Preventing artist injuries

This week I learned that THREE fellow colored pencil artists who draw a lot have been forced away from their drawing tables indefinitely by wrist, elbow and shoulder overuse injuries. In addition to the total ban on drawing, their doctors have told them to avoid all typing and wear splints. It’s making them very unhappy. A fourth artist friend is pushing on due to a deadline and figures she’ll take a short break when it’s past, and I fear she’ll end up joining them.

You might not think of drawing as a strenuous, injury-causing activity. But any activity that involves long periods in the same posture, making the same movements over and over, can lead to repetitive stress injuries such as tendonitis, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, pinched nerves, and more. Potters, painters, illustrators, sculptors, digital artists and even tattoo artists are all at risk. Such injuries are sneaky; they develop very slowly and may already be bad before the first symptoms of tingling fingers, numbness, or reduced grip strength. Recovery usually requires complete cessation of the activities that caused the issue, and can take months, sometimes years.

So how do you prevent such injuries? There are entire books devoted to the subject, but here are a few tidbits that every artist should take to heart:

  • Take frequent breaks. Everyone is different, but for me, ten minutes every hour is about right. This does NOT mean “work for six hours and then take an hour break”!
  • During those breaks, stand up, move around, go for a walk, look out the window, do some simple stretches and exercises.


    I didn’t write this, it was a handout given at an art supply store. I keep it posted over my desk!

  • Work with as vertical a surface as you can, so you’re not hunched or bowed over a table. This will prevent neck, shoulder and upper back problems.
  • If you sit at a drawing table, use an adjustable-height chair that provides good lumbar support and allows your feet to be flat on the floor.
  • Use good lighting. Yes, your eyes can sustain long-term injury, too, because they are also operated by muscles! Full-spectrum lights, positioned to fully illuminate your work area without any glare, will help prevent eyestrain.
  • Get regular exercise. Getting your heart pounding, sweating a little, gulping in some fresh air and moving your body will boost your creativity, too! Vigorous hikes in nature are my favorite way to accomplish this.Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate the power of exercise to combat chronic repetitive stress injury. This happened about 15 years ago when I taught group fitness classes as my “hobby job”. There was a guy who always attended the yoga class right before my interval training class. One day he stayed for my class. He looked kinda pissed off the whole time, but he finished the hour. I figured I’d never see him again. But he came back, and he kept coming back, always looking a little angry, never saying a word. After about a year and a half, one day he approached me at the end of class and said that my class had done wonders for him. He said he’d suffered with wrist, elbow and shoulder problems for years, had to wear wrist splints all the time at work, had been to multiple therapists, etc. But the interval training, with sets of just 12 repetitions of various dumbbell exercises between the work intervals, had somehow done the trick. He started with 1 lb. weights because that was all his wrists could stand, and now he was up to 12 lb. weights and didn’t need his splints at work anymore. I was blown away, and grateful that he shared his success to which I had unknowingly contributed!
  • Listen to your body. If you do start feeling tingling or numbness or pain in fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder, neck, or upper back, stop what you’re doing and see your doctor. I’m serious. Your body is telling you that you’ve gone too far. These are not related to the discomfort you get from using too heavy a dumbbell for bicep curls, which goes away in 72 hours or so. Tingling and numbness usually signify that nerves are getting pinched by inflammation.

Finally, here are some links to further information to help you understand how to make your drawing activity more comfortable and less hurtful in the long run:

Ergonomics for Artists

Working Posture for Craftsmen

Paul Fricke (cartoonist) blog post on ergonomics for artists

Setting up an ergonomic chair

What makes a chair ergonomic

I hope this helps prevent the list of my artist friends who are out of commission from overuse injuries from getting longer!

Kyo Gallery representation

I’m happy to announce I have a new gallery relationship: Kyo Gallery in Old Town Alexandria, VA, in the Washington, D.C. area! My Don’t Take the Bridge is consigned with them, and it will be included in their inaugural exhibition Through Art: Resist & Recover.

Kyo Gallery Grand Opening Reception Evite

Dont Take the Bridge

Don’t Take the Bridge, 12″x16″, colored pencil on UART 600 paper. Available at Kyo Gallery,

I decided this piece of mine was the closest to the show theme symbolically.

You might wonder how I happened to connect with a gallery 3,000 miles away…. They found me, thanks to my website! After they approached me via email, I asked a friend who lives near there to check them out for me and make sure they’re legit. I think it’s safe to say we’re both trying each other out, and if all goes well I’ll have more of my original work available at Kyo Gallery in the future.

If you’re in the DC area on May 25, go check out the grand opening and take photos for me!

Workshop over-preparation pays off

I just realized it’s been 2.5 months since my last blog post–whew, the time has flown! I was busy preparing for my first workshop of the year, “Textures Galore in Colored Pencil”, which I finally taught last weekend, April 14-15, for CPSA DC210 San Jose.

I’m not one of those people who can just walk into a room and talk off-the-cuff at length; as an introvert who was terrified of speaking in front of a group most of my life, I agonize for weeks over the outline, the details, the examples, the choice of words, the exercises, the packet contents, everything. Over-preparation is the best antidote to performance anxiety. And besides, I want so much for my students to learn, understand, improve, and have fun!

