View Full Version : Painting Ergonomics / Tennis Elbow

01-04-2014, 06:28 AM
I developed a chronic case of tennis elbow in both of my arms more than ten years ago. I thought after the physical therapy I had with the last bout 5 years ago that it was cured, but new activities seem to bring it back, and two months of pastels has unfortunately caused some pain.

I have been resting and doing some rehabilitation for the past month but am wondering about what I can do differently while painting to prevent reoccurrence. Has anyone else had this problem or know anything about ergonomics with pastels? Everything I read about only seems to talk about tennis and computer use, but I don't even play tennis. My original problem was caused by reading, or rather, by holding heavy books in graduate school.

In general, the problem is caused by fine, repetitive hand and finger motions that do not use the full arm. So I guess that means trying to put more of my arm into my strokes. Finer, tighter grips also contribute to the problem, so I have purchased some pastel holders so that I can have a wider grip at least when I use the edges of the pastels, but I can't do anything for when I use the sides of the sticks. Anyone have any suggestions? Also, does anyone know if it's better for the arms to sit or stand when painting? Maybe standing makes it easier to use more of the arm? I have been sitting previously, but now I have an easel, so I could do either.

01-05-2014, 01:39 AM
I had issues with my shoulder when using a plein air easel that used the inside lid as the "easel" part, and my arm was at an unusual angle while working down near the bottom third of the painting. I solved that issue by switching to a Sol-tek easel that has an adjustable mast. I can move the painting up and down very easily so that my arm/shoulder is in a very ergonomic and comfortable position no matter where I am working on the piece. As you have said, it is much better to work from the shoulder, and having your artwork at a comfortable level for your shoulder is paramount to avoiding further shoulder issues. Perhaps this might help your tennis elbow as well - but I don't know. But I would make sure your work is adjustable up and down on your easel so that it is easy on your shoulder and arm and always at a comfortable level for working wherever you are working on a particular piece - whether you work sitting or standing.


01-05-2014, 04:04 AM
My suggestion, which works for me but I have a weird body, is trial and error.

Try sitting at tables of different heights and try working on a drawing board in your lap. Standing may be better for working from the shoulder. Definitely if you can do it, try standing and blocking in while saving fine motions of wrist and hand, little strokes, for the very end. Shifting your process may help with that.

A lot of pastelists including Colorix work by blocking in base areas with the flat side of the stick, then modifying that with bold strokes within the big areas, working finer and finer toward the focal area and only doing small strokes at the very end rather than doing fine motions all over the whole painting. This will also give you a very painterly style with bold visible strokes.

Arnold Lowrey's method on plain paper is blocking in with bold strokes and then smudging to blend, then working over the blended colors, sometimes blending two or three times before doing accent strokes at the end. That would have different motions than poring over something doing very careful strokes from the wrist.

I had that trouble with height of keyboards and type of keyboards. It didn't stop until I got a laptop and worked at the right height where I'm doing exactly what normal people shouldn't - resting my hand on the front of the keyboard and reaching only with my fingers. I use the Dvorak keyboard layout which moves my fingers less. This is what ended the wrist problems I had before - and I was typing about 12 hours a day or more, still do that sometimes but without wrecking my wrists. I can't work from the shoulder for very long or hold up the weight of my arm long due to chronic fatigue, so I work small and "bold" in relation to my work is probably fussy compared to anyone who does 12 x 16" and larger paintings.

Working large will create a demand for more swooping motions from the shoulder, the opposite of what I'm doing.

Varying your motions, not all strokes the same, might help.

Try everything you can think of. Make notes of your trial and error progress for how it affects your arm. Find out what works. You might even find that using a mahl stick to support it is what helps, whether seated or standing at the easel. If standing is possible, standing is usually healthier. Adjust the height of your easel correctly by trial and error so that you're at the right height to work on it. Her idea of sliding the painting up and down while working on different areas is a good one.

Standing at the easel gives more exercise, which anyone who hasn't got disability limiting them from it would benefit from. Getting up to walk back and look at it from a distance is good exercise too and it may also help your arm to take more time with a painting. Do a little, then step back to look at what you did.

