Green and Orange Leaves 6"x9" watercolor on cold pressed paper
Sometimes, mixing it up is the best way to go forward. When we work with the same process over and over, it can become rote, the fun gets lost, and we start to lose interest. This summer, I took my watercolors out to our boat, thinking it would be easier to paint with them in the tight quarters, and a lot easier to store the finished paintings while we were underway. What I wasn't thinking about was what I'd learn in general about making a painting, and how that could help my oil painting. What I stumbled on was basically the concept of cross training.
Two Leaves 5"x7" watercolor on cold pressed paper
We're all familiar with cross training in sports. Benefits include improved strength, endurance, and fewer and faster recovery from injuries. Let's see if we can relate that to painting in different mediums. When I paint with watercolors, I usually sit, while painting with oils I stand. That means I'm using different muscles in my legs, back, shoulders, and arms. It's probably good for overall fitness and strength. There are plenty of people who stand when they paint in watercolors, so that's simply a personal preference for me.
Speckled Leaves 6"x9" watercolor on cold pressed paper
But what about cross training for your mind? I was interested to learn that cross training is a thing for writers. There are even course offered in writing for that very purpose. I'm imagining a novelist writing haikus and limericks! A major difference between painting in watercolors and in oils is that watercolors are applied lightest to darkest and in oils we go the opposite direction. The reason is that for watercolor white is created by lack of paint on the white paper, and in oil painting you've got a tube of white. So it's a big head shift to go from one to the other. But the concepts of composition and value are the same. Another difference for me, is that my oil painting is done alla prima, meaning all in one go so all of the paint is wet until I'm done. In watercolor a series of washes is built up to create the picture. It's common for watercolor painters to use a hair dryer to speed up the process between layers.
The Irish Piper woodcut on paper and detail of A Serious Game pastel on paper
I've also done a bit of cross training making woodcuts and using pastels. Once again, the composition and values are the same as with oils or watercolor. In a woodcut, there are a limited number of layers, so the values and colors have to be simplified. In a pastel, it's almost the opposite, though you are constrained by the number of pastels you own. If you know an accomplished pastelist you've probably seen the hundreds of beautiful pastels they use. That's quite different from the way I mix each color I want in oils using a limited palette of two of each primary color and white.
Learning comes from trial and error, and I find that I learn most from the failures. Working in different mediums expands the opportunities for that learning. When I can let go and not worry about the outcome good things happen. Spending some time making paintings in a different way makes all my paintings better.