Drawing Comics Can Hurt

Daniel McCloskey working with a sore hand.

Drawing long hours in uncomfortable positions can be painful. My son Dan is working against deadline on a graphic novel. It is hard on his drawing hand. Drawing too long can be downright painful and dangerous.

Jeff Smith nearly ruined his hand drawing Bone. ©Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith creator of Bone told fellow cartoonists Jim Rugg, Jason Lex and Ed Piskor that he would routinely draw 17 hours a day to meet Bone’s deadline. When he couldn’t hold a pencil he stuck one through a tennis ball to carry on. His doctor told him he had to stop drawing or risk permanent disability. After eight months off, Smith managed to get back to the drawing board. He incorporated more breaks and exercises into his schedule.

Sometimes I get hand cramps, but I don’t draw for nearly as long as Jeff Smith or Dan. I work with traditional media, and my pens and brushes are varied widths and shapes. Using a single stylus for sketching, lettering, coloring, – that’s much harder on the hand.

Daler Rowney table easel helps get new angles.

Dan draws on an iPad pro. He found a simple wooden gizmo helps his posture and workflow. The Daler Rowney table easel transforms a coffee shop counter into a tilted drafting table. He tucks his iPad on the easel along with a hand-drawn style sheet. His script is handy as he sketches with an Apple pencil using Procreate.

He is working on his graphic novel Cloud Town. It will be published by Abrams Comics Arts in 2021. Creating a graphic novel is a long, physically demanding process. He also bought a book that he recommends.

Kriota Willberg’s Draw Stronger, Self-care for Cartoonists and Visual Artists is a great resource. Willberg knows a lot about taking care of yourself at the drawing board since she is both a massage therapist and a cartoonist. One point that she makes is that if you take a break from drawing then start texting or gaming you aren ‘t doing your tendons any favors.

From Draw Stronger © Kriota Willberg

Draw Stronger is published by indy publisher Uncivilized Books. Their other titles are graphic novels by acclaimed creators including John Porcellino, Gabrielle Bell, Noah Van Sciver, to name a few. Oddly enough, while working on this blog post I met the cartoonist Tom Kaczynski, the founder of Uncivilized Books. Tom said sales of Draw Stronger were so surprisingly strong the first printing sold out in a matter of weeks. The second larger press run is still going strong and Tom expects to order a third printing soon.

Art © Kriota Willberg

I first saw Kriota Willberg’s advice in zine form and shared it with my illustration students. My studio class meets twice a week for 3 hours a meeting. Good students draw many more hours outside of class. Willberg exhorts cartoonists to think of ourselves as athletes.

You can get a peek at her sage advice free via her Get a Grip posts at Comics Beat like this one on drawing pain. If you teach illustration you really should get her book to share with your students.

World’s cheapest piece of exercise equipment. photo: K.McCloskey

Here is one free tip from the book that I’ve heard before. Find a wide rubber band, the sort you find on broccoli or asparagus. Put the band on your finger tips and stretch it out. This exercise strengthens