Warm ups, a path
to the “Zone”

San Benito Dance Academy dancer
Charcoal on paper

The “zone,” the moment when the artistic vision is met with complete engagement of all the senses: physical, mental and emotional. The moment when an artist is completely absorbed in concentration, there is a loss of self-consciousness, a transformation of time and effortless rhythm of action. We have all experienced that wonderful moment when time stands still and the project at hand takes on a life of its own. The trick lies in how do we create a habit of entering the “zone.”

I loved watching the Golden State Warriors during the NBA basketball finals last June. Here we witnessed that exciting zone where players after hours upon hours of practice make a 3 point shot look effortless and even miraculous. The grace with which Stephen Curry releases a ball while blinded by his opponent and still makes the shot inspires me. Can I develop my visual memory to that same degree? Will my effortless brush stokes convey that subtle glance or capture that elusive gesture?

“Develop your visual memory. Draw everything you have drawn from the model from memory as well. Realize that a drawing is not a copy. It is a construction…A Drawing is an invention.”
~Robert Henri from The Art Spirit.

Through my work at the San Benito County Arts Council, I have had the opportunity to practice and teach a new technique in muscle memory. In one of the workshops we have two dancers from the San Benito Dance Academy model for us. I run through a series of quick one minute poses and build up to 20 minute poses over the course of 2 hours. All these small exercises are intended to build and develop visual memory.

The goal: Create muscle memory connecting eye, arm and brain to rapidly represent what is before the artist. Ultimately the goal is to be able to recreate the pose from memory when the model is not available. In my experience working from a live model that moves in a variety of poses throughout the workshop increases the number of poses recorded in muscle memory. The repeated one and two minute drawing exercises of head, shoulder, torso, hips, legs and arms applied in multiple gestures allows for a fluid library of poses to be committed to memory. This library of poses will be a tremendous resource to draw from in the future. As the artist commits to a disciplined schedule of quick gestural painted or charcoal studies, he or she will discover a rapid path to the artistic “zone,” where the memory will answer the aesthetic questions that cannot be answered by photo reference or the model who has been sitting for several hours.

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  • So true! Practice makes perfect so your concept of muscle memory involving the eyes, the arm and the brain makes sense. Many of us wear other hats making our studio time or plein air opportunities less than ideal so it is doubly important that these muscles are engaged. I think I’ll reconsider making quick sketches part of my morning coffee time again. Thank you for your valuable insight!

  • An artist friend of mine has a small studio in town where our group meets Wednesday nights for life drawing. We will work on one pose for three hours. Artists can do anything they want, but the pose is there for the duration. I used to go to another group where the practice there was ’20 min’ poses, but only that..
    One week, I challenged that group to have the model pose for an hour. Mind you, these aren’t students, but mostly working artists like myself. They grudgingly accepted, and we were off into a new pose. In a short while, I could actually notice that the sound in the room had changed! Where was the sound of vigorous drawing? I took a walk around, and to my horror, almost to a person, these artists had abandoned the energy of the 20 min. study and descended into the realm of “careful”. I observed our host noodling an eye! Another had an “outline” of the model, and so on… Once time was reintroduced, they reverted back into student habits.
    The moral of this cautionary tale, is that the early capture of gesture should be carried into every drawing you do, not to be regarded only as exercise. The short drawing is fine as far as it goes, but don’t stop there. I would further caution that the “zone” is never achieved in short spurts, but through immersion. And while we should never be ‘copyists’, all art is seeing, and your skills are strengthened by just that – careful and studied observation.

  • Mary Rose

    Nice article. What a coincidence. I have been painting gardens lately. Today I drew foliage of all kinds in my front yard. Gardens, flowers, paths are I think, hard to do, because you have to create structure where you don’t see it. Practicing structure and drawing leaves of all kinds really helps.

  • Lynn Johnson

    I have felt that way about ‘warm ups’, but I love how you explained it in deeper terms! Muscle memory is involved in singing also, so it makes great sense in drawing and painting! Our daughter is a pianist and says she plays classical movements without thinking, also, because continual practice brings the same muscle memory!