Why Warm Up When Drawing?

October 6, 2014

Pretty much every time I give a talk and show my work, or teach a class and explain my process, or even just share work with other sketchers I am asked:


There are a lot of roots to this question, roots as individual as the person asking. One root, judging from some of the people who ask the question and their own work (or their lack of ability to produce any work), lies in the burden of perfectionism under which they toil. The questioner wants his journal to be filled with perfect pages—startling and stunning drawings, and frame-able art. He feels "funny" about picking up his pen for 5 minutes or even 3 minutes to catch the gesture of a passing pedestrian (or in my case a passing dog).

I'm really unhampered by that burden of perfectionism. I want to get what I can get down in my journal down now and move on. That's what matters to me. I also consider my journal a workbook. It is a place to experiment and push myself. It is a place to play, without any desire beyond “what if I do this…?”

The result of my approach is a feeling of weightlessness and joy-filled wonder. I try to communicate this to my students. Other folks probably just think I'm touched.

Still other questioners come clean with the following addendum to their question: “Why warm up when drawing when we see that if you want to you can draw these exquisite line drawings of things like chickens, with incredible detail." And then they usually reference one of my Minnesota State Fair Journal sketches like this one. I agree that some of my best work has been done standing in the ammonia saturated air at the Fair, but I wouldn’t get to that work without warm ups, and the intense 2-, 3-, and 4-hour drawing shifts that I put in throughout the days I spend there.

For the folks in this camp, nothing has value unless it is perfect (back to that again) or somehow an artistic expression polished enough to attract praise and attention.

Since my journal is really just for me, I’m the only one I have to impress. And I can only impress myself, in fact I can only look at myself in the mirror, if I constantly push and try new things or work on some new line of attack I’ve hatched. That means a lot of messy pages. Pages which make me happy and demonstrate to me that I’m holding up my end of the artistic bargain I made with myself long ago.

Others express impatience when asking the question. The same impatience they express when they fail to follow through in their own drawing practice.

Those people often show you their journal work with a sound track of excuses and apologies. They get caught up in comparisons. Not actual in the moment comparisons such as “my page is like such and such” but negative, self-defeating comparisons of their work to the work of others— “Carmen renders everything so that you recognize the individual to perfection and my sketches don’t even convey a human entity.”

These questioners have an internal dialog that constantly reminds them that they are less than everyone else around them. But that same voice fails to point out that everyone around them has been sketching for 10 or 20 years longer than they have, or perhaps sketching only a few years longer but paying more attention to process and progress, not dabbling and expecting wondrous results.

And finally there are students who ask that "why warm up when drawing?" question because they really, really want to know what benefit I derive from filling page after page of expensive art paper with squiggles and slashes and splotches that look like nothing they can make out, but which I seem overjoyed to have created.

I don’t pay any attention to any of these questioners except that final group. They are the only folks open to hearing what I might have to say on this subject.

I do warm up sketches in my journals because

  1. I want to connect my hand, eye, and brain immediately. I want to announce to myself that I’m getting ready to work. Pay attention self! Take a deep breath. Here we go.
  2. It’s fun to move the pen (pencil, brush) quickly across the page and get a feel for the paper—I’m all about the fun factor of drawing.
  3. It’s necessary to start moving your hand and arm about to get a sense of your own physicality on that day and how you are able to move and work in the circumstances—whether you are cramped for working space, or your muscles are cramped from other activities.
  4. It’s important to see how your materials and paper are working on any given day in conditions where temperature and humidity effect their interplay. Better to realize in 30 seconds of a gesture sketch (for which you had few expectations) that it’s too humid today to use that sharp-tipped rollerball on the soft printmaking paper, than to dive in and struggle through a whole labored sketch.
  5. When you make a quick (30 seconds or less) gesture drawing of a live animal (or person) moving, your mind and eye have to take in the whole gestalt of the subject. In doing that you often hit upon the very essence of what you are looking to capture in that subject. Instead of spending an hour feeling your way to that in a stiff drawing you can realize it immediately and plan your next approach to capitalize on any epiphanies experienced during the warm up.
  6. Additionally, quick gesture and contour drawings help your brain identify essential points to gather MORE information on. For instance, a quick contour drawing delineating internal value shapes in crude form alerts you to the need to pay specific heed to those forms and discover in your final drawing that wonderful play of light which first drew your attention to the subject.
  7. Perhaps most important for me, warm up drawings actually SLOW ME DOWN. I tend to always be a speed sketcher and when I do warm ups I find that a lot of the excess adrenaline and energy I’m experiencing when I first catch hold of a subject I want to sketch, is usefully drawn off when I do a warm up. When I turn to do a more detailed or studied sketch I find that my attention is focused and a “more accurate” (though I will not say “perfect”) approach is then possible.
  8. And an ancillary to item 7—I am able to sync my breath and energy with my subject. This is particularly important when drawing subjects like birds who pick up on my carnivore lifestyle and need to be put at ease. Warm ups allow me to reassure them. By putting them at their ease, they are in turn better models, who work with me rather than against me.

