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September 2006

September 2006; School



  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Can't spell 'Paint' without P-A-I-N
  • Myths and Symbols:
    The Tree of the Thunder Gods
  • Behind the Art:
    Caring for Your Pens and Nibs
  • Wombat Droppings:
    Painting Surfaces
  • EMG News:
    September: School


  • A Few Things to Consider When Publishing to Magazines
  • Moon Glow: A Watercolor Tutorial
  • Writing for Comics
  • Collecting References
  • Absolute Matte Walkthrough


  • Fiction: Countess


  • Movie: Snakes on a Plane

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  • Can't spell 'Paint' without P-A-I-N
    Healthy Green Artists
    by Janet Chui

    This column is for everybody who walks upright (and it's also real important for digital artists, finally). Cats are still welcome to read if only to snicker at us weak humans. The pursuit of art has long brought long-term hazards as well as aches and pains that appear within minutes after starting work. That pain in your back? It means you're working hard, baby! Wrist aches, finger aches, neck aches, arm aches, headaches, repetitive stress injuries... you can't paint without pain! Suck it up!

    OK, no way I meant that at all. Artists suffer enough. Today we're tackling ergonomics and artist comfort. (Have you seen those two words next to each other before?)

    It's been said before that around 90 percent of people will experience back pain during their lifetimes. A smaller but still sizeable percentage suffers from chronic back pain, and a recent issue of National Geographic Magazine revealed that for many of us, back pain can't be entirely blamed on a lifetime of bad posture and/or backbreaking work, but just the design and evolution of the human skeleton itself. (Let's just say that when organisms are changing over time from a four-legged model to two-legged one, the latest skeleton still has some, ahem, design kinks to work out.) The human spine is an S-shaped curve, and the lower half the spine has to support much of the weight of the upper body, and it's worse for those of us with extra weight to carry. (Every extra pound on one's front torso puts 10 pounds of strain on your back.) A number of us may wind up suffering chronic back pain no matter what we do. But there are ways to lessen back aches and pains.

    Think of what you do for most of the day and what body positions you usually find yourself in. Whether standing or sitting, it's important to keep your back straight. (Alas, there's not too much help here for those who work on their hands and knees.) Your mum and teachers were on a worthy mission when they stuck a wooden rule down the back of your shirt to keep you sitting straight. (What? You didn't get that?) Unfortunately, most office and desk chairs do suck at making most of us sit right. If you're anything like me, you may find yourself slouching at the desk whenever you catch yourself. It definitely helps to know how to find a good chair, or how to modify your existing chair if it's not doing its job as it should.

    The ideal chair:

    • provides comfortable support for your lower back and your bottom. (A lot of office chairs have that break in the middle between the seat of the chair and back of the chair. These won't provide butt support, obviously.)
    • should have a cushion that allows your lower back to arch backwards slightly, minimizing one's tendencies to slump and slouch when tired.
    • should have armrests that slightly raise your shoulders when your elbows rest upon them. This again minimizes slouching and slumping.
    • lastly should have adjustable height in the seat and possibly in the armrests, if they're not at the ideal height already.

    If you haven't figured out yet, supporting one's lower back is probably the biggest priority. So a small chair with correct lower back support is going to work out better than a high-back padded chair that doesn't provide the right curve in the lower back.

    And now, let's see if you're properly comfy! If there are any things on the following list you're not doing right, chances are you walk away from your work with some painful cricks somewhere... Here's a comfort checklist right now for you at your desk:

