Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Painting and Back Health



Pontormo







In recent weeks a fortunately short bout of back pain has made me think about the best practices for an easel artist to keep a healthy back.
In my experience the "move" from the table to the easel when I started working in oils years ago represented the end of all neck pains I have been suffered since school days. My posture has always been quite correct despite being tall but I always had the tendency to hang down the head when sitting at a desk. This of course meant a constant strain for the trapeze muscle that resulted in sore shoulders and a stiff neck.






     When I started working at the easel and, like a homo sapiens, finally looked ahead rather than down, all of this disappeared. In my early days as an oil painter I used to stand all the time, both in class and very often in the studio. I sawed off the top part of my easel so that I could lift the base up and work standing even with small paintings.




    For a few years I also had one of those Swedish chairs with the seat at an angle and a knee rest. I realised though that I often ended up perched on top of it slumped forward with my feet on the knee rest. An ostheopath recently explained that even if used correctly those chairs are no good, as you end up having all the weight supported on your knees, which ultimately damages the joint and might affect the sciatic nerve.

   In recent years, as I concentrated on table top still-life in which my point of view is aligned with the set up, I work sitting 90% of the time. A good amount of time spent working on printmaking also meant again sitting at a table and working on small scale works that need to be looked at from a close distance. Since I am not getting any younger I decided to find out about the best way of preserving a healthy back. I asked my GP's osteopath and posted on FB to get advice from fellow painters.
You probably already know all of this but here's a little reminder anyway:


- Take breaks
 Cindy Procious points a timer if she becomes too absorbed in what you are doing and take a short break to move around. I want to think that a certain space and body awareness develops naturally with painting skills, so it's good to relax the muscles involved in handling the brush. Judi Green uses Spikey Balls to massage the back during breaks, while Linda Brandon does push ups ( I'm impressed!)
Ingres at the Phillips Collection, Washington



- Exercise
 Donald Beal has obtained a set of exercises from a physiotherapist to strengthen rhomboid muscles ( between shoulder blades) and hold a good shoulder posture. In case of pain there are contrasting opinion if osteopathy or physiotherapy is the best option ( see difference here). Annie Brash Kelvin opted for a personal trainer and Lylian Peternolli for jogging.
I must confess that when it's time to go to the gym I always find something more interesting to do in the studio. I try to go twice a week and I don't do classes because I know I don't like to go at a regular time. The osteopath advised me to do "a bit of everything". Best of best, he said, is swimming front crawl, otherwise do a little on all aerobic machines: treadmill, bicycle, cross trainer, rowing machine and the like (no Power Plate) followed by core exercises with control.
Pam Hawkes  says: one of the postures I have developed over the years is to try, when standing or sitting, to fold my arms behind my back and hold the opposite elbow with each hand; it helps keep those long back muscles stretched.
This is a good exercise to relieve tension in the jaw, as we often clench it without realising. Place a fist under your chin as when you support your head. Open your mouth slightly pushing hard against your hand and count to seven, relax counting to three and repeat a few times.
Pilates, yoga etc. are all good disciplines of course, and Sophie Ploeg suggests that I get another dog ! ( sigh)




- Palette
Dennis Spicer bought a cheap tea trolley at a charity shop  for his palette, while Linda Brandon clamps it to another easel close by. David John Kassan has developped a vertical palette that also has advantages for comparing your mixes as it's positioned beside the painting.
I haven't tried DJK's palette but having worked on a glass palette on a trolley in the past I now feel I am doing well with holding a wooden one. I have a couple of these large palette, one that is slightly smaller and fits in my painting backpack and a larger one for the studio. I got them from Green and Stone and they are light and balanced and don't strain the arm or the wrist at all. ( I know, Roy Connelly, I should put it down but I like it !).



Posture:.
Maryanne Buschini ( and my osteopath) suggests a Swiss ball chair. Gallerist Jonathan Ross suggests the Alexander Technique but I must thank Gail Sauter who suggested a book by Esther Gokhale ( similar to Alexander Technique in some aspects). I only had it for a week or so but I found that
the explanations are very clear and the posture she suggests feels very natural to me. I learnt not only a new posture for sitting but also one for when I stand and look down such as when making monotypes or framing. I tried this today and it felt very good.

If everything else fails, I leave the last words to the wise John Hansen:  "A cure that works almost as well as exercise is age. Time and ageing pain receptors help. I use both."




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