art history warm-ups

Art History Warm-Ups

This post will describe (in detail!) my practice of daily art history warm-ups. These prompts help students develop their art interpretation and art criticism skills and it’s a wonderful opportunity to investigate a broad range of artists consistently. Students also develop their art vocabulary both by writing and participating in verbal discussions. This practice is a classroom management game changer and helps establish a daily sketchbook habit.

I will give a brief overview of the concept with free downloadable templates/examples, and then dig deeper into each daily prompt.

Routine, Routine, Routine.

I am a huge fan of routine, and I love starting my class each day with structure.  There are so many disruptions in a school environment.  Drills, a mid-day pep rally (WHY), snow but no cancellation, hail hitting the classroom windows, an unexpected morning tornado (can you tell I like in Oklahoma?) the first day back after a long break, a fight in the cafeteria…I could go on forever.

Having structure and rhythm helps students know what is expected of them each day.  I am starting year fifteen in 2023, and I am fifteen years committed to this daily art history warm-up routine.  I have also called it Bellwork, #itiswhatitis, which is a less fun title, but I like the directness of the name. 

I have worked in schools where some sort of “bell ringer” is a school wide expectation. Students have bellwork in the majority of their other classes and the title implies the expectation. Come to class, get your sketchbook, do your bellwork as students are coming in before the bell.   

An Overview of Art History Warm-Ups

Each week, students look at one artwork and explore it in depth.  We discuss certain elements of that artwork each day using the Feldman’s method of art criticism (more on that later).  Each task is done in the first five to ten minutes of class.  Students use their own sketchbook that they keep in class and follow the prompt that is displayed on the Smart Board. 

I have worked in schools where students were expected to provide their own sketchbook (like supplies for any other high school class) and I have worked in schools with a course fee and we provide sketchbooks. I have also worked in a school where there is a $0 budget and I am expected to fundraise for supplies. (Did I mention I teach in Oklahoma?)

Try out this DIY tutorial for a budget friendly sketchbook:

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Students typically fill one page per week. If using larger paper they can easily fit two weeks of work on one page as well. Each day there is a small task and at the end of the week they get a formative grade based on completion and effort (including complete sentences!).

sketchbook prompts for high school

BOOM.  We accomplish a deep investigation of almost thirty artists in a school year.  We have hit all those pesky state and national standards that aren’t just “make art” in a really meaningful way. We have solved the chaos of starting class each day by giving the students (and the teacher!) a daily routine that is sooooo helpful with classroom management.  We have answered the question “how do you grade art?” by giving students a consistent formative grade that is not based on their ability to create original art.  This is a huge bonus for principals, evaluating administrators and parents.

Will students complain?  Every day.  Will students celebrate the short weeks we don’t do warm-ups? Yes, and I will celebrate with them.  Art class is an academic pursuit of visual art. And exploring why artists create and how they create is absolutely essential. It is called artWORK, right?

Here are some student example pages of how this looks at the end of the week.  The questions and images change, but the format never does.  

Art History Warm-Ups Template

You can download this free template that I use and make it your own.  I have adjusted it throughout the years to fit my particular school environment. After Covid, I paired down a lot and let Fridays be a day of grading without a reflection question. It depends on your age group and their skill level.

This guide is really useful the first full week of school to help students learn the format. This is turned in as their first grade and then we transition to sketchbooks the second full week. This helps as students change their schedules and class rosters switch around.

Each grade level and class will have slightly different needs.  I used to have a reflection question each Friday about their own personal artwork, but post-Covid Friday is simply a grading day where students still have the routine of getting their sketchbooks out and ready for grading, but do not have any work to complete. 

Here are some sample warm-up presentations I have recently used in my classroom.  Feel free to use them or change them, this is not something that I have invented. 

Art History Warm-Ups Resources

I certainly did not invent this method of looking at art. I was introduced to Feldman’s Method of Art Criticism in graduate school at the University of South Carolina.  It is a tiered approach where you delay criticism of an artwork until you have fully explored and investigated it. 

This is a great quick introduction to this method I found on through the North Carolina Museum of Art. 


This is also a great guide from Grand Valley State University with some sample questions. 

This link from the Malaysian Online Journal of Educational Technology has a much more detailed breakdown and discussion of the art criticism method.

I also did not invent this warm-up template.  My wonderful former coworker Mary Catherine Raines and her colleague, who I replaced after she moved to another state, used this for years in their classrooms at Richland Northeast High School before I came along.  As a brand spanking new teacher, I was so relieved when Mary Catherine said “This is our daily warm-up routine.  All art classes are expected to use it, it’s part of our department’s syllabi.”  I am someone who appreciates directness and consistency.  This also gave me a head start to building my own curriculum, and all new teachers know how intimidating that is.   

Art History Warm-up Format

It takes time to build each week’s presentation.  I sometimes agonize over which artist and which artwork to show my students.  Am I showing enough diversity?  Will this particular artwork inspire my students?  Will they revolt against me when I ask them to sketch this hyper realistic artwork? A few semesters in, and I have more artists prepared than weeks of school.  As I go to conferences, talk to other art teachers, or scroll through Instagram my library of inspiration exponentially increases.  

I pick artists that have conceptual and technical connections to what we are doing in class. I try to reinforce the importance of looking at artists for inspiration, even if that means inspiration to create art completely different from them.

art history warm-ups
art history warm-ups

The format stays the same every single week.  With one artwork you first describe, then analyze, continue to interpret and conclude with judgment/evaluation.  This helps students take the time to really observe and question artworks without jumping to a knee-jerk reaction.  

