natural media can be even more effective when it combines art with brand experience. If we are buying more from brands we like, then winning our hearts is a far better approach than hawking products.

By using the urban landscape as the canvas and mother nature as the brush, you are practicing what you preach and demonstrating in a tangible way that you are authentically dedicated to reducing your impact on the environment.

Advertising and marketing are key ingredients to a successful business. Natural media techniques make it easy for you to promote your company in a way that has a lower impact on our environment and if done in an esthetically pleasing and clever way it can have a much higher impact on your target audience.

The Author:

Jim Bowes grew up in Northern California and now lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He left the traditional advertising industry ten years ago with the mission of reducing the impact of advertising on the environment. He founded GreenGraffiti one of the first natural media companies and has recently started a new consulting firm called Natural Media Experts to promote the young natural media industry, teach advertisers and creative’s how to use natural media to its fullest potential and to help others set up their own natural media companies. He is widely recognized as an authority on natural media and has been invited to speak at TEDx Warwick.  You can reach him by email at .

  • Wow Tad,

    I feel so honoured to have gotten two goes at your blog!

    Guest blogging is a great way to share my passion. For those interested in the sand techniques, I also wrote a guest blog for RoundPeg communication that was more focused on printing with sand. There is something about using such simple techniques that I find very rewarding. It really goes to show we can work with what mother nature has given us.

    I would also like to know what your loyal followers think about natural media. I spent 7 years executing natural media for large brands like Nike, Starbucks, Sony, Samsung, LG, Keen Footwear and Sonos but with my new adventure I really look forward to working with smaller brands. The big brands liked the sustainable aspect of natural media but in most cases, it still felt more as if they were using it because they felt they had to than using it because it was completely in line with their sustainable ambitions.

    Thanks again for the repost!

  • Jim,
    what are you using for a binder in the sand for the silkscreen process?



  • Hi Dave,
    We are using a special bend of natural materials to bind the sand together and to the surface. Mostly vegetable starches. It took me about 100 tries to get the mix right. Currently, this results in having to use a very fine sand but we are working on a new approach that will actually create a coating around the sand grains so we can also use a large grain of sand which is a bit heavier and does not blow away in the wind when you are placing a print.
    It is a very delicate balance between the screen, the sand and the binder. It is key to lay down as thin a layer as possible so that when people walk on it when it is still a bit wet, it doesn’t track down the sidewalk.
    That probably doesn’t really answer your question but I am paying my rent and feeding my family by selling these products I have developed. I have invested hundreds of hours in the sand printer product. I am sure it can be improved but it works really well as it is and much better than the first few versions.
    The blog is not about making sales, its about turning people on to the fact that there is a whole new movement of young sustainably minded entrepreneurs trying to reduce the huge negative impact of advertising especially outdoor advertising which is effective but incredibly unsustainable. Nothing like cutting down tree to make paper to print messages about saving the trees. These new media are not perfect. No business activity is but they are a great alternative not to mention so simple that you can master any technique in about 30 minutes.
    All you need are the tools, the materials and a little know-how and you can do-it-yourself.
    you can always contact me directly by email: Always like to talk to others with a kindred spirit!

  • Here’s a new technique I have been working on. It’s called Sandembossing or sandbassing. It creates this lovely relief of sand. The tool is much simpler and the sand-mix is sand you source locally and mix with a liquid sand-mix. When it dries it creates a hard bond that can be walked on a bit. When you pore water over and brush it with your hand, when it dries, the sand just blows away. This may be my proudest moment. Certainly my favourite new technique. Also comes in colors. Love working with sand.

  • Thanks Jim,

    Not to worry, that’s actually a great answer. thanks for the detailed reply.


  • lisamanyon

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  • Claudia

    Thank you for that post, Tad. I am a great fan of land art and this kind of advertising has that same ephemeral feel. I find most public advertising ugly, a distraction and visual assault – especially digital billboards. The associated waste of energy and resources is also a huge concern in the face of increasing climate change and social unrest. Using natural media is a great solution in many ways, especially in places where advertising is already common. I do have a problem with extending any kind of advertising to natural spaces, such as green spaces, public parks, forests, beaches, etc. We all require regular rest from advertising, from screen time, from human-created sensory stimulation. We need a chance to take in natural landscapes, sounds and smells that allow us to let go of daily stress, to recharge and reconnect. This is why cities with extensive green space are considered “most livable”. In Edmonton, the river valley is cited as one of the best features and places to relax. Advertising in these places, even if “natural”, would take away from that, and as you mention, it would be “monetizing the public space”.

