Artistic Cross-Training

In athletics there’s a practice known as cross-training. That’s where an athlete practices another sport than the one they’re focusing on. For example, a basketball player might take up weightlifting not to be an Olympic weight-lifter, but to become a stronger basketball player. It generally leads to improvements in both sports in the long run, though obviously the intention is to be better at the primary sport. The same thing can be done with art forms. It’s a form of conditioning, among other things.

Someone whose interest is in being a better photographer could learn to draw or paint, and, all the above being visual arts, stand to learn a lot that applies to photography. That’s exactly how it worked for me; I was trying to learn to draw landscapes among other things, and sort of did, but wound up finding the training in artistic composition leading me to take vastly better photographs than I had before then. Another benefit of learning to draw was learning to “see” artistically; that is, to see on a literal level, rather than symbolically. I learned to take, say, a tree, and not translate it on paper into a puffy green cloud perched atop a brown set of parallel lines, but into a complicated arrangement of shapes and shadows and colors that didn’t necessarily match up with my head’s stereotypical symbolic rendition of “tree;” instead, I got something a little closer to photorealism. Likewise, playing with photographs in a computer editor, and running painting filters over them, shows me- if I pay attention and study the photo edit- at least one way I could have gone about painting that or a similar scene. It may or may not provide inspiration, but it certainly provides technical skill of the sort that can be acquired through study and comparison. There’s also something to be said about learning about your surroundings as an artist through different media; when you sketch a still life, your whole body is paying attention to it. A photograph, on the other hand, could be as simple as glancing at a still life and pushing a button. It can be a lot more complicated than a glance and a click, however, and that’s the point. All that learning about composition and lighting and shadow and color arrangements gets you miles away from the classic beginner’s mistake of putting pretty things in the center of the viewfinder.

Additionally, you don’t need to be sticking to simply visual arts or other related arts groups for the carryover to work. I practice martial arts on top of taking photography, writing, and occasionally drawing; writing fiction has inspired drawing and painting scenes, just as a good photograph or music can help inspire a story. There’re other reasons beyond the cross-training and performance boosting aspect of this practice. From time to time we all hit dry spells creatively, assuming there’s not an all-out sickness, boredom, and burnout with a particular art form; “cross-training” artistically can give you an alternative creative outlet to pursue during writer’s block or whatever’s happening. For that matter, those who find themselves unable to do so thanks to a temporary (or permanent) injury. Knowing an alternative form can keep you from going entirely without a creative outlet, in the manner that a low-intensity sport can be a way to stay in shape and gradually recover for the injured athlete. As a final note, disciplining yourself in more than one area is an excellent way to improve discipline in the others.

Artistic cross-training is a practice that’s worth thinking about for artists at any stage of experience or level of mastery. It may cost some time and focus on your primary craft, but the benefits to be gained in the long run are more than worth it.