Day One: Describe/Sketch

This is the practice of looking at an artwork and making primary observations without judgement.  You could have students make lists, write out bullet points of three things they notice and engage in verbal discussion.  We always start with sketching as our base point of observation.  This can be tricky in a beginning art class, but I have done this with students as young as 5th grade, middle schoolers, lost Art 1 high school students and the advanced seniors in a magnet program for the arts.  

Drawing will always be intimidating for some students.  What seems to help is to model the drawing for students as they draw along with you.  I used to draw on the white board, but now we draw our thumbnail sketches together using my Elmo document camera.  I like to start the semester with artworks that aren’t completely intimidating for them (and me!!!) to draw. 

art history warm-ups

There are mannnny times that my sketches are out of whack.  I use self-deprecating humor and say “remember, I’m the only one getting paid for this” or “yes, I do have two art degrees…”  Do I always love my sketches and am I also eager to draw the same artwork 4-6 times a day?  Heck no.  But the practice pays off and it helps students see that art is not just innate talent but a discipline. 

I will also throw in a few facts about the artist as we are sketching.  I may mention the time period, the style, if the artwork was revolutionary or hated at the time it was made.  If there are any important cultural or historical facts these are discussed throughout the week as it fits. 

Day Two: Analyze

On the second day, we analyze the artwork using factual observations and withholding anything opinion based. Instead of saying “I don’t like the artwork’s color scheme” we practice making factual observations such as “the artist used a monochromatic color scheme”. We don’t explore the meaning behind these choices yet, we save that for the next day. This is the building block for understanding how an artwork is formally organized and structured, which will eventually lead to discussing what those choices may convey.

I made this guide to help my students with their vocabulary throughout the semester. We typically attach this to the front page of their sketchbook to reference.

I also call this vocabulary day because we focus on two elements or principles and discuss their use.  This is very useful when introducing students to concepts you then want them to use in their own art.  For example if you are exploring depth and perspective in landscapes, select artworks that demonstrate these concepts and then have students write about them.  This is also a great opportunity to introduce students to art vocabulary.  Some weeks we write one definition (ex: emphasis) and then the second sentence will answer the question how is emphasis used in this artwork?  This allows for a slow introduction to art vocabulary and draws on concepts they may have already learned. 

Day Three: Interpet

On day three, we hypothesize about the story, message and meaning of the artwork and how it makes you feel as a viewer.  I remind students that hypothesizing is your best educated guess.  I don’t expect them to know exactly what the artist is trying to say and every student may have a different response.  Unless an artist is standing right next to you explaining their intentions, you will always be the viewer coming up with your own conclusions. 

The only answer not allowed is IDK.  I love to emphasize the word because. I often have to push students to specify WHY they think what they do. For example “I think the artwork is exploring loneliness because of the large areas of negative space and monochromatic color scheme” is a much deeper statement than “I think the artist was lonely”. Not all students are strong writers, but giving students structure in their writing really helps. And your English teacher colleagues (and evaluating principals!) will love you for it.

Many students will blow your mind with the thoughtful things they will notice in an artwork.  Some students, high schoolers in particular, will struggle with interpreting an artwork more than anything else.  I find that some classes will come up with a million responses when you ask “What do you think is the meaning of this artwork?” And some of them stare at you with the dread of a teenager asked to raise their hand in class. 

I have found that younger kids do not struggle with this concept at all.  They will wildly wave their hands in the air to share their interpretation out loud.  High school students will make this process a little more challenging, but finding the right guided questions can really help.  If class discussions aren’t your jam, and I have had to hone my skills leading these throughout the years, a think-share-pair is another great approach.

Day Four: Evaluate

And finally, we judge.  This is the easiest and most fun prompt for me. In my experience, students are very well trained with communicating their personal opinions.  Now, stating their opinion using evidence from the artwork…THAT takes practice.  I tell students their opinion is their own and will vary from artwork to artwork.  I don’t show them a line-up of my favorite artworks, I curate artworks that are important historically and that connect to concepts we are using in our own art.  You do not get extra points for loving it, you do not hurt my feelings if you dislike it.  
We practice structuring evaluation statements with “I _______ this artwork because _______” or “this artwork is _______(successful/unsuccessful etc.) because _________.”

Yes, personal opinion is important.  But instead of loudly declaring if you like it or hate it, we practice evaluating it as a successful piece or unsuccessful (in your own opinion, of course).   Something can be a very technically successful piece that does not speak to you personally.  And there will be many conversations along those lines throughout the year. 

You will have to steer students away from “I hate it, it’s ugly” and “I love it, it’s pretty” responses.  Okay, hate is a strong word.  What about the color (or whatever element/principle were discussed) bothers you?  What do you think are the most beautiful elements in the artwork?  This is a learned skill and it’s so fun to see how much more comfortable students get with art criticism throughout the year. 

This method of art criticism is so impactful due to holding judgment until the very end of the week.  I also try to hold back too much information about the background of the artwork until after they share their opinions. I want students to personally engage with the artwork, and not have some art historian on YouTube (or me!) tell a student why they should appreciate an artwork.

After we share our opinions, I like to show a short video about the artist or artwork.  Sometimes I find the perfect two minute video, and sometimes there is nothing out there that has the impact I want.  I may show more images of their work on Friday before grading or give a brief art history talk as well.  Short and sweet.

Thank you for sticking around!

This is just my personal use of art history warm-ups to use art criticism and make art history connections daily. It can easily be tailored for a variety of grade levels and school environments. I love this method and I am so thankful for all the people who laid the groundwork for this to be an integral part of my teaching practice.  It helps me hit those visual art standards consistently and with confidence.  I truly think it helps students not only become better artists, but also way more engaged with the visual encounters they have in their daily life. 

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