Isabella Mendoza

Isabella Mendoza, 2, of Burbank, draws with pink chalk next to a huge chalk drawing of Patrick from SpongeBob SquarePants on the school playground for the Nickelodeon Chalk Festival at Washington Elementary School in Burbank on Friday, October 7, 2011. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)

The blacktop at Washington Elementary School was transformed Friday into an explosive canvas of color as Nickelodeon artists helped students celebrate the 11th annual California Arts Day.

“I love that we just get to express ourselves and draw what we love,” said fifth-grader Alexandria Llamas, 10, as she and classmates labored over chalk drawings.

Washington Elementary has marked Arts Day with a chalk festival for about a decade, said Principal Arlene Mooradian-Zenian, and it is more anticipated and beloved than any of the traditional holidays.

“Studies show that art also improves academics, so this is our way of having the kids … get artistic and express themselves,” Mooradian-Zenian said.

Three dozen Nickelodeon artists were there to get students’ creative juices flowing, covering the playground with elaborate and whimsical chalk art. Some of the work detailed popular Nickelodeon cartoon characters, such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer.

But much of it was original, including dinosaurs, flowers and aliens, among myriad other fanciful characters and designs. Some artists created partial drawings and then directed students as they filled in the missing shapes and lines.

Nancy Buche, an executive assistant at Nickelodeon, said the best part of the chalk event is seeing the explosion of excitement from the students as they are released onto the playground for break and see the blacktop transformed.

“We love coming just because it is like a free day for us,” Buche said. “We get to hang; we get to draw anything that we want.”

The chalk festival is just one component of a long-running relationship between Washington Elementary School and Nickelodeon, Mooradian-Zenian said. Employees at the Burbank-based company raise thousands of dollars annually to help support arts programs at the school, and they send artists to work with students on a regular basis, she said.

“I just know that if I were a kid, I would just go crazy for something like this,” Nickelodeon character designer Ernie Gilbert said of Arts Day. “I have kids, and I love kids, and it is the kind of thing to inspire them and get them excited about growing and being creative in general.”

Drawing with chalk on a playground is a visceral experience that allows the professional artists to feel like kids again, he added.

“On the playground there is no eraser, and there is no ‘undo’ button,” Gilbert said. “You have to really be bold — what you put down is what you get.”