For about 15 years I did a lot of artist residencies in the public schools. I would be hired for a week to come in on a daily basis and teach bookbinding and journaling, or to teach colored pencil drawing techniques, or to teach creative brainstorming, or to teach observational techniques (both visual and written). Sometimes I'd be hired to come in once a week for several weeks, but I still focused on the same things.
Whenever the classes were visual (or we were at that point in the class when we focused on the visual) students always seemed to have difficulty letting go of perfect. They worried that their first sketches would be lousy. They wanted their sketches to be exactly the way they saw them in their heads.
Of course I explained the need for drawing practice, for warm ups, for revision, for just being in the moment.
But in every class at least one kid (aged somewhere from 7 to 17) would always grumble about his or her sketch not looking right.
I would do tons of drawing demos where I produced less than stellar drawings—because 1. I had not warmed up yet, or 2. I had been talking and not concentrating.
I modeled balanced behavior that showed them how bad drawings didn't deflate my desire to draw. I modeled positive analytical skills to show them how to break down their process and see where they could improve it to end up with better sketches (though not necessarily the first sketches of the day).
Some kids would go to my website (I didn't have a blog at that time) and look at my posted journal selections. Some of them would get that I'm not "precious" about these sketches, they are just what happened on the day.
Fewer kids would absorb the idea that I was simply higher on the learning curve than they were and that was why even some of my bad drawings weren't that bad in their eyes.
Of course this opened an opportunity to talk about that phenomenon, but again…your mind hears what it wants to hear and for these kids it was that they didn't have skills and couldn't do something perfectly the first time they tried it.
I always thought it odd that when we did the written portions of the residencies they had absolutely no problem working with drafts. They had been doing that since they were very young indeed.
So this tells me that we need to get more artists in the schools to show kids that there is a revision and drafting process to finished illustrations as well as written work. That the drafting or warm up process is fun even when it is challenging. That doing warm ups allows you to refine your idea and improve your final drawing, even if you are going to do the final drawing from "scratch" (and by that I mean, you are going to draw it freehand, without revised overlays and such, but after you've had a warm up and worked out the idea).
Kids need to see all approaches to creating art so that they can experiment and try what works for them.
I don't teach in the schools any longer—taking a week off to teach meant arranging my work schedule to accommodate the time off, a difficult thing for someone who works for herself to do. Also I always ended up coming back to the studio with some virus or other that I'd been exposed to. (When you work alone you aren't exposed to much). Frankly I couldn't afford the additional time off from being ill.
I still try to impress my adult students with the need for warm ups.
I wanted to write about this today because many of you may have a young artist in your life. I wanted to encourage you to start modeling this behavior—sharing your process, sharing your use of thumbnail sketches and drafts and revisions in your artwork; showing them that while magical results may occur, the process isn't magical.
Modeling behavior is a way to really make a lasting impression. Some kids pick it up at first exposure, some don't "get it" until they reach college, art school, or even their first job, and realize what they saw modeled earlier is a necessity. But I think if we get to kids early and start modeling this behavior it's easier for them to have the "aha moment" later.
Start it now with the kids you are encouraging to be artists. Let them work with you, watch you solve problems. If they are old enough and interested, go over your thumbnails and warm up sketches with them. Walk them through the process. You'll know if it's the right time.
And while you're at it you can model adult, balanced ways to receive praise and criticism. Stop responding to their "wow I like that" comments with all the reasons your drawing is shit. Find a new way to talk to them that tells them what you like about the drawing and what you see you still need to work on. This gives them a positive way to work on their own and look at their own work, always allowing for the small victories to translate into ongoing growth.
If you don't have kids in your life to turn into artists but are whining about your own art life now is the perfect time to model adult, balanced behavior to yourself. (Reread the previous paragraph and apply it to your own internal dialogs.)
While I don't go into the schools any longer I still encounter so many adult students who haven't learned that a first sketch might not be perfect, haven't learned to keep working when everything is looking like shit and you know its shit, haven't really learned to tell the difference between what is shit and what is a logical next step.
A lot of what I write about on this blog is about just that. I'm writing it because I know, young or old, past students don't "get it" the first time they hear it.
Whether you decide to change a kid's artistic life or your own is up to you, but I hope you start thinking about how warm ups matter when sketching.
Below: Immediately after sketching the first warm up in this post I did this Pentel Pocket Brush Pen of a finch in the aviary of the nursing home I was visiting. It's on a sheet of 9 x 12 inch paper that I tore off a spiral pad. Since I started with the eye (as usual that's where I start), and it was too low, the left foot went off the page. So I turned this into a "piecemeal style" sketch later, and added the branch. I'm ending this post with this image because I think it makes my point for me (in a lot less than the 1151 words it took me to get here, but hey that's the way I roll). I can tell you several reasons why this is a good bird sketch. (I liked it so much immediately that I decided not to paint over it. Though I may use this drawing as the basis for a painting later.) I can also tell you a couple ways in which it isn't a great sketch and needs some improvement and attention. Doing the warm ups first allowed me to connect my brain, eye, and hand. And warm ups spilled off some of the excess adrenaline and caused me to focus my breathing. Even the restating of the top part of the beak isn't random. I knew I wanted it that way for the top of the head to be adjusted the way I wanted. And I had the patience to wait for the bird to come back roughly to the same position over and over (frankly I think this bird really likes me because she is always coming close to the windows of the aviary when I show up). I show you this sketch because there isn't any way to get to this sketch without the first sketch in this post. And the sketch below is the way I'm going to get to the next sketch. Click on the image to view an enlargement.