Pursuing a Healthy Creative Life - An interview with myself
Updated: Feb 14
How does one live a healthy life as an artist? This is a question I've been struggling to answer since I was 20 and got my first job illustrating a book. I pretty quickly injured my wrist from overwork and ignorance about how much labor my body could safely do. I've struggled with focusing for so many hours in a day that I forget to eat. I've wrecked my sleep schedule. I've strained multiple muscles and tendons in my arm and neck and wondered if the life of an illustrator is one that I can realistically sustain long-term.
In six years of consistent art practice, I've had some difficult learning experiences but ultimately gained hopefully helpful insights from them. However, I still haven't seen many discussions about what it looks like to live an artistic life while maintaining your physical and mental health. I acknowledge that "healthy" can be a loaded word for some people. I think of a healthy life as one lived thoughtfully on your own terms that bring you joy and one which when well-practiced reduces physical and mental strain.
This year I've decided to conduct a series of interviews with some creative friends in order to shed more light on this topic. My hope is that it will become a form of worker solidarity that helps creatives set firm boundaries around their time, safety, and long-term health.
Here are my responses to start us off!
Tell me about what a typical day can look like for you. Do you have a routine or do you generally take things day by day?
I have a morning routine of waking up at 7 am and doing morning pages, a 10-minute meditation, and eating breakfast before starting work at 9. After my morning routine, things can vary widely depending on what I have going on. But normally I'll hop onto Focusmate for some focused work sessions. Then I'll take a break at noon for lunch. Usually, at this point, I'll feel a bit sleepy after sitting still for so long. A 15 minutes walk typically cures that and I'm ready to start again at 1. I'll do another 2-3 hours of work in the afternoon if I have time.
How many hours a week is typical for you to safely engage in your craft?
It's hard to say, but I think 10-20 hours is currently a safe amount of time to spend actively drawing every week. I'm going to be leaving my part-time job next month and hope that the extra time will allow me to increase that to 20-30.
How do you maintain your creative energy in the short and long term?
For the short term - staying active during my non-drawing time and getting a good amount of sleep helps me keep going from day to day.
Long-term - Making sure I have a weekend to reset my energy, spending time with my partner and loved ones, and maintaining my eating and exercise routine help me keep going from month to month. Also taking myself on art dates and consuming other forms of art helps keep me inspired.
Are there physical health risks associated with your practice? If so, what precautions do you take to minimize them?
Oh gosh. So many. Tendonitis, carpal tunnel, tennis elbow, nerve damage, muscle strain, eye strain, and all the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. I try to minimize the risks by taking breaks every 30-50 minutes, doing daily stretches, and some kind of high-intensity workout a few times a week. Also wearing wrist and elbow braces when needed.
Has your creative work ever caused injured you? If so, how did you/are you recovering from it?
Yes! I went over my experience more in detail in a previous blog post so I'll just say that going to physical therapy and getting serious about the aforementioned precautions helped a lot.
Do you have advice on how to set up a workspace that won’t lead to injury?
Having an inclined desk has made a huge difference. Being able to rest my entire forearm on the table reduces strain on my muscles, tendons, and nerves. Here's a picture of my current work area (much neater than it usually is).
Are there health aids you regularly use?
Blue-light blocking glasses, a wrist brace when not actively working (I've read that it's better to wear braces when you're not drawing as it will weaken the muscles but there's a lot of conflicting info/opinions about this), and occasionally an elbow brace if I feel tennis elbow kicking in.
What are some things you've had to let go of in order to live a healthier creative life?
I've given up video games, my smartphone, and the mentality that illustration is something I can realistically do 40 hours a week.
Let’s talk about the mental health side of creative work. Please share as much or as little as you like about your struggles or successes with maintaining your mental health in regard to your creative practice.
I have bad mental health days/weeks like anyone, but I've been lucky in that they've never evolved into full-blown depression. I don't know if I have much helpful advice on this front right now. Going outside, reading really good books, journaling, exercising, and spending time with my partner can usually cure whatever ails me.
Have you ever experienced burnout? How did you/are you recovering from it?
Probably the closes thing I've experienced to burnout occurred right after I graduated from college and put on a pretty ambitious senior show. The apartment I moved into after graduation was very small and I didn't have much room to make art. That year was a struggle. But having space to make a mess made a huge difference.
How do you discern whether you should push through a feeling of creative fatigue or take a break?
This is something I still have trouble discerning. But if a walk doesn't cure the fatigue, then I probably need to take a break.
What has been your progress in creating a work/life balance?
My approach to gaining balance is constantly evolving, but the BIGGEST help has honestly probably been using Focusmate regularly. Before using it to schedule my work schedule I would swing wildly between being unable to get myself to sit down and focus, and spending aaaalll day focusing and ending up tired hungry, and strained.
Any specific resources on healthy, creative lifestyles you’d like to share?
I've made a playlist of videos I've found helpful.
The book Draw Stronger by Kriota Willberg is a must-have.
The magazine Uppercase. There's always something inspiring in there!
Lastly, what is your favorite thing about living a creative life?
I love the never-ending challenge of a creative life. There's always something new to work on, a new puzzle to solve, a new goal to meet, a new project to dream about. Despite the solitary and often sedentary nature of my work time, it's never boring!