Studio Saturday: Succeed with Art Warm-Ups

Thank you for joining me for another weekend in the studio! I have to admit—this week I’ve been feeling a little short on energy, and in need of a creative boost. When that happens, I have a tried-and-true series of art warm-ups that are easy, enjoyable, and they don’t even have to be done in your studio. These techniques have never failed me, and I can’t wait to share them with you.

The idea behind these art warm-ups is to not only flex your artistic muscles and get your head in the game, but also to give you a feeling of success and confidence. Absolutely nothing shuts my creativity down more than working on a project that’s going south. I realize that every day in the studio isn’t going to be the Best Day Ever, and I’m not going to love everything I make. However, when I make something I do like, the clouds part, the heavens sing, and forest creatures rejoice. That feeling sets me on a good cycle, and if I do stumble or face a roadblock, I’m able to push forward. I’m also more confident about trying new and more challenging techniques and testing new materials.

The key is doing something I’m 99.9% sure will look good, make me happy, and boost my self-assurance. Some of my ideas may seem too basic, but I don’t worry about that for a few reasons: This isn’t a competition, I’m only creating for myself, and I’m not trying to challenge or push myself at this stage. Think about it: For an exercise warm-up you wouldn’t start with high-intensity interval training or box jumps, you’d do a little mild cardio to get your heart going and warm up your body. Now, a few general guidelines to start: Keep it short (no more than 30 minutes), keep it small (work on a contained project) and keep it simple (the fewer supplies, the better).

The Palette Cleanser

One of my favorite art warm-ups is creating basic patterns with watercolor. I like using watercolor because it’s extremely forgiving, and I absolutely love the way it looks. The simple act of taking my brush, mixing up some gorgeous colors, and meditatively creating brushstrokes on a page makes me happy, and often that’s enough to get me going.

Creating watercolor patterns as art warm-ups
Need to clean your watercolor palette? This exercise is perfect!

I call this the Palette Cleanser because I often use the paint leftover on my palette, just going with the flow.

Making patterns with watercolor as an art warm-up
A great art warm-up is making patterns in a sketchbook or art journal with watercolor.

Bonus tip: Draw a daily design that inspires you. In her book No Excuses Art Journaling, Gina Rossi Armfield writes, “Look at your surroundings until your eyes rest on a design that intrigues you. This could be the print on a box, a piece of pottery, a label or the inside of a flower. After you train your eye to start noticing these designs, they will become part of your awareness.” Draw a rectangle, and draw a portion of the design using a waterproof pen. Color in the design with watercolor, markers, or other color media.

Do Something Silly

Not all art has to be deadly serious. For example, I enjoy painting sticks. Yes, sticks. I try to find ones that are smooth, give them a little sanding, then paint them with acrylics. It’s a quick project that is pure fun. The sticks look great as a group sitting in a jar, or you can incorporate them in your other (and more serious) artwork. See “Be a Copycat.”

Art warm-up technique: painting sticks
Paintings sticks as an art warm-up? Why not? Use acrylic paint and make some cool designs.

Be a Copycat

There’s nothing wrong with riffing on someone else’s idea. Artists do it all the time. As long as you don’t appropriate someone else’s artwork and call it your own, or copy it and profit from it, you’re okay. If you’re using other work as inspiration, it will ultimately look like yours, and not theirs. I saw some lovely painted tags on a website and wanted to incorporate the look for a small series of watercolors. Working on my lap outside, I painted a few stripes of watercolor and gouache on torn pieces of watercolor paper, let them dry, then added some small flowers with a fine detail brush. I can use these as tags, add them to art journal pages, or feature them on a card.

Creating a watercolor series as an art warm-up
Working outside, I created a series of small watercolors.

Or…hang them from a painted stick.

Watercolor series
A painted stick was the perfect way to display this series of small watercolors.

Practice Lettering

As I’ve mentioned in previous Studio Saturday posts, I like incorporating lettering in my art journal pages, etc., but I’m usually in desperate need of practice. Using lettering practice as art warm-ups is a great exercise. Use any of our Lettering Lessons as a guide, or create an alphabet, or just play around with letterforms. Creating letters is so soothing and satisfying, and in the space of 15 minutes you can accomplish quite a bit. I created an alphabet while on a date night with my husband at a café. I even carried on a conversation while doing it. Yay for me.

Lettering practice as an art warm-up
Practicing lettering is a great art warm-up that can be done anywhere.

