Warm-up Excercises for Painters: How to Break Through Painter’s Block

By Susan Holland in Art Tutorials > Painting Tutorials

The all-important “warm-up” exercise. . . it applies to workouts of all sorts, including sessions in the art studio. And for good reason.

I’m sitting in my studio this morning looking at a “cold” portrait. It’s cold only in the sense that the oil paint has had plenty of time to dry since I last touched it. Yes, I’ve put a few strokes of charcoal on it as I’ve gazed at it from time to time—just little marks to remind me to work on certain things. But it’s somehow much more daunting to squeeze out some paint and begin again on this piece.

It’s just looking inert. Stopped. Like a train sitting on the siding with no engine.

On a rare day with the light just right and a terrific pot of coffee I can sit down and get busy pretty quickly, starting on “safe” areas, like the spotty background, or the untidy edges around the periphery.

Those “safe” areas will slowly lead my eye around the canvas, as though from a stranger’s point of view. And eventually I’ll be much more willing to intrude on the facial features, a little bit here, a little bit there until the face is “mine” again, to work on.

That is on a rare day.

Most days I need a really purposeful warm-up on something else before my creative juices are flowing enough to dive into my ongoing portrait.

A few counterproductive warm-ups I’ve tried:

I routinely choose to clean up the studio.

One corner gets neatened up, but then there’s another section that needs to be policed. And another. The task just gets too large and all-encompassing for me to return to the easel.

Or I’ll order more flake white, and then, thinking of other things I need from that supplier, get lost looking at paint supplies.

A phone call, an email, a glimpse of the beautiful day, a doorbell, delivery of a nice box of frames. All of these distractions keep me from my real goal: painting!

Warm-up strategies that DO work well:

1. Having a second painting to work on near my easel

The things I do to jump start my day often have to do with a second portrait I am working on. This second portrait is usually a different sort of approach to the painting that’s currently on my easel.

It may be the same pose but with a different color scheme, just for fun. Or a different pose that I like as well as the one I’m working on. Or even some closeup sketching of details I have not finished “seeing.”

So right now I have a “fun” warm-up painting standing by my easel. It is derived from a reference photo that was not chosen as the pose for the portrait, but I like it so I am using it for warm-up.

I can ruin my warm-up canvas without any loss whatsoever, and also be very cheerful about it, since many times the warm-up paintings become things that gallery browsers buy simply because they can sense the artist’s freedom and fun in it.

If it has little resemblance to the portrait it was adjunct to, that is all the better, since that person might not particularly like to be hung in a public gallery anyway.

2. Covering over some “dud” canvases with Gesso.

Sometimes my warm-up paintings come from a stack of canvases I abandoned earlier, which I overpainted with Gesso ground or neutral paint (cleaning up my palette in the process).

That is often a warm-up technique in itself. Find a canvas and just put something on it. Cover it with color. Play in the paint.

3. Just getting my brush going right away

Some people are beautifully disciplined to know that at something o’clock they will begin painting, like a businessperson should, but I suspect many more artists are subject to a personal sense of zeitgeist: the spirit of the times, and in this application, the spirit of the day.

For me, the best way to create that “spirit of the day” is just by starting with brush in hand, first thing of the morning, painting something. . . anything. . . but something that will kindly accept a stroke of juicy color and some bold trial strokes.

The big brushes come first. I get the canvas marked up, scumble over an iffy area and have a look through squinted eye. . . before I know it, I’m deep into the painting. The artist takes over.

Whatever you do, be joyful and positive during your warm-up. Chances are you will forget to break for lunch.


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