4 Tips for Artists Living with Chronic Pain

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

Trying to do anything creative in today’s world is not easy, especially if your creative work isn’t your full-time job yet. Top that off with chronic pain, and it can feel like the whole world is against you. But I’m here to remind you that you can create even with chronic pain.


I have some spinal issues that lead to really bad migraines. I’m talking multi-day migraines. Not to mention the never-ending aching in my neck and shoulders. And, yes, I currently get to create full-time. However, it wasn’t always this way! In fact, I used to have a 9 to 5, with an hour lunch tacked on, plus a one hour commute both ways. Add it all up, and I spent 11 hours focused on my job every single week day. But I still made time to paint. And to help my fellow creatives out there dealing with similar problems, I’m sharing 4 Tips for Artists Living with Chronic Pain.


Health Comes First

I know this might seem like a drag, but putting more time and energy towards getting better will pay out far more in the long run. For example, if you have a musculoskeletal problem, make sure you exercise. Even better, try to see a physical therapist who can give you specific exercises to strengthen and heal whatever might be ailing you. In general, try to figure out what routine, exercises, or remedies actually help you - and then prioritize those over everything else.


Additionally, eat a diet that nourishes you properly. I’m not recommending any specific type of diet here, because everyone is different. But I’ve personally noticed that certain foods can lead to a flare-up for me. So I make an effort to avoid those foods and eat things that make me feel good, instead. Try to keep a log of different foods you eat and how you react to them, and then consult with your doctor to make sure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals you need. Eating a healthful, conscious diet that keeps you feeling good is extremely important. It might even lead to less flare-ups and more time at the easel!


Lastly, drink water. Staying hydrated is incredibly important. Water keeps our bodies functioning properly and our minds focused. Make sure you have a reusable bottle nearby at all times!


Design Your Perfect Workspace

We’ve all seen those Pinterest Perfect interior design posts, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about designing a workspace that supports you and your body’s needs. Let’s use me as an example. I’m very short, making pretty much every desk out there way too tall for me. When we move, I’m going to be getting an ergonomic chair and footrest to make up for the difference in height so that my neck and shoulders don’t end up fatigued and overused.


So take a look at where you’re currently creating. Does it serve your body’s needs? Is your desk too tall or too short? Is the edge of the desk too sharp and hard? Is your easel in an awkward position? Move things around and consider buying furniture to help make your space as comfortable as possible. For you that might mean bringing a heating pad into the studio. Or maybe having a workspace on the floor. Just make sure that wherever you paint, draw, or sculpt, your body’s needs are being taken care of. Spending too much time at a desk that’s too tall won’t do you any favors. (Trust me. I’ve been there.)


Have a Backup

Avoiding every single flare-up isn’t always possible. I just had a really bad one last week that came out of nowhere, so I seriously relate to anyone out there that feels like it’s never going away. But your flare-up doesn’t have to ruin all of your wonderful creative plans! Enter: the backup workspace. This is just a secondary creative area that you can turn to when sitting in your studio isn’t feasible.


Your backup could be switching to digital art so you can draw in bed. Or you could have a box of less messy materials to work with while you lounge on the couch (a mechanical pencil and a sketchbook are great options for this). You might even have a lap table or lap desk that acts as a small easel for you to work from. It really doesn’t matter what your preference is; this is just to allow you to keep practicing and improving even when your body needs to rest.


One of the best examples of the backup space is Henri Matisse. During his later years, Matisse was diagnosed with duodenal cancer and had to have abdominal surgery. After surgery, he was stuck in bed for three months. That’s an incredibly long time to be away from the studio! But instead of giving up, he adapted his practice to allow him to continue resting in bed. In fact, this is when he moved from paint to paper collage! Those collages are still some of his most famous pieces to this day. When I start to feel low from being in so much pain, I try to adapt like Matisse.


Get Off the Comparison Train

I’m serious. Stop comparing yourself to other artists you see online. In fact, maybe don’t go on social media at all on days when you feel especially awful. Looking at what everyone else is doing can easily lead to negative self-talk. But comparing yourself to others isn’t going to help you. It’s just going to make you feel worse.


It truly does not matter how many paintings so-and-so made this past week. It doesn’t matter that someone else is selling work like hotcakes. Being an artist is not a race to see who can be the best or paint the most or sell the fastest. Being an artist is a lifelong journey, in which there will be many twists and turns. So stop comparing where you are to where everyone else is. You can only look at where you are today in comparison to where you were yesterday. And if that means you filled up two more pages in your sketchbook, then that’s two more than you had the day before, isn’t it?


Be gentle with yourself, and try not to stress about keeping up with everyone else. They’re creating the work that reflects their life. And you need to create work that reflects yours. So stop stressing and beating yourself up. You might not be as fast as someone else, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get where you're supposed to be in your own time. Take it easy and enjoy the artistic journey that only you can take. Comparison is the thief of joy, especially for artists.

 

And those are my 4 Tips for Artists Living with Chronic Pain. It’s not easy having a chronic condition and trying to balance 8 or 9 different responsibilities with your artistic practice. So give these tips above a try! It might help more than you think. Most importantly, remember that you are not your pain. It’s just something you’re going through right now. Tend to your body, and the rest will follow.


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Thanks for reading and happy creating!