That's also a way to get control and get perspective on what you're doing with great big loose strokes. When I loosened up I found that pieces I thought were awful most of the way through really weren't. What looks enormous and kludgy right under my nose is just right and much livelier halfway across the room. Moving around more with more "Looking at it" times instead of plowing right through, making "step back for a look" part o the rhythm, will give your arm a break from the repetition.

So might arm gestures completely different from the painting gestures, like stretches or magic-wand gestures, things that don't need to be precise even if you don't put down the stick.

If the problem is repetitive motions, interrupting it with other motions might help reduce it. Because I have to work seated, I trained myself to move around more while seated. I massage my legs more. I change position more often. My cat changes position every two minutes in his sleep, maybe that's how a creature that sleeps 16 hours a day stays so muscular and fit. I have watched him sleep and he does that constantly for hours. He's always inert in a different position every time I look. I try to emulate that to keep the blood flowing and keep my mobility limits from degenerating to even less function - net result is when I have the energy to walk, I can walk easier.

The best thing is that you understand the problem. You know the habits you have are not working, so, you start from there trying things that might work till something sustainable comes up. Finding more than one thing that works might increase your range. Even if working small, maybe looking at it from more of a distance every few strokes could make a difference - hold it out from yoru body, turn around, or get up and put it somewhere and stand back, sit down and work on it again.

It always looks better from a distance. If it doesn't, it's easier to see why and correct it. I bought a reducing glass in order to do it without being able to get up and walk away. So this one might be a good habit even if it's only a partial solution.

Things that might work. Paint to music and change the pace and type of music frequently. Anything done to music, your body is going to fall into rhythm with it. Changing the rhythm may change your motions enough to do some good. Try that with a speed and rhythm varied playlist.

If seated, try different heights of table or easel and chair until you get the one where there's the least effect.

If you have trouble telling when a position's good or not, try it on a day you're feeling achy to begin with and watch the clock for how fast it got noticeably worse. Time that once doing it the wrong way for a baseline - so you can tell when there's improved sustainability. The goal of course is the combination that eliminates it, but getting there is successive approximation which also creates deep habits.

Oh duh.

Try working on the floor.

I'm not joking. I can't actually vacuum but I can scrub a floor with a rag easier than with a mop on a handle. Matter of whether there's pressure on my back. The arm motions may be different if you're sitting on the floor or kneeling on it looming over your painting either holding yourself up without leaning on the floor or leaning on one arm as I would do. It could be a categorically different position. I don't know if that'd work or not.

I don't know if any of these ideas would relieve it. They're what I came up with on the top of my head but the process, try everything you can think of and log the results, that's what I know works. This includes possibly buying and wearing an arm brace while working. That helped my bad leg recover from an overexertion injury and let me walk while I was recovering from it without it getting any worse.

Specifically, when you said "New activities seem to bring it back" it sounds as if you adapt to all the old activities but haven't yet adapted to how you do pastels. It should be solvable, consciously doing trial and error is a way to solve it faster than unconscious habit changes. I developed about half my permanent disability adaptations just by doing everything My Way when I didn't know I was disabled, so that can work. When it doesn't it's better to chart it and know what failed, what wasn't as bad, what really helped, what was a total fail. Include how you hold the pastels. Maybe you work looser and broader with them on their sides.

01-05-2014, 09:35 PM
Thanks for the suggestions.

Lynn, that is definitely a good idea to adjust the height of the easel throughout the painting. Out of laziness, I probably wouldn't do it, so thanks for bringing that up and reminding me that it's important to take the time to do.

Robert, yes trial and error is often the realistic option. I wish I knew more specifically what to do and not do in advance, but sometimes that's not possible. We're leaving in a week for 3 1/2 weeks in Thailand for vacation and a work conference, so I had planned to keep doing rehabilitation and exercises and resume painting after my return. But your suggestion made me realize maybe I should do a small amount of playing around and trial and error before I leave.

With it being a repetitive motion injury, if the current round has healed, I won't notice a problem for a while. At that point, it's hard to figure out exactly what caused the problem, and it has already caused damage from which I need to then start the recovery process over from the start. (Chronic tennis elbow is not just an inflammation or irritation of the tendons, but an actual degeneration, which is what makes full recovery so difficult). But if I try out one technique/position a day for a very short time now before recovery is complete, anything problematic might just cause a small amount of pain by the next day, and then I can know to avoid that technique or position.

