Warm Ups Matter when Sketching (And Thoughts on Modeling Behavior)

December 20, 2013

131119A_Finch_WarmupLeft: Warm up sketch of finches sitting on a branch. Pentel Pocket Brush Pen on a sheet of 9 x 12 inch paper.

For about 15 years I did a lot of artist residencies in the public schools. I would be hired for a week to come in on a daily basis and teach bookbinding and journaling, or to teach colored pencil drawing techniques, or to teach creative brainstorming, or to teach observational techniques (both visual and written). Sometimes I'd be hired to come in once a week for several weeks, but I still focused on the same things.

Whenever the classes were visual (or we were at that point in the class when we focused on the visual) students always seemed to have difficulty letting go of perfect. They worried that their first sketches would be lousy. They wanted their sketches to be exactly the way they saw them in their heads.

Of course I explained the need for drawing practice, for warm ups, for revision, for just being in the moment.

But in every class at least one kid (aged somewhere from 7 to 17) would always grumble about his or her sketch not looking right.

I would do tons of drawing demos where I produced less than stellar drawings—because 1. I had not warmed up yet, or 2. I had been talking and not concentrating. 

I modeled balanced behavior that showed them how bad drawings didn't deflate my desire to draw. I modeled positive analytical skills to show them how to break down their process and see where they could improve it to end up with better sketches (though not necessarily the first sketches of the day).

Some kids would go to my website (I didn't have a blog at that time) and look at my posted journal selections. Some of them would get that I'm not "precious" about these sketches, they are just what happened on the day.

Fewer kids would absorb the idea that I was simply higher on the learning curve than they were and that was why even some of my bad drawings weren't that bad in their eyes.

Of course this opened an opportunity to talk about that phenomenon, but again…your mind hears what it wants to hear and for these kids it was that they didn't have skills and couldn't do something perfectly the first time they tried it.

I always thought it odd that when we did the written portions of the residencies they had absolutely no problem working with drafts. They had been doing that since they were very young indeed.

So this tells me that we need to get more artists in the schools to show kids that there is a revision and drafting process to finished illustrations as well as written work. That the drafting or warm up process is fun even when it is challenging. That doing warm ups allows you to refine your idea and improve your final drawing, even if you are going to do the final drawing from "scratch" (and by that I mean, you are going to draw it freehand, without revised overlays and such, but after you've had a warm up and worked out the idea). 

Kids need to see all approaches to creating art so that they can experiment and try what works for them.

I don't teach in the schools any longer—taking a week off to teach meant arranging my work schedule to accommodate the time off, a difficult thing for someone who works for herself to do. Also I always ended up coming back to the studio with some virus or other that I'd been exposed to. (When you work alone you aren't exposed to much). Frankly I couldn't afford the additional time off from being ill.

I still try to impress my adult students with the need for warm ups.

I wanted to write about this today because many of you may have a young artist in your life. I wanted to encourage you to start modeling this behavior—sharing your process, sharing your use of thumbnail sketches and drafts and revisions in your artwork; showing them that while magical results may occur, the process isn't magical.

Modeling behavior is a way to really make a lasting impression. Some kids pick it up at first exposure, some don't "get it" until they reach college, art school, or even their first job, and realize what they saw modeled earlier is a necessity. But I think if we get to kids early and start modeling this behavior it's easier for them to have the "aha moment" later.

Start it now with the kids you are encouraging to be artists. Let them work with you, watch you solve problems. If they are old enough and interested, go over your thumbnails and warm up sketches with them. Walk them through the process. You'll know if it's the right time.

And while you're at it you can model adult, balanced ways to receive praise and criticism. Stop responding to their "wow I like that" comments with all the reasons your drawing is shit. Find a new way to talk to them that tells them what you like about the drawing and what you see you still need to work on. This gives them a positive way to work on their own and look at their own work, always allowing for the small victories to translate into ongoing growth.

If you don't have kids in your life to turn into artists but are whining about your own art life now is the perfect time to model adult, balanced behavior to yourself. (Reread the previous paragraph and apply it to your own internal dialogs.)

While I don't go into the schools any longer I still encounter so many adult students who haven't learned that a first sketch might not be perfect, haven't learned to keep working when everything is looking like shit and you know its shit, haven't really learned to tell the difference between what is shit and what is a logical next step.

A lot of what I write about on this blog is about just that. I'm writing it because I know, young or old, past students don't "get it" the first time they hear it.

Whether you decide to change a kid's artistic life or your own is up to you, but I hope you start thinking about how warm ups matter when sketching.

