The Importance of Warming Up

In working as a freelance illustrator and concept artist, I've learned that warming up is an invaluable part of my day. Recently, I've been talking about this when I visit classes and when I answer emails but I can't stress how important it really is. When I was in school, I'd have days where I'd hit a wall. I felt like my art-making powers were gone and everything I made just looked horrible. I went through this a lot growing up and my parents, in an effort to make me feel better and to be supportive, would call it a "block". They'd tell me to walk away for a while and then it would pass. So I did. I'd just take it as part of a cycle and wouldn't draw for a few days. Then, suddenly I'd get an idea and I'd rush to my room and draw something out. It worked! This was my understanding of art making: You make art when you feel like it or when the inspiration strikes you. (Now, this is true for some modes of art making, however, working as a concept artist and/or illustrator is a non-stop deal and sometimes you have to work on a deadline even if you don't want to.)

When I signed up to go to college to learn how to make art for a living, I wasn't sure how my way of thinking would fit into something that required hourly wages and such. How could I always produce art? What if I loose my art making powers during a deadline? Do clients understand what an "art block" is? It seems a bit ridiculous now but I didn't know anything about working for myself or as a creative professional then. Part of getting through art school is learning how to solve these problems: working through the dreaded "art block" to meet class deadlines. I remember I'd be up late, having a staring contest with a blank board, stressing out about what I'd turn in the next day. Everything I would start wouldn't come out right and I get angry at the first line I'd put down. I just wanted to stop time so I could "re-charge" or something. I'd like to think I wasn't alone in that feeling but we never talked about it much as students. Instructors talked a lot about sketching and making work everyday but as a student I never made the jump into thinking that I could actually have my sketches work for me. I always thought sketchbooks were supposed to look "finished" and be filled with expert thumbnails, highly rendered studies and figure drawings that could hang on a wall somewhere. It wasn't until after school that I finally figured out that I needed to add a step to my day.

You have to stretch. Just like athletes, you must stretch your muscles - your art making muscles. When I left school, I suddenly realized that I had no schedule. I needed to make my own. At first, this was really tough. I still had this problem where I'd sit down to make something and I'd have no juice. I just didn't know where to start. So instead of making finished works, I started to sketch again. I figured that if I sketched something, at least I'd have that to show for my day. I started sketching everyday and in doing so I began to realize that after sketching I felt inspired to keep working. This is what warming up is all about. You push through that initial muck that comes out at first so you can really begin to work!

Now, let me be clear, warming up is different for everyone. Some artists like to render finished pieces in between assignments little by little, some like to make collages out of magazines and some like to draw repetitive circles on scrap paper. We're all different but one thing that rings true for all warmups is: It needs to be for you and it needs to be fun.

Your warm-up time is your time to let loose and have fun doodling, sketching and creating the things you like to doodle, sketch and create. So maybe the deadline you're working on isn't getting you excited or you've been working on it tirelessly. Reward yourself for a minute. I've found that taking some time at the start or end of my day to warm up and play really helps put me in a good mood. Honestly, I work better when I'm in a good mood. I love drawing creatures and animals - so that's what I warm up with.

Remember this:

  • You don't need to share everything. You know I only share the good stuff. Most days my warmups really are muck and that's fine. They can stay hidden away as a lesson and another notch in my belt.
  • Warming up is really fun but you have to be disciplined with it as well. Give yourself a time limit. Maybe you can take and hour or two or maybe just 15 minutes. Whatever you find is enough time to get you ready for work is good. This is usually around the time you want to finish up the sketch - put it down and move on to the next warmup or to your work.
  • Make it a habit. If you warmup everyday, you'll crave it. It's a good way to start or end your work day because it offers a bit of structure. Being a freelancer is so free-form, sometimes it can help to have one solid thing to frame your day.
  • Make it count. This is something I'm learning now in my own work. Why not warm-up with an anatomy study of something or some quick gesture drawings at a cafe? Use the time to multitask and learn something new as you're getting ready for your work day.

I hope this helps you as it has been helping me. Being creative everyday is hard and sometimes you have to run on autopilot. While warming up has helped me tremendously in being productive, sometimes the answer is simple. Put down the pencil, walk around outside and get some fresh air. ;)