So I spent a long time writing and organizing all the information that I wanted my workshop students to know, with examples and reference photos, so they wouldn’t have to take notes. I finally decided to hire a layout designer to make an 8-page booklet out of it, and had copies for everyone professionally printed. I’m really glad I did. It saved me the time and effort of printing 160 pages one by one on my little printer, dealing with paper jams, ink cartridges, etc., and it looks soooo much better on heavier, satin-finished paper with a saddle stitch binding.

I also made a long checklist of everything I could possibly need during the two days, and didn’t cross things off until they were packed in my bin. Because yes, there was once a workshop where I forgot to take my reading glasses, and yes, there was once a workshop where I forgot to take the drawing paper for everyone! Talk about panic…..

It all came together, and it was a terrific workshop weekend! We had participants from as far away as San Clemente and Lompoc. Since the focus was on textures, I brought several samples from my collection, and as a homework assignment I asked everyone to bring in an interesting texture of their own, so we had quite an assortment to talk about.

Chapter Vice President Peggy Milovena-Meyer volunteered her husband to do A/V for us, so we had a kickass setup with a sound system, a cordless mic, and an HD camera focused on my drawing board and projecting to a gigantic TV screen on the wall behind me. The system even enabled us to have streaming music during breaks and long drawing sessions!


Over the course of writing 101 Textures in Colored Pencil, there were quite a few textures that I’d never drawn before, so I had to figure them out. What I learned from that experience was that through close observation, not just looking but seeing, analyzing, determining which techniques and tools might work, and only then drawing, I could successfully render just about anything. So that’s exactly what we practiced with a few exercises.


To put it all together on the afternoon of day two, each student got a slice of an image with multiple textures to figure out on their own, and at 3:45 we put them together. We sure could’ve used another hour! Here’s one group’s….


Big, big thanks go to CPSA DC210 San Jose President Paula Greer for inviting me to teach the workshop, to Peggy Milovena-Meyer for making coffee and lunch runs and contributing her husband Brad for his A/V skills, to Maria Lemery for finding the great venue, and to all the cheerful students who spent their time, energy and money to be there. Y’all are terrific!


Two big awards to start 2018!

It’s only February 1 and already my work has won two significant awards for 2018!

My Faith’s End was awarded First Place in the 2017 UART Paper Online Colored Pencil Competition. (Yes, 2017–the announcement was delayed until after the first of the year 2018.) Entries for this show needed to be created on UART paper, which is a sanded paper favored by pastel artists that is also becoming popular with colored pencil artists. It comes in several “grits”, from 240 (which is very rough), to 800 (which is almost satiny). I was already a fan of this paper and have done several pieces on it, so it was a no-brainer for me to enter something in the biennial competition. I just didn’t expect to win the top award! Faith’s End holds a double meaning with a powerful message, which I think the juror, CPSA founder Vera Curnow, totally got.

Faith's End

Faith’s End, 12″ x 16″, colored pencil on UART 600 paper

The First Place award package (and what a package it was, on my doorstep!) included $700, a full set of 150 Prismacolors, a $75 gift card for Blick Art Materials, four packages of UART paper, a six month subscription to Colored Pencil Magazine, a T-shirt, and a bibbed apron.

My Ready for Winter was awarded the Chartpak Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Colored Pencil Society of America’s Explore This! 14. Entries for this show needed to be primarily colored pencil, but include other media, or be done on a non-traditional surface, or otherwise have some aspect that makes it ineligible for the CPSA International Exhibition. The show is online from February 1, 2017 to January 31, 2018. See all the outstanding award winners here. The accepted pieces and award winners were selected by juror Mar Hollingsworth, Visual Arts Curator of the California African American Museum, from over 260 entries. See the whole show here. It seems to me to be a very strong show, so I’m humbled to have been selected.


Ready for Winter, 12″ x 16″, colored pencil, ink, and gouache on Stonehenge paper.

Last year, I didn’t even get into this show! There’s a different juror every year, so it goes to show that you shouldn’t let rejection deter you from entering a show again.

The award is for $600 of Chartpak products. I don’t think I’ll have any trouble using it up, since Chartpak is the company that owns the brands Koh-I-Noor, Schmincke, Higgins, and Grumbacher.

It’s an exciting start to the year!



“101 Textures in Colored Pencil” is out!


My book, 101 Textures in Colored Pencil, from Walter Foster Publishing, started shipping a little over a week ago! Those who had pre-ordered it on Amazon got theirs and started talking about it on the colored pencil groups on Facebook, and that sparked a wave of new orders on both Amazon and my website. The publisher told me that overall demand has already exceeded the first printing, so they’ve scheduled a second printing in January. Target, Michael’s, and Barnes & Noble are perhaps the largest chains that will stock it.

