At some point in your life, have you (or did you) play an instrument? For me, it was the flute and piccolo.

After every musician takes out and assembles their instrument, they do something with it. What is it? And… why don’t we, as artists, do the same thing?

My name is Carrie, and here on Artist Strong, I help self-taught artists overcome the “why bother” whispers of their inner critic to build their skills and develop their unique voice. Today, let’s talk about warming up.

It doesn’t matter if a musician is brand new or a seasoned professional: they warm up. While warm-ups can be different depending on your instrument, they usually involve playing scales in varying ways.

So, how do you warm up for your art?

(Cricket sounds…)

In all my years of teaching and pursuing my own art, no one, I mean no one, talked about this with me. It wasn’t until I read “Peak” by Anders Ericsson that I realized this was part of the missing puzzle that has led thousands, maybe millions, of people to assume they will never be good at art or get better than their current skill level.

Throughout college and my early years of teaching, I would get so frustrated, wondering why my skills plateaued and why I would see random spurts of growth. I felt completely beholden to the whims of my plateaus. When you get stuck at a certain level, it’s hard to see that it might pass and instead start to believe that this is as high as our skill will ever achieve.

So, not only do we need to learn techniques, but we also need to have a regular practice (warm-ups, anyone?) that purposefully supports us in our plateaus and helps us climb out of them and reach new levels with our art.

What does practice look like?

This could be different for everyone and depends on your medium and your goals for your art. I have a student inside Self-Taught to Self-Confident right now who is super competent when it comes to her use of line. I’ve encouraged her to focus on value studies.

So for her, warm-ups could be all about value. She could look at image references and do quick thumbnail sketches, and do the same thing observing objects from life. She could study a single object in detail. The choices are endless, but performing warm-ups with a particular focus will help you master skills that you can then comfortably apply to your art.

Practice doesn’t require finished art.

If every time you take out your art supplies you expect yourself to create finished, “official” art, slow that train down. With warm-ups in music, we don’t play an entire sonata; we use scales or practice small parts of a larger musical score. So please stop feeling like every mark you make has to lead to museum-quality art (otherwise, you’re doing something wrong).

Instead, see your warm-up time as an opportunity to start (and leave unfinished) an image you’ve wanted to draw. Focus on ONE skill, which can make the finished art look odd (see negative space studies). This is about training your brain to see, about developing your technique, and choosing warm-ups that align with the outcomes you have for your art.

Practice is uncomfortable.

Developing new skills, or skills you are less confident in, is, by definition, something you are less familiar with (or comfortable doing!). By definition, we aren’t learning something new unless we feel uncomfortable or challenged. 

This is also why practice activities (warm-ups, anyone?) can be done in short, focused bursts of time. This is optimal for your learning and allows you breaks when you feel frustrated or get frustrated, both of which are normal parts of the learning process.

Staying motivated.

It can be so frustrating when we feel stuck and nothing we seem to do helps us move through this bump in the road. And while practice can be hard and uncomfortable, measuring your progress over time is going to help you see exactly how your practice is improving your art.

Tia Sunshine is an artist who also invested in my program, Self-Taught to Self-Confident. She continues to use practice strategies I outline in the course and periodically assesses her growth. She recently shared an awesome example with me:

The first watercolor painting of the pitcher is before instruction. The middle painting is after one year inside Self-Taught to Self-Confident, and the last is a few years later. Talk about concrete proof of her skill development! (Also note: she worked from direct observation for this activity).

This visual proof can be super motivating, which is why I highly encourage you to engage in periodic drawing assessments. I have an article all about it linked here.

You can develop your own practice of warm-ups, or you can have all the techniques and art theory paired with practice strategies all laid out for you inside Self-Taught to Self-Confident. Learn more about this drawing program here.

I’m curious: do you engage in warm-ups or other practice activities? What do they look like? Or how will you begin to incorporate warm-ups into your practice starting today? Tell me more in the comments below.

Thanks for reading, and as always,

Remember: proudly call yourself an artist.

Together, we are Artist Strong.