Warm-Up Exercises!

Warm-up Activity Sheet

Read the article, then grab the activity sheet! It provides guided examples that students can use to establish good warm-up techniques.

Warm-up exercises are a critical component of the art process. In sports, professional athletes know that in order to achieve peak performance from their muscles it’s necessary to gradually work up to the demands that are placed on them. Art is no different, save in one respect. Muscle control is certainly a factor but the real benefit of warm-up drawing exercises is the way they engage your mind.

Confused? You may have heard of the famous Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. It theorizes that the two hemispheres of the brain control separate thoughts processes. In most people, the left brain is active much of the time, allowing you to verbally and logically navigate through the world around you. But the right brain is where visual and creative processes reside and it’s that part of the mind we are trying to engage when we draw. These warm-up exercises will help you to work up to thinking visually and should be used daily.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and if you’re interested in drawing this is it.

Holding The Drawing Implement

Hand Position

There is no “correct” way to hold your pencil/pen/whatever but there are different forms you can choose from. Figure A in the example above illustrates the standard form of holding the drawing implement which should be familiar to you already (this is the grip most people use when writing). The main benefit of this grip is that it affords you a significant amount of fine-motor control, yet it does come with certain drawbacks. For one thing, Figure A makes pressure control difficult (how hard or soft you bear down on the page when leaving a mark). Additionally, there is a tendency when using that grip to rely too much on wrist adjustments when motioning (this will be explained in greater detail in a minute).

Figure B is another solid option for gripping the implement. It discourages relying on wrist adjustments and allows you a high level of control over the pressure you use. One possible downside is uneven wear on the drawing implement (not incredibly important) and it generally takes a bit of adjustment to feel comfortable.

Of the two options, I generally go with Figure A.

Draw From The Shoulder

Shoulder Rotation

 This is key.

When you draw, make sure the motion of your stroke starts at the shoulder. It might seem counter-intuitive but drawing from the shoulder gives you far more control than making adjustments from the wrist. The goal is to have smooth, deliberate lines so keep your wrist and elbow loose. Take some practice strokes without marking the paper to reinforce your muscle memory of how the stroke should feel, then make your mark.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t move your wrist at all. It’s fine to make wrist and elbow adjustments to place the mark you desire but they should always be extensions of the motion that starts at your shoulder.

Exercise 1: Lines

Warm-up 1: Lines

First, it should be said that you can do all of these exercises in any order you want. Try and work them into your daily schedule to fill idle moments with doodling.

Exercise 1 is about knocking the rust off and getting you comfortable with Steps 1 and 2. Start by drawing a series of parallel lines equally spaced.

“But I can’t draw a straight line” you may be thinking. That’s OK. Pick a starting point for your line and a direction, then drag your pencil across the page in a steady motion originating from the shoulder. Don’t focus on the line as you make it, focus on the motion. After you’ve made one line, do it again after a short spacing. Try and control both the quality of the line (straight) and the spacing between your lines (even).

Next, draw a group of offset parallel lines. Draw about four or five parallel lines, then draw another grouping rotated in a random direction. Then do it again. Keep the offset groupings close to one another, touching if possible.

The final variation is an unbroken, looping line. As you draw, alter the trajectory of the line while maintaining regular loops. Try and think about the line as an object that exists in three-dimensional space.

Exercise 2: Circles

Warm-up Exercise 2: Circles

Circles are a bit more complex than lines. Using your shoulder to control the motion of your stroke really pays off here. The process is similar to lines (i.e. pick a starting point, focus on the motion, etc.) except you are trying to produce a curve that is completely equidistant from an imagined center point at the heart of the circle. You may be tempted to draw quickly, which is fine. However you might find it beneficial to actually slow down and make your mark more deliberately. Don’t worry if your circle isn’t perfect (mine aren’t).

Next, draw many circles of vastly different sizes. It’s fine if they overlap. You may notice that by jumping at random between drawing small circles and large ones that your control of the motion increases over time.

