Suf­fer­ing for art

Work­ing as an artist may seem like a pro­fes­sion with few health risks, but think again.

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Cre­at­ing art may not seem like a danger­ous pro­fes­sion com­pared to, say, den­tistry for sharks, or hang glid­ing into a vol­cano to col­lect lava sam­ples. But, like any­thing that in­volves repet­i­tive and pre­cise move­ments, there are hid­den dan­gers that can catch you out.

Gothic art leg­end Anne Stokes has made a living out of paint­ing images of the un­dead, but her prob­lems haven’t been the type that can be sorted out with a stake through the heart, or a clove of gar­lic. “At var­i­ous times in my ca­reer I’ve suf­fered from sharp pains and pulled mus­cles in my neck and lower back,” she says. “This can get ex­tremely bad and make it very un­com­fort­able and dif­fi­cult to work. At times it’s also af­fected other as­pects of my life and my abil­ity to play sports.”

Some slight mod­i­fi­ca­tions to her workspace al­le­vi­ated Anne’s prob­lems. “You should be sit­ting com­fort­ably look­ing level at your mon­i­tor, with­out the need to slump down or look up to see it clearly. In­vest in a good chair and make sure your mon­i­tor is at a suit­able height. The best po­si­tion will be dif­fer­ent for ev­ery­one. I have a box un­der­neath my mon­i­tor to make it high enough for what suits me.”

Anne’s other so­lu­tion is to use a pair of furry friends to en­sure she’s get­ting a break ev­ery now and then. “I have two lively dogs who need a cou­ple of good walks a day,” she says. “This is very help­ful for me, as come rain or shine I get ex­er­cise with them and don’t spend all day in front of my com­puter. I’m not sug­gest­ing ev­ery artist needs to go get a dog, mind!”

old meth­ods die hard

Of course, it’s not just dig­i­tal artists who need to keep an eye on which tools they use and how this may af­fect their health. “I used an air­brush far too much years ago,” ex­plains Hugo award-win­ning science fic­tion and fan­tasy artist Bob Eggleton. “Even though I used or­ganic pig­ments and noth­ing bad, I still found my­self with a cough and get­ting be­tween three and six si­nus colds a year. Many older air­brush artists come down with COPD – chronic ob­struc­tive pul­monary dis­ease – a re­s­pi­ra­tory dis­ease that comes from

Get out, take a walk, loosen up your mus­cles, and fo­cus your eyes on nat­u­ral light and far-off ob­jects

smok­ing or from breath­ing too many paint par­ti­cles.”

Bob’s more tra­di­tional art used to be cre­ated from a seated po­si­tion, but he’s started stand­ing up to paint, to al­le­vi­ate back prob­lems. “Stand­ing helped with my back – it was less painful,” he says. And he has some ad­vice for fel­low artists: “Get out, take a walk, loosen up the mus­cles, fo­cus your eyes on nat­u­ral light and far-off ob­jects. Do hand and el­bow ex­er­cises. Take breaks. This is re­ally im­por­tant. It also helps your men­tal state, too. Also, get out with friends and don’t let things close in on you. It’s all con­nected.”

All in the mind

As Bob high­lights, phys­i­cal prob­lems are per­haps the most prom­i­nent when it comes to cre­at­ing art, but a lot of psy­cho­log­i­cal bag­gage can come with the medium that can man­i­fest in an in­sid­i­ous man­ner. By its very na­ture artists must fo­cus in­tently on a par­tic­u­lar piece, of­ten los­ing hours at a time en­sur­ing that a par­tic­u­lar el­e­ment im­age is just right. It’s the only way to cre­ate great art – but it can take its toll.

“When I was work­ing from home I had the ten­dency to sit down ‘just for ten min­utes’ to fin­ish some­thing even late at night and I ended up work­ing for an­other three or four hours,” says con­cept artist Mark Mol­nar. “This re­ally af­fected my re­la­tion­ship, be­cause I ended up spend­ing much less time with my part­ner.”

While work­ing from home can sound ap­peal­ing, es­pe­cially if you’ve built your own workspace, the lack of de­lin­eation be­tween work and rest can be­come a huge prob­lem. Mark’s so­lu­tion was to get out. “I rented out an apart­ment down­town with some of my friends, who are also free­lancers and were hav­ing the same prob­lem,” he says. “We turned it into a small co-work­ing of­fice and this en­abled us to sep­a­rate our pri­vate life from work. It was an ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion, be­cause I still had the free­dom of work­ing to my own sched­ule, but I also went to my work­place ev­ery day, which gave a healthy rhythm to my life.”

Of course, not ev­ery­one can af­ford to rent their own work­place or stu­dio, in which case Mark rec­om­mends stick­ing to a daily rou­tine. “Plan your days, even weeks ahead and then keep to that sched­ule,” he says. “The more you know what you’re go­ing to do, the more ef­fec­tive you’ll be when you are work­ing.”

I had the ten­dency to sit down ‘just for ten min­utes’ to fin­ish some­thing, and ended up work­ing for hours

Alex Ries ex­pe­ri­enced chronic pain in his drawing hand that had its ori­gins in his spinal chord. His work­sta­tion may have been at fault.

Bob Eggleton be­lieves that spend­ing time out of the stu­dio pre­vents the on­set of phys­i­cal and men­tal prob­lems. Mark Mol­nar re­veals that his keen­ness to fin­ish a paint­ing led him to ne­glect the com­pany of his part­ner.

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