Each of Amazon’s book listing pages has a sales rank section, which has been entertaining to track. So far, my book has topped out at #18 in Books->Arts & Photography -> Drawing -> Colored Pencil, #42 in Books -> Arts & Photography -> Drawing -> Pencil, and #18,398 in Books. Considering that Amazon sells hundreds of thousands of books and mine is not a crime novel or bodice-ripper, I’m happy with that.

And its very first review on Amazon was five stars! “Excellent book!
The writing is concise, very informative, and easy to understand. The color coded sections make it so easy to find the desired texture, and each of the 101 illustrated step-by-steps are easy to understand and follow. I already know this is quickly going to become one off my favorite color pencil resources. I’ve already tried several of the tutorials and excited to do more.

It’s available to purchase from my website, too: at no additional cost, I sign these copies!

You know how there are those little moments in life that you will never forget? Like the first time you successfully parallel-parked a car, or the first time you heard your name called over a loudspeaker, or your first kiss, or when you cashed your first paycheck? For me, I now add to those the first time someone asked me to sign their copy of my book. I heard the “plunk” sound next to me, turned my head, and there on the desk was my book with one of my co-workers standing over it, smiling with a pen.

It is already leading to some new opportunities, too. I will be teaching a two-day workshop “Textures Galore in Colored Pencil” April 14-15 in Milpitas, CA, sponsored by the Colored Pencil Society of America District Chapter 210 San Jose. In it, we’ll be doing several of the textures from the book.

This whole experience has been surreal. If someone had told me 7.5 years ago when I picked my pencils up again in earnest that a big publisher would approach me and I would write a whole book about colored pencil techniques and people would buy it and like it, I’d have said they were crazy.

My teacher has died

In the afternoon on Sept. 25, I was shocked to learn that my high school art teacher, Donna (Lewis) Billington, died that morning. She apparently had a massive heart attack two days earlier, from which she never revived. I started crying.

Many people probably barely remember their high school teachers and would think “What’s the big deal? That was a long time ago. Teachers get older and they die.” So let me tell you about why her passing matters so much to me.

When I started high school, I’d had no art training, but I loved to draw. This was long before the internet, and private instruction was not available in my rural area. I persuaded the guidance counselor to let me take Fundamentals of Art even though freshmen weren’t supposed to be able to take “electives”. So I was the only freshman in the class, and Donna–Miss Lewis as we all knew her–became my very first art teacher. For the first time, I had to apply myself and really learn art-making. When I finished my first project in the class, a black-and-white tempera painting, I hesitantly asked her if it was okay, and I was surprised when she said enthusiastically “It’s beautiful!”

Donna insisted that everyone turn in five sketches per week. It didn’t matter what they were of, or whether they were from life or a photo, only that you tried. This had an immediate impact on my skills,  because now I had a reason to draw (it’s homework!) and a reason to get better at it (I need to get a good grade!).

Over the next four years, I learned from her graphite drawing, pen and ink drawing, acrylic painting, oil painting, art history, color theory, composition, crafts, how to make a hinged mat, and how to enter a competitive exhibit. Within two years, people around town started asking me to draw portrait commissions; she accepted them as some of my weekly five sketches. She told me about a week-long summer art camp at the university taught by one of her teachers, and helped convince my parents to let me attend it. She learned of an evening watercolor workshop at the university and persuaded my parents to let me attend it with her.  By then I was sure I wanted to study art in college, so during my senior year she contacted a professor friend at the university and arranged for me to meet him so he could photograph my best pieces for a portfolio. She wrote a recommendation for me, which helped me win acceptance into the prestigious Washington University School of Art. (I was unable to attend due to finances, but that’s another story.)

Along the way there were other events. There was the time when I was carving wood in  class, and I forgot for just one moment to keep my bracing hand behind the carving tool. The tool slipped and cut the side of my thumb wide open, and as I bled over the sink, she ran in heels to the school office to get the first-aid kit, then did her best to stop the bleeding. I still have that scar. There was the time when some kids were especially mean with words, so she kept me after class to ask if I was okay, and told me that if they were ever too much, to let her know and she’d put a stop to it. There were the Art Club field trips she arranged, to Kansas City for a tour of the Hallmark Cards factory and the Kansas City Art Institute, and to St. Louis for a tour of the Old Cathedral and the Washington University School of Art. When boys acted up in class, she never lost her temper–a piercing glare and a few words in a low voice was all it took to bring them in line.

Donna was knowledgeable, patient, calm, dignified, and encouraging.  She was the kind of teacher and person that you want to continue to make proud the rest of your life. She made all the difference for me and the beginning of my art, and for that I will be forever grateful. I’m so glad we’d been in touch again in recent years, so I got to tell her how much she meant to me. I’ve kept every wonderful, articulate, handwritten card she sent me, so I can re-read them whenever I need a boost of confidence about my art.

And I finally got the opportunity to give a little something back, by drawing a portrait for her.


“Little Donna”, 2011 – Portrait of Donna (Lewis) Billington as a girl, from a photo she provided

I’ll always think of her whenever my work is accepted into a prestigious exhibit or wins an award, and wish I could share the news with her. I’d want her to know that I’m still trying to get better.

Thank you, Donna. RIP.