Finally, try drawing concentric circles. You’ve already practiced size control so your focus should be on equal spacing between the layers of circles as you draw. Don’t get discouraged if you have difficulty- it’s a challenging exercise!

Exercise 3: Ovals

Warm-up Exercise 3: Ovals

With the third exercise it’s time to start applying depth to your drawings. Drawing an oval is just like drawing a circle except you make two “sides” closer in distance to the imagined center.

It’s best that you think of ovals as circles rotated in space. Some face you more directly and appear rounder, while others are turned away and appear much thinner. If you could face them head-on, these ovals would all be circles.

Draw multiple ovals of varying sizes and widths. If you are struggling to picture them as possessing depth, bisect your circle between it’s thinnest and thickest axes. This will show you the center point and the change in spacing as the far edge of the circle recedes in space.

Exercise 4: Cylinders

Warm-up 4: Cylinders

Time to begin combining the previous elements to form basic, three-dimensional shapes. You will constantly use these shapes to construct figures and objects so the time you invest in practicing now will pay off later.

Begin by drawing an oval (the thickness of the oval is up to you). This is the end of the cylinder that faces you. If you picture a can of soup it’s pretty easy to visualize that you can only be looking at one end of the can at a time.

Next, add two lines for the sides of the cylinder. Continuing the “can of soup” metaphor, unless you are looking at the can from the side the lines you see will not be parallel. This is on account of perspective, a crucial concept that will be addressed in a future article (there’s too much information to cover here). The short version is this: the more extreme the pitch of the can away from you, the sharper the angle of the lines that form the sides of the can. If your starting oval is pretty round that means you are facing that end of the can almost head-on. Because of this you are not getting a good look at the sides of the can as they are foreshortened (things that recede in space appear smaller). Not only are the sides of the can shorter in that scenario but if you were to extend the lines away from you they would quickly converge in a point. On the other hand, if your starting oval is narrow that means you are seeing much more of the sides of the can than the end that faces you. The lines in this scenario appear more parallel and do not converge as quickly.

The last element is a curve that terminates the other end of the cylinder. Some people prefer to draw through the object and actually draw the other oval despite the fact that you wouldn’t be able to see it. That’s fine, but I advise you work up to only drawing the edge as it would appear to you. If the facing side of the can is round the far edge will appear curved, nearly a half-circle. If the facing side is narrow the far edge will appear flatter.

That’s a lot of information to absorb, so practice it by drawing many cylinders of varying sizes. Change the pitch of the can by changing the appearance of the facing side (oval width).

A more advanced version of this exercise involves drawing wrapping lines along the length of the side of the cylinder. The angle of the can will determine the nature of the curves. Try and keep the spacing between the lines consistent, which in the case of foreshortened objects means decreasing the distance between lines as they recede from you.

Exercise 5: Cubes

Warm-up 5: Cubes

Cubes are similar to cylinders in several respects. They are one of the most common shapes you will need to master. Any man-made object or environment you are likely to draw probably has a cubic or rectangular component. It’s virtually impossible that you will be able to draw background environments without relying heavily on their use. Unlike cylinders, however, cubes have six faces. Six faces that all meet at 90 degree angles from one another. It’s pretty easy to produce sloppy, canted-looking non-cubes if you aren’t paying close attention to your technique.

You’re going to want to start by drawing a square turned away from you in space. The four edges that make up the square would appear to meet at perfectly right angles if you were looking at the square directly. Since the square is turned at an angle from us we need to apply the foreshortening principles I discussed in the previous exercise. Regardless of the angle of the side, one edge will be closer to you than the rest. Use that as your starting point. Draw the remaining four edges that form the square and remember that parallel lines actually appear to converge on an imaginary point in the background. Edges that are farther away from you will appear smaller than edges that are closer to you.