    • 1. Neck: First, you're going to sit up straight and close your eyes, and bend your neck by facing your head downward. Raise your head again to the level your neck feels comfortable, and now open your eyes. If your eyes hit the center of your computer screen (or your painting), you're good.
    • 2. Knees and hips: Your hips should be higher than knees (though not by much). With your butt nestled firmly against the back of the chair, there should be a clenched fist's worth of space between the back of your calf/knee and the leading edge of the chair seat. (Big chairs may be too deep.)
    • 3. Foot-rest/Chair height: Your feet should be supported at the height where you can slip some fingers beneath your thighs at the leading edge of the chair seat somewhat easily (try to ignore the friction from some of those chair fabrics...).
    • 4. Arms: Put your hands on the keyboard, or on the pen tablet. (Note: This is for those working at the computer.) Your upper arms should be parallel to your spine (ie. vertical). Your lower arms should ideally be bent at a 90 degree angle to your upper arms. Traditional 2D artists--this is where a draftsman table or a raised, sloping work surface comes in useful. Because it's going to be hard in any case for traditional 2D artists to sit upright, have our work at comfortable eye level, AND arms in the ideal position. We can't do it, but our work surfaces can help us come close.
    • 5. Wrists: Are your wrists straight? (If your hands are being bent backwards, you fail!) Your hands should in fact be angled downwards from your wrist just a little. Wrist rests are seductive, but they're actually for resting on, not to use while typing (or even while using the mouse)! Wrist braces help, but in the end, just make sure your wrists are straight and you're not bending your wrists backwards while you type. Ergonomic keyboards may help those who type a lot. And whether you're pushing around a tablet pen, pencil, brush, or mouse, try to work more with your elbows providing movement to your hand, and lessen working from your wrists.
    • 6. Eyes: Those still working with CRT monitors (I'm one of them) need to make sure their monitors are situated to avoid glare from windows or lighting. Generally, make sure there are no windows facing the computer screen. Adjust the contrast and brightness on the monitor so the display is not causing headaches or eyestrain. (Color accuracy can be easily fixed later in Photoshop, if you're a creature of comfort like me.)
    Repetitive Stress Injuries

    Injuries? You think they can only happen while you're handling the pen knife, mat cutter, or chain saw. (Hey, there are all sorts of artists!) But you've in fact had RSI if you've suffered any of the following symptoms chronically: Tension, cramping in wrists, hands, arms, elbows and shoulders; shooting pains or soreness in your joints; aches or stiffness in your neck or back; tingling, numbness, stiffness, or pain in the hands, wrists, fingers, forearms, or elbows.

    If these sound familiar, it's time to learn how to avoid or take care of them, or see your doctor (who will mostly tell you what I'm going to tell you next). RSI comes frequently about when we do the same things with our hands or back over and over -- things like drawing (traditionally or using the mouse or pen tablet), beading, knitting, knotting, typing, writing, cutting mats, you name it. If you've kept on doing something till it felt like fire was shooting through your bones, well, that was it. (Stop it!)

    Take a 10 minute break from your repetitive activity every hour in order to keep from cramping. Walk around, run around, do something else.


    Keep your wrists, fingers, or arms warm, because RSI sets in more quickly when your tortured joints are cold. Again, wrist braces may be useful here. And I've lost track of times I wished I could type or paint with gloves in cold weather. Heat really makes a difference, and you can get it from appropriate clothing, a cup of hot tea (and a mug warmer), a small space heater, or a hot compress.

    Treating ourselves well now will lessen the pain that may hit us later in life! (Some of us have fibromyalgia, arthritis, and osteo-arthritis to look forward to...) We need to think about the physical stress we keep placing on our bodies, and the stress and inflammation we invite to our joints now may come back back in a big way later.

    Further considerations:

    • 1. Look for ergonomically designed tools.
    • 2. Exercise, eat well, and try to achieve or keep your weight to the ideal for your height. Keeping fit also lessens strain and accidents when we need to do something unusually exertive in the studio. (I was thinking of lifting stacks of papers, I don't know what you were thinking of.)
    • 3. Sleep well -- give regular chances for your body to heal itself. A good bed supports your back and keeps it straight. So again, good posture in bed helps!

    Artmaking isn't easy, but artists sure don't need physical challenges to make it harder than it is. We've got enough money, technique, and deadline problems to worry about! So treat yourselves well, and make yourselves comfortable -- especially if you want to be doing this for a while!

    Janet Chui

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