I could continue this list for quite some time, but those are the main reasons I do warm up sketches.

A couple weeks ago I went off to Como Zoo to meet my friend LisaMarie. I did the sketches which follow on that day. I explain a little bit about each in their captions.

I know that the later sketches where totally dependent on the earlier sketches. And because of that I value them all.

Yes, there are days when I go to Como (or another site) and I start sketching immediately with as much detail as I can observe and cope with. But often those are days when I’ve already been sketching earlier and so I’m feeling warmed up. Or it might be a situation where I have very limited time and want to accomplish one sketch with some detail. In the latter situation I take time to watch my subject for longer than I normally would (and that’s quite long as it is) and I make a conscious effort to adjust my breath and energy level mentally without the physical release of warm ups.

And most important I accept that I will pay attention and do what I can do, but not expect perfection. It’s a journal, it’s a sketch. I’m having fun. I’m observing. Everything I notice and capture in my journal on that day is fodder for other work and so the burden of perfectionism is removed from the equation and I just have to be there, noticing, knowing that the more I do exactly that, the better will be my results over time.

And that brings me to patience. And that places me in the now. And that is exactly where I want to be, and why I keep a journal/sketchbook. How could anything be better?


Above: I worked in one of my handmade journals. It is about 7 x 5 inches and is made with Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper. As I started in on this day I had no sense of whether or not my drawing companion would want to move along quickly, becoming bored with Puffins (though really how is that possible?) or be so involved with them that I would want to move on first. Jumping in with a favorite pen (the Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy Pen) was a way for me to just get down to work before the subjects all disappeared for their meal or nap. For my sketch on the recto page I again worked quickly as the subject bobbed about. This helped me adjust to the fact that he wasn't going to sit still and I would have to kick my visual memory into gear and "hold" his position and angles in my mind. I also took the watercolors out and splashed on color notes, not bothering with details of exact local color. (I was working with a palette of Daniel Smith watercolors.) And finally I got out my orange and blue Montana acrylic paint markers because I love them and they are FUN.  


Above: After a short chat with LM at the Coral Exhibit I moved on to penguins. They were being fed. Even though they stayed in a particular area they were still moving about. I picked one to sketch and it walked away (top left, numbered). Then I saw a penguin poised to jump into his pool (sketch 2 on the recto page) and I started to sketch and again got out the paint. I decided to use different pigments than I normally do because the penguins looked more brown than black to me on this day. I mixed a transparent rust oxide with phthalo blue red shade. This also allowed me to achieve the lavender tones around their faces. I particularly enjoyed the values I captured on both the wings. Then with the same pigments on my brush and the occasional addition of some Phthalo Turquoise I started to draw with the Niji waterbrush (no ink lines) on sketch 3 at the center of the spread. I drew in the shapes and as they dried I added additional value notes. By that time LM was nearby and we chatted for a moment so when the paint was all dry I went in with the Faber-Castell Pitt Artist's Calligraphy Pen and drew over the washes to delineate my shapes further. I like the softer look I got with this approach and it helped me to feel out the shapes with the values.


Above: It was time for LM to depart. We had used some of our drawing time for looking at the Polar Bears and to chat, not sketch. We had walked through the new primate building addition and I decided that with only a houseful of wasps awaiting my return (use this blog's search engine to learn about the wasp infestation if you haven't already read about it) I decided to return and sketch the gorillas. The silverback male sat very close to the glass, his back and sometimes his side, facing the visitors as he looked out over his outdoor enclosure. I worked from left to right, only pulling out the paints when the second gorilla sketch was on the page. He wasn't holding the Guinea Fowl. (There were two walking about in the enclosure.) I just wanted to extend the gorilla's arm to show it's proportion, and elected to not draw over, but around the guinea fowl.   


Above: Even though I've been sketching for some time (with a break to chat with LisaMarie) I return to gesture drawings when I want to get a sense of my subject as he moves, and to familiarize myself with his proportions which "seem" human, but aren't.  


Left: Detail of the final gorilla sketch done on the day. I was able to note the color variations in the fur as well as the texture quality and values.  


Start by looking at your goal(s) for the day, and let go of that notion of “every page must be perfect and artful.”

Is your goal to learn something about your subject? To observe? Well those goals are much more doable when you dive in with warm ups. The fun of being present in the now, observing, is reward enough, but it also generates learning which will be useful later. And those warm ups will help you focus and be more accurate later in your drawing session.

Embrace experimentation but at the same time pay attention to your process so that during your warm up you learn to notice how things are going. In this way you will learn to quickly decide which materials you really need to be using. It’s more likely you’ll create something approaching artful if you pay attention to how you are working and select items that are working for you instead of against you on this day.

See practice for what it really is—practice. And see within practice a thousand little victories which will lead you to a better drawing.

    • Julana
    • October 6, 2014

    Your messy page advice was one of the most helpful permissions I got from Sketchbook Skool. Now all of my pages are messy! 🙂

  1. Reply

    Julana, I’m glad that advice has been helpful and that you are using that permission to sketch up a storm!

