The Warm Up and Setting Boundaries in Art

Since the students are collecting their art work in their portfolios this semester, little or no art work has made its way home. In the next few posts, I will describe what the students have done in the Leaf, Insect and Bird Inquiries along with samples of student work as a window into what students have been creating and learning in art class.

Because the warm up activity is so central to student learning in my class, I'm going to begin my documentation of the fall inquiries by adding a few more thoughts on the warm up and its purpose. (See previous posts: Art Inquiry Unit and 12/2/2012 Warm Ups!)

  Map of the Warm Up practicing Observational Sketches, click on the map to view a larger PDF version.

Map of the Warm Up practicing Observational Sketches, click on the map to view a larger PDF version.

The Warm Up and Setting Boundaries in Art

The observational warm-up map above is a central routine in art class that exemplifies how I set boundaries in art.  I think of boundaries as like a fence around a yard--the fence keeps the students safe and helps them feel comfortable about where they are allowed to go and not allowed to go.  The fence is flexible--a bit like the accordion gate I put up on the stairs when my son was a toddler--like the toddler gate, the fence expands and contracts as needed.  The fence also has openings and doors--some openings are easy to get through and some doors are locked--but the locked doors can be opened if the student has the key--generally the key is being able to verbalize why they want to go outside the boundary and what they will do there or demonstrating to me that they are ready by the skills and thinking they show in their art work.  In art, boundaries are very important and working with focus and diligence within those boundaries is essential for growth and development . . . but also in art, at a certain point, the artist has to *break the rules* . . . the artist has to go outside the boundaries, perhaps even tear the fence down completely, to make further growth . . . that is the paradox.  Fortunately, it is a paradox that can be managed with thoughtful planning.  

The above warm-up sets out basic boundaries that I expect students to respect and carry out in their art making.  It means that later, I can say (as seen for example in the next post, the Leaf Inquiry) "students, I would like you to draw anything you want on this paper but it must have one leaf," and the students will know that "anything" means the routine they have practiced over and over again in the warm up.  Because I also want students to practice exploring in a safe way beyond the boundaries, notice the node labeled "observation" in the above observational sketches warm-up map--this node shows the place where I have built in an opening or door in the fence, a place where students can explore outside the boundaries--an exploration that is always open to them without asking if they so choose.  Consequently, students practice over and over in the warm-up that they are always welcome to use their imaginations and memories in conjunction with observation--the students learn a way to *break the rules* in order to develop thinking, ideas and art skills in a deeper and more complex way. 

Mid-way through the Art Inquiry Unit this fall, the students began a variation warm up called Story Sticks.  (Click here to read the 1/31/2013 Story Stick post.)

  Map of Story Stick Warm Up--click on map to see a larger PDF version

Map of Story Stick Warm Up--click on map to see a larger PDF version

This warm up gives students an opportunity to focus in on imagination to create their sketches. With this warm up, the boundary/fence has many openings and places for students to make personal choices about what to draw--students can use the story stick prompt or follow their own ideas about what they would like to draw. The protocol is: if you have a better idea than the prompt, do it!" The consistent boundary that never changes though are the Art Expectations--that part of the warm up routine always applies.

A third type of warm up I give students is a visual frame with a brief written prompt.  My inspiration for these visual frames comes from the books Doodles and Scribbles by Taro Gomi (Chronicle Books.)  An example of a visual frame with a prompt is a simple wavy line drawn horizontally across a rectangular shape (the rectangle represents the edge of the paper) with the words "What is under, on and over the ocean?"  For the sake of consistency, these visual frame drawing starters follow the same routine as the above story sticks and observational warm ups.

I like the simplicity of these warm ups--their purpose is to lay a firm foundation of skills and give students an informal way of knowing whether their drawing is done or needs more work. Like jazz music, which can be based on short melodic phrases (riffs), the riff of the learning in my class is the warm up routine. No matter how complex the learning becomes, students can always come back to the foundation set by the warm up.

(The concept of "Observation, memory and imagination as the inspiration for subject matter in art" comes from an excellent website by Marvin Bartel.)