Bonus tip: Use word associations for your next art warm-ups. In her book Creative Strength Training, author Jane Dunnewold uses a free association technique when starting a new series of work. To do this, write a word at the top of a piece of paper. Set a timer for two minutes, and write down whatever words come to mind during that time. Don’t edit, just write. “The list making produces a wealth of raw material,” Jane says, “words that are already visual images and words with potential to take content deeper.” Use the words to inform what you choose for your images.

Print Something

Printing is one of the easiest and most basic forms of art because you only need three things: something to print with + ink or paint + a substrate. You can grab almost anything within reach and print with it. Pencil eraser + paint = polka dots. Corrugated cardboard + ink pad = linear art journal page background. Coffee cup + coffee = circle patterns. You get the idea. Here’s a great art warm-up tip from Crystal Neubauer from her video Expressive Collage Workshop: Creative Warm-Ups & Techniques: Use India ink for printing or mark-making on a collage or art journal page; it’s waterproof and dries quickly and adds great depth to a piece.

Make a Quick Collage

This art warm-up is truly meant to be quick, as in 15 minutes. I tend to overthink my collages, which causes me to spend an inordinate amount of time looking for components, auditioning them, finding more components, auditioning again, lather, rinse, repeat. With this exercise I set rules for myself: Grab a few pieces of ephemera without thinking too much about them, quickly choose a stencil or stamp, and work on a small substrate. Here, I started with a 4″ x 6″ 300-lb. watercolor postcard, then went into my paper stash and chose a few different types of paper, and grabbed a stamp and some ink. Oh, one more thing—I often set aside tiny interesting scraps to use in collage, and I used part of a broken book spine for this project. To begin, I stamped the paper, spritzed it with water, and did a quick materials audition.

Quick collage art warm-up
Limiting my supplies to a few pieces made it easy to create this quick collage.

Everything was then glued down, and to finish it I made some marks with a black Stabilo All pencil around the edges and the book spine and went over them with a wet paintbrush, adding a little shadow and depth. Done!

Collage made for art warm-ups
This may have been just an art warm-up, but I really like the end result.

Bonus tip: In the November/December 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, artist Robyn McClendon writes about her 365 Days in the Life of a Journal project, in which she created a collage a day for a year. In the article, Collage a Day, Robyn says that the project made her more prolific, and because of it she’s never at a loss for ideas. Consider this type of challenge as a daily art warm-up.

Do That Thing You Keep Putting Off

Every time I pick up my Ranger Dina Wakley Media Journal I say to myself, “Self? You really should do something with those plain black covers.” Now’s the time. Choose simple projects you’ve been putting off for art warm-ups, and just get it done. For example, plain journal covers can be transformed in very little time using paint and stamps or stencils. Or, use paint and markers or pens and freehand a design. Since these journal covers were solid black, I covered them with two coats of titanium white acrylic paint, then painted stripes in turquoise and coral (I was definitely feeling a summer vibe).

Painting the cover of an art journal
This art warm-up started by painting stripes on a ready-made art journal.

For the cover I used a StencilGirl Products stencil to create a pattern in white, adding paint with a cosmetic wedge.

Stenciling designs on an art journal cover as art warm-ups
Stenciling this design in white allows it to stand out.

I made polka dots on the spine with a round sponge brush, and I stenciled the back (StencilGirl again), creating wider stripes in the same colors. When everything was dry I faux aged it by sanding the covers a bit, then dry brushing a little burnt umber paint over everything. Now? Love it to death. And it’s done. Here’s the finished cover:

Painting a journal cover as an art warm-up
Using my art warm-up time to finally paint this journal cover was the perfect exercise.

And the spine and back cover:

Stenciled art journal cover
Save art warm-up time to tackle simple projects you’ve been putting off.

What are your favorite art warm-ups? Leave your favorite tips in the comments—we would love to hear what works for you!

I invite you to check out the resources I mentioned above—I’m sure you’ll find great ideas and inspiration!

Collage Workshop: Creative Warm-Ups and Techniques video with Crystal Neubauer
Get the best tips for starting collages in the video Expressive Collage Workshop: Creative Warm-Ups and Techniques with Crystal Neubauer.
Creative Strength Training by Jane Dunnewold
Build your creative stamina with the fantastic advice, prompts, and exercises in the book Creative Strength Training by Jane Dunnewold.
No Excuses Art Journaling by Gina Rossi Armfield
No Excuses Art Journaling by Gina Rossi Armfield removes all the obstacles to let your mixed-media art practice flourish.
November/December 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine
Can doing a collage a day significantly change your art for the better? Read all about it in the November/December 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine.


Blog, Mixed-Media Techniques


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