This is supposed to be a square, so eyeball the spacing. Is one side longer than the others? Make your adjustments if necessary.

Now for a secret: with one side drawn you only need to worry about two more (a maximum of three faces are visible on a cube at one time). Of those three faces, one will be turned at a sharp angle away from you (appearing thin), another will be turned almost to face you (appearing square), and the final face will be somewhere in between (not square, but not the thinnest profile). The appearance of the first side you drew will determine which of the other two profiles you have to work with. The arrangement of those sides (i.e. which side is the thin/thick/middle side) is your choice.

Practice. Practice. Practice. As with the cylinder exercise, vary the size and angle of the cubes you draw. Rotate them every which way.

Exercise 6: Compound Objects

Warm-up 6: Compound Objects

By now you should be pretty limber if you’ve been following these exercises in sequence. You’ve practiced line control, spacing, smooth strokes- not to mention thinking in three dimensions and applying foreshortening when drawing basic shapes. This final exercise is where you put it all together.

Draw several groupings of basic shapes that relate to one another in space. Whereas in previous exercises it was fine to draw through your sketches, try to avoid doing so now (it defeats the purpose). Choose a variety of shapes- spheres, cubes, cylinders- and rotate them various ways before drawing them in overlapping positions. Be deliberate and remember that as objects recede from you they get smaller. More than anything this is a thinking exercise.

If you already have some knowledge about anatomy and figure construction, feel free to incorporate that knowledge here. Nearly all of the structure of the body can be reduced to basic shapes. Get as specific or abstracted as you like.

The End?

That’s it for warm-up exercises! Practice them as much as possible whenever you find the time. If you come across any good ones I didn’t cover feel free to mention them in the comments.

And hey… thanks!


19 Responses to “Warm-Up Exercises!”

  1. Patrick

    I specifically dig the pivot illustration. I have tried to explain the concept of working that way to my students for years and now it is done in an illustration. Is the way it’s done called “ghosting”? When the arm is split into three parts?

    • Devin Larson

      I think it’s “ghosting” or “leaving a ghost trail.” Or a “motion trail.” But the concept derives from slow shutter speed in photography.

  2. Arnie

    It’s true, if you search long and hard enough you find a consistent pattern will emerge for instruction on improving your skills with art.
    Thanks again MC.

    • Monique C.

      Great tips!! I will certainly keep these in mind and practice, practice, practice!

  3. N. Kraken

    Awesome. Art/drawing tutorials/training are the type of content I’m mostly interested in based on my current skill set (Not that I’m ungrateful for the other content either – I’m just not quite ready for it) I started on the warm ups today, during my lunch break while listening to John Cleese on creativity (suggested by user Henrike in the comments on the Inspiration article). A fantastic listen and I feel like these warm-ups will totally help get me into “open” mode.

    My plan is to put in at least 30 mins (Cleese’s suggested time it takes to get into play mode) of warm-up each day for a few weeks. Maybe even a couple of Months. I’m taking things slow. I didn’t even make it to the cubes, today. If anyone else has some good 30ish minute listening material, I’m all ears.

    -Happy MakComIng !!

  4. Amy V.

    I really appreciate this article! Especially the tip to draw from the shoulder! I always had troubles drawing smooth long lines. Drawing from the shoulder is giving me so much more control. Thank you!!!!

  5. wannabe-tofu.tumblr.com

    My partner and i still can’t quite feel that I could end up being one
    of those reading the important ideas found on your web blog.
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  6. Jolene

    I enjoyed the exercises, progressing from easier to harder. Of course I need lots more practice but it was amazing to me to find I was able to completely focus on the task at hand and enjoy doing it.

  7. Olha

    Started drawing lately.
    Love the subtle preparation for the 6th exercise!
    Before reading your article, drawing compound objects seemed to me like something very hard to do.
    Definitely adding it to my warm-up routine.
    Thank you.

  1. anatomy drawing practice exercises – DXP

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