Judy Manuche
01-06-2014, 12:53 PM
I know this sounds weird, but have you ever had your thyroid checked? I developed what I thought was a case of "golf" elbow (I didn't play tennis) and had it for years. I quit golf, stopped doing everything that involved my elbows...nothing helped. I couldn't lift a gallon of milk! Well, I was having thyroid troubles, turned out my thyroid needed to be removed. A week after removal of my thyroid, my joint pain was gone! Five years later, no trouble. I had Hashimoto's thyroidosis, it is an auto-immune disease where your own body attacks your own cells (I also had cancer, which is why the thyroid had to go!) Not saying you have thyroid trouble, but it is worth a shot! Good luck with that.

01-06-2014, 01:40 PM
Do you paint standing up. If not, try it. It should force you to use your arm\shoulder more. An added benifit is you are more likely to step back from the easel to look at your work.

01-06-2014, 02:39 PM
I have issues with carpel tunnel syndrome, and what I had to do was change the way I held my pastels. (Tough!)

Instead of holding them like I hold my pencil, (which is more messy anyway) I hold them like I hold my knitting needles. That is really the correct way, so I'm told, and it makes me use my whole forearm.

01-07-2014, 01:50 AM
Judy, yes I found out several years ago that there's a connection between thyroid problems and joint problems, so I had my thyroid checked. At the time, I was "normal" under the old TSH standards, but slightly hypothyroid under the newer standards. A few months later I got pregnant, which caused my thyroid levels to go down even more, so then they put me on medication. I've been on the same dosage for 5 years now, so I doubt that's the cause, but I'm due to have it checked again in a couple months. I'm glad it worked for you though - I would love a miracle fix like that!

Mike, I hadn't been painting standing, but I got an easel for Christmas. I tried it out last night and loved the feel, though unfortunately just 15 min of broad strokes did cause some soreness.

Keepingpure, yes I think I need to find new ways to hold and use the pastels. What is the proper way to hold knitting needles?


01-07-2014, 08:58 AM
Keepingpure, I've been looking at pictures of knitting. Do you mean hold the pastels overhand instead of underhand? That looks like it could make a big difference. I'll have to try it.

01-07-2014, 02:33 PM
I hope that works. Good luck with this. Glad this is the right time to try it when you have some body feedback and can tell before causing a massive problem that needs recovery again. Yep. Different problems need different treatment. I hope you can find something workable that won't cause it again before you finish rehabilitation.

01-07-2014, 04:08 PM
How is your overall head/neck/shoulder posture?

Forward head/shoulders/neck or hunched/scrunched ??
Meaning forward of the main line of the body..when viewed from the side.

We often tend to do this posture when working at our jobs or as artists, anything forward of the body and repetitious or over a long time..

This forward posture can close down & impinge the collarbone, neck, shoulder areas and can sometimes even pinch the nerves or blood supply that all run through that area..
My assembly job & repetitive work postures are how I learned about this syndrome & the symptoms.
You may have pain in your hands & arms , but it can be actually coming from up in the neck/collarbone area..

So if you think that might be a part of it- work to get the head & shoulders back in line.



If your symptoms continue or worsen, I might suggest changing to another medium,, where gripping and close detail is less important..

I tried pastels and it was too much hand/arm detail usage for me.. and looking downward onto the work space..

Our head can weigh about 8-14 lbs :eek: lots of strain to the neck muscles holding it for long amounts of time..

Vary your motions/postures and take stretch breaks...as much as possible..

01-09-2014, 09:00 PM
Joy, thanks for the links. Yes weak shoulders are usually a factor in tennis elbow. I'm doing both shoulder and core-strengthening exercises in addition to the elbow ones. My upper body has always been weak since my physical exercise has usually focused on the lower body (dancing and long-distance running).

Posture may have been a contributing factor this time since I'd been working seated, sometimes putting the drawing board on my lap or half-squatting on the floor when the board wouldn't stay put. So hopefully working standing will be better. I think my standing posture is pretty good after 14 years of ballet.