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Art Warm-Ups by John Nakanishi

As a soccer coach, I understand the importance of warming up before practices or games. Warming up helps prepare the body for the upcoming physical exertions. For athletes, the warm-up helps prevent injuries and improves performance with sport-specific motions, activating that “muscle memory” and putting the athlete in the right frame of mind. Similarly, when musicians warm up, they make sure their instruments are in tune with each other and prepare physically and mentally for the performance.


So, what about artists? Yes, artists can also benefit from warming up. On the physical side, warm-ups get your visual sense aligned with your muscles, improving your hand-eye coordination. On the mental side, warm-ups get those synapses in your mind firing, enhancing your ability to compare and contrast shapes, colors, and values.



What does a warm-up for an artist look like?


  • Warm-ups are generally short exercises, perhaps only 5–10 minutes.

  • Warm-ups usually involve a certain amount of repetition.

  • Warm-ups should be specific to the media and the style you will be working in after you warm up.

For example, warm up with watercolors and a brush if you are working in watercolor. If you are drawing, use a pen, pencil, pastel, or chalk, depending on your current project. If you are making a geometric, symmetric piece with precise markings such as crosshatching, your warm-up would incorporate geometric shapes and focus on the accurate alignment of lines. If your artwork primarily has organic shapes, then your warm-up would include more free-flowing lines with exciting before interactions between marks.




Here is an example of a quick 15-minute warm-up that an artist might use prior to drawing with a pencil on paper.

  1. Hold a pencil lightly in your hand. Using the full motion of your arm from the shoulders, draw straight, parallel lines. Vary the size, spacing, direction, and weight of the lines. Take about 1–2 minutes.

  2. Hold your pencil lightly, and use the full motion of your arm from the shoulders to draw circles. Make several rotations. Vary the size of the circles. Take about 1–2 minutes.

  3. Drawing as described above, draw boxes. Vary the size and orientation of the boxes. Take about 1–2 minutes.

  4. Drawing as described above, draw free-flowing curves and squiggles. Don’t pick the pencil off the paper very often. Look at the pattern and then add textures, shading, crosshatching, stippling, etc. Take about 1–2 minutes.

  5. Finish with a set of quick sketches. Take 30 seconds or less for each sketch. Look at the still life around you or, better yet, sketch moving subjects. Draw 4–6 sketches.

  6. Done


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This is just one of many ways to warm up. An exercise doesn’t need to be so formally orchestrated either. Even working on blind contour drawings, gesture drawing, scribble drawing, or drawing Zentangles are good ways to warm up. Just do a web search using the words “warm-ups for artists,” and you’ll find loads of inspiring ideas.















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