On the Importance of Warm-ups

December 18, 2008

Right: Another in my series “deconstructing” my 2008 State Fair sketches. This page spread is in a 6 x 9 inch (approx.) journal made with Zerkal's Nideggen paper.

No this isn’t another cold weather post. The type of warm-up I want to mention today is the warm-up of hand-eye coordination when you are drawing. The  journal spread on the right shows that sometimes I can jump into a drawing without being sufficiently warmed up. The large sketch on the recto page started with the eye but is really nothing more than a contour drawing. It’s the begining of a discussion between me, the subject, and the paper, but only the first utterance.

I’ve seen students draw and be disappointed with their drawing and stop. I want to encourage you to go another step. To push a little more. To push past the warm-up to the point where you are really limber. You wouldn’t push yourself to run a marathon without stretching first would you?

I have a series of three drawings (I would have used them for this post but could only find slides, not digital files) of Dottie that I use when I teach sketching. The first is very rough; I like to say you can tell it’s a dog, but just barely. The second image is a little more composed, a little more recognizable. It’s definitely a dog, you can even tell it’s an Alaskan Malamute. The third drawing is a spot on portrait of Dottie; there is no question. Every line speaks to that purpose.

And the three sketches were done in about 20 minutes, each one right after the other. If I had stopped after the first sketch I never would have arrived at the last sketch of that session.

When I sat down to work on these sketches of the bantam, I was using sketches made at the 2008 Minnesota State Fair along with some photographic references taken at the same time. (While my State Fair Journal is always done from life—sketching on the spot—I also use my time at the Fair to collect photographic references to augment what I see in person. If I'm going to do a painting later I might need to check the pattern of feathers because I only drew a head, or maybe I didn’t have time to draw the feet. Photos can’t take the place of the close looking and note taking you do when drawing from life. And my eyes adjust better to a variety of light conditions than a camera does. Together sketches and photos make for some great reference material.)

To begin the bantam sketch on the recto page I started with the eye, working with a dip pen and Ziller Glossy Black ink. Immediately I knew it wasn’t going to work and this fatalism is recognized by me in the languid line of the head boundary. I was already thinking about how to get myself out of this sketch.  But I was determined to at least get a feel for the ink and nib on the paper. With that in mind I finished the outline. Then I jumped right away to a smaller version (the sketch on the lower left portion of the lefthand page).

081206BantamDippenCropped Left: a close up of the bantam head study I did after the first loose atempt. I'm still working with Ziller ink in the same small dip pen nib, on Nideggen. Click to enlarge the image.

Two important things happened when I started the second drawing. First, I was now warmed up and my hand, eye, and brain were all working together actually thinking and looking. Second, I adapted the scale of my drawing to a smaller size which was better for the pen nib I was working with. This allowed me to play with my lines and have a lot of fun. I think that attitude improvement is obvious in the second drawing.

But I needed to do the large loose drawing first to get to the second drawing, which I quite like (and think I’ll turn into a painting). I needed to warm up, and in the process of warming up I also needed to make conscious decisions about the scale of my drawing suiting my tools—some sort of adaptation had to be made. Can I draw large images with a small nib? Yes, but on this day I wasn’t willing to put in the concentration and my first sketch told me that.

So I would like to recommend that you take time to warm up. Some days it will be seconds, other days you’ll work for what seems like hours and still not feel warmed up. But stick with it. Keep adapting. Keep looking, keep moving the drawing tool. If you think what you drew is awful push past it to the next drawing, and the next drawing after that. There’s learning in every drawing if we pay attention.

  1. Reply

    This is a brilliant post. Thank you Roz. Very — no, extremely — helpful!

    ~ Kim

    • Roz
    • December 19, 2008

    Thanks Kim, I’m glad you found it useful. Good luck with your drawing. Roz

    • Roz
    • December 19, 2008

    Paintdiva, I think that’s a great suggestion. I like to keep a scrap of watercolor paper next to my watercolor paintings where I can test colors when things have to be “right,” which is usually as I get to the end of a painting and start worrying about messing it up! I tend to save these and label the color mixes.

    I also use the scrap to get my brush loaded the perfect way if I’m doing tiny details, on my rocks, and such. I want to make sure I have just the right amount of paint/water so I load it and brush it on the scrap in a single stroke until I can tell it’s just ready to make the perfect line and then go to the painting.

    Those wouldn’t make interesting book marks!

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