  2. Reply

    Jan, I think we need to remember to think about this on any given day, just so we can optimize our drawing time. I had a huge humidity problem at the State Fair this year, not with the paper I was working on but with the soft covers of the journal that contained the paper. I couldn’t do anything about it since I was committed to using the book and didn’t have a stiff board (or the shoulders to carry one if I did), but I did adjust my attitude and my expectations. And for future will use such books in different circumstances. So we learn all the time!

    Hope your sketching is going great!

    • Carol
    • October 6, 2014

    This is a great post, Roz!
    The orange you used yesterday at MetroSketchers – was that the Montana marker also? That’s a fantastic color …

    • Meg
    • October 6, 2014

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for the list, Roz. I know in my head everything you said, as this is so similar to what I advise about weaving, my day game. When it comes to drawing/sketching, although I have no ambition other than to enjoy it, I have a hard time starting. Interestingly, I have no problem/inhibition when I am in an occasional drawing class as there all I need to do is to follow instructions.

    It’s in the head, I tell you.

    • Tony
    • October 6, 2014

    Roz, I’m one of the really really want to know derived benefit people. Thank you so much for this eloquent response gleaned from your own awareness of your process. Your words and process continue to inspire me.

  3. Reply

    Thanks Carol, great fun to see you yesterday. Yes, the orange in that first spread is the same orange from Sunday in the Graveyard. It’s a 30 mm Montana Marker. I think they call it “Shock Orange” but I can’t find the refill bottle. I don’t remember them having a lot of orange paints in that line so it probably is the only one. You can get markers with smaller nibs that would be easier to “cut” around stuff, but I like the unwieldy nature of the 30 mm nib and then the ease with which I can do wide areas when I turn the nib.

    Oh, and I forgot, that light blue in that spread is ALSO a 30 mm Montana Marker. But I didn’t use that color on Sunday (but I did have it with me).

  4. Reply

    Meg, I’m so glad you found this useful. I think we all have things we do all the time and they work “effortlessly” for us and then we try to do something else and don’t apply the same approach and things don’t work and yet we already know how to make it work—I’m glad you can see your weaving process is transferable. Thanks for writing.

  5. Reply

    Tony, well, then I’m really glad I wrote this! I am glad you found it helpful. I hope your sketching adventures go great!

    • Tina
    • October 6, 2014

    Bravo! This post is the type that keeps me reading your blog. To me, warning up in the sketchbook is the same as stretching before exercising: You’re telling your body that it’s time to get out of bed and start the day!


    • Carol
    • October 7, 2014

    I’ve got to get me some of those markers – maybe even try some lettering with them. You’ve inspired me 🙂

  6. Reply

    Carol, the only problem with the markers is that they are SO BIG that they take up all the space in your bag if you want to carry more than one or two—hence my creation of the marker holster!

    But if you have a big pack, no problem.

    They are great fun. I can’t wait to see what you do with them.

    (And I have no trouble working OVER the marker backgrounds or colors I add to my pieces, with any of the ink pens I normally use.)

  7. Reply

    Tina, so glad you enjoyed this post. I too think it’s like stretching before exercising but I hesitate to use that analogy these days because I read some studies which claimed that there were fewer runner’s injuries if they stretched afterwards. As a person who was once a long distance runner I put that all down to the people in the study doing it incorrectly, but I avoid the issue by avoiding the analogy.

    However, like you, in my mind it’s the same thing, we’re connecting mind, body, and eye and we are WORKING NOW. And then it starts going.

    • Carol
    • October 7, 2014

    Marker holster!! I need to see this 🙂

  8. Reply

    Carol if you watch the video flip through of my 2014 MN State Fair Journal, which appears at the BOTTOM of this post
    you will see me wearing the holster at the beginning, and you’ll also see it on the table with markers falling out of it.

    It was something I made in about 30 minutes just before I headed off to the Fair this year, because I could not, with my shoulder injury, keep turning and twisting to get into my pack to get one of the markers out; and they were TOO big to fit in my pockets (even though I have very big, deep pockets that hold everything else!!!)

    • Carol
    • October 7, 2014

    Oh, I remember seeing that now! I love the fabric you used, too. Sweet – you’re a genius.
    (The Fair film has made me long for warmer weather again. Sigh.)

    • Linda
    • October 8, 2014

    Roz, What a wonderful article, I loved reading this and a good rule to keep in mind you do not have to be perfect(Linda) and a reminder of that. I really love this one Roz and will come back to go over this often.
    Thanxvs Gosh :)opps Thank you,Roz

  9. Reply

    Linda, I’m glad it was helpful. Keep those warm ups going. Thanks for reading!

  10. Reply

    The Fair is a great end of summer blow out. And while some of the temps were high this year, most of the Fair days were beautiful and not too hot. It’s a nice way to go into fall. Now if only the sun would stay OUT when we are sketching it would seem less of a change!

    That fabric I made the holster out of is actually an upholstery fabric I got years ago because it caught my eye while I was helping a friend look for fabric at Harris. Have you been there? They have literally tons of such fabrics.

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