  • James Zakaria

    I love original ideas like this. Gives me thought to try something like this for my own organization. Thanks

    (But your commenting registration system is a pain in the …. Why Tad? Why?

  • Heck ya. I love it. It’s fun, noticeable and works with nature. I’d love to see WAY MORE examples. Where can we find them!?

  • Jennifer Shelby

    what methods do you find work well with snow?

  • HI Bradley,
    If you of a google image search for reverse graffiti, you will find many examples. One of the challenges the industry faces is that it is quite scattered. There are about 10 names for reverse graffiti and many other techniques also are called different names by different companies.
    Sand printing is relatively new so not much out there yet. It can be a bit of a treasure hunt.

  • Hi Jennifer,
    Snow is a great medium to work in. There are two different techniques that I have used. One is using a snow stamp. Think of a big rubber stamp that you push into the snow. The other is much like sandbossing where you place a template on the snow, fill the empty letters of image and lift the snow. In this case the image is raised. Both are very easy to do if you have the right tool.
    Images need to be quite big and bold with large spaces between the letters so that the snow does not stick to the tool. I live in Amsterdam which has very little snow but even in just 1/2 inch you can make a nice image. Remember that the act of executing the campaign or artwork makes for a great opportunity to create content for your blog, social media channels and Press releases. it is almost performance art and people will gather to watch you as you work. The “EX” example is a campaign made by Curb Media. It’s a small image but it got a lot of exposure. This is made using the snow stamping technique. The other is a campaign I made in Amsterdam. In this case the images are raise.
    In my opinion the raised technique is very elegant. It also requires a much less expensive “template”. It is a bit more work but like all natural media techniques, for a few hundred dollars you have a tool you can make thousands of impressions with. If you would like to know more, please feel free to email me

  • Hi Claudia,
    I am an ad guy so I have a bit of a love affair with it. However, I think everyone will agree that advertising for the most part is just bad at best offensive at worse.
    The model of advertising and mass media have not changed and this is where I think it is failing badly. It’s all about push, push, push. It assumes the consumer is stupid or does not notice their surroundings. Much of the “rationale” around outdoor media especially- I think is a myth. The idea is that people will only notice an ad after they have been hit over the head with it a hundred times. Nonsense. Outdoor media is proud that it is “confrontational” you can’t click it away or turn the page. It is also the only business that I know of where a .3% recall rate is consider successful. A 99.7% is called success?! Really! Nice job outdoor industry of creating a spin where your clients are happy to fail 99.7% of the time. Talk about waste!
    So I do share your concerns but again, I think the model is failing. What is in it for you the consumer? Nothing. That’s the problem. You have to put up with it.
    But what if there was something in it for you? What if you knew an ad you saw on the beach was going to fund a program to keep the beach free of plastic and garbage? Or what if an ad in a park was paying to make sure there were park rangers and guides to help improve the experience?
    Advertising can have a much wider spectrum. Here’s an example using a brand that many people have a problem with. “Big Mac $4.95 today only” hard sell, push as compared to “This time try our McSalad for a healthier life style”. A very different tone both aimed at getting you into the store (okay not great copy).
    My point is that advertising can also be a social message or a positive message. Many brands are getting away from hocking products and trying to build brand love. Patagonia is very good at this. They tell people NOT to buy their products and sales go up. Hmm…
    It’s time for advertising to give back. It has the potential to add something even if that is just funding social causes,- the national forests, schools, libraries, homeless, or helping to maintain playgrounds.
    I think we as the consumer would tolerate it better if it were being used to do good as well as build brand value.
    There is too much. Most of it is not relevant. It’s pretty ugly and again, it is pushed on us from all angles. The take, take, take advertising model needs to change to a give, give, give angle. I think if it did, we would be much more willing to tolerate it.
    The sidewalk murals we made for KEEN Footwear in Germany were really branded street art. They got a huge amount of media attention and people, instead of avoiding them like they do billboards, actually walked on top of them touching them and taking photos (posting to social media so being brand ambassadors – what is THAT worth). They had one logo, no single minded proposition and sales in the stores during that period were up 10% -15% proving that people will support advertising that they like or that shares their values. KEEN didn’t want to make an ad, they wanted to bring nature into the urban landscape and engage people through art. But KEEN is a brand that really gets it in my opinion. Most are too afraid to do something unconventional.
    Advertising is not the problem. Bad advertising, stupid advertising, annoying advertising is. The model has not move forward and it is very out of touch with the times. At least in my humble opinion ;)