Below: Immediately after sketching the first warm up in this post I did this Pentel Pocket Brush Pen of a finch in the aviary of the nursing home I was visiting. It's on a sheet of 9 x 12 inch paper that I tore off a spiral pad. Since I started with the eye (as usual that's where I start), and it was too low, the left foot went off the page. So I turned this into a "piecemeal style" sketch later, and added the branch. I'm ending this post with this image because I think it makes my point for me (in a lot less than the 1151 words it took me to get here, but hey that's the way I roll). I can tell you several reasons why this is a good bird sketch. (I liked it so much immediately that I decided not to paint over it. Though I may use this drawing as the basis for a painting later.) I can also tell you a couple ways in which it isn't a great sketch and needs some improvement and attention. Doing the warm ups first allowed me to connect my brain, eye, and hand. And warm ups spilled off some of the excess adrenaline and caused me to focus my breathing. Even the restating of the top part of the beak isn't random. I knew I wanted it that way for the top of the head to be adjusted the way I wanted. And I had the patience to wait for the bird to come back roughly to the same position over and over (frankly I think this bird really likes me because she is always coming close to the windows of the aviary when I show up). I show you this sketch because there isn't any way to get to this sketch without the first sketch in this post. And the sketch below is the way I'm going to get to the next sketch.


  1. Reply

    So true:drawing is an experience — not necessarily the evidence of the experience. Practice is something a lot of people do not associate with visual things, though everybody will tell you that immediately picking up an instrument will result in some pretty awful music for a while until enough skill builds.
    Your books show a process of development and that is most powerful way to demonstrate the truth: drawing is something that is a state of mind!
    Have a great festivus…have you tried the VIARCO carbon disk? I got one as a gift from me to me , and I am excited to give it a run this weekend. The video online makes me want to make some marks on paper….

    • Moish
    • December 20, 2013

    Great thought. For myself. For my children.

  2. Reply

    Moish, I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I hope you spend many happy hours modeling artistic behavior for your children—with just the right amount of frustration and fun.

    • Tina
    • December 20, 2013

    Excellent and useful post, Roz. I teach beadwork in a local bead shop. I am always amazed that students who have never beaded before come into my classes and are disappointed when their very first piece looks nothing like my samples that I have made during 10 years of beading. And yet, if someone who had never played a musical instrument before sat down at the piano, they would not expect to be able to play like Keith Jarrett. It’s a strange phenomenon.

    We need to model to other adults as well as children!

    – Tina

    • Nina
    • December 20, 2013

    this is a super inspiring and a very timely piece for me – thank you, Roz!

  3. Reply

    Nina, thanks for writing and telling me it was useful! Roz

    • bill b.
    • December 21, 2013

    Hi Roz. I had prepared a very nice and perceptive comment on your post, but lost it when I was trying to check my spelling. ( so now the world will never know how great it was darned ipad. :-)) But, just wanted to say how great your post is, and it would make a good beginning statement of a book about “How to be a good art teacher.” I would also like to hear from you concerning those rare students who are really good but can not see it. It is THE most frustrating experience I ever encountered in teaching. I have had students, usually a bit naive, and not corrupted by previous training, that display that special thing in their work that goes beyond technical skill and sophistication. But, they don’t understand and I fear they never will.

  4. Reply

    Bill, thanks for writing in. I think this comment is very perceptive (not the bit about what a good post this is, but about the students who are talented).

    I think that students who don’t know how talented they are can sometimes be more difficult to reach because many times you have to break down the barriers they have erected (or someone erected for them) to make them feel good about their art, ideas, methods, talent, self, etc.

    So I think it really begins the same way, a discussion of process, and tools to understand and explore and improve your own process. (Improve in this instance referring to more of a “refinement.”)

    If any student begins to get that, and learns how boring it is to whine about not being good, or how boring it is to not try something, some idea they might have, then we as teachers can easily do the jiu-jitsu flip on them and use their own power (even if it’s inertia) against them.

    But we do have to do a little salesmanship about what “work” is and how fun it is, and why sweat, and not knowing, and discovering, and artistic risk taking can be so fun.

    And helping someone overcome their lack of self-worth is something that visiting artists are probably not going to accomplish because it needs repeated addressing over time (longer than one week.) Establish the root, give them a tool (or tools) to dig out the root, show them how to feel the rootless hole with something healthy, and let them go do exactly that. Roz

  5. Reply

    Roz there is so much in your blog about this that is exactly what I experience teaching adults! Thank you for verbalizing this. I had not verbalized it but felt it sometimes in myself, and oberved it in others. It is great to have a way to help others and myself!

  6. Reply

    Cathleen, I’m glad that you found this helpful. I find it a whole lot easier to talk about these things with adults than with children, but adults have a larger (usually) vocabulary and already (usually) have some understanding of the concepts or do something in their lives (quilting, cooking, and writing) that requires this type of stepped process.

    And sometimes it takes adults several times to hear this and be exposed to it before they take it up and embrace it, but the sooner we can get them warming up and thinking in these paths the sooner we take them away from negative self-talk or other issues that are holding them back, and get them to making art.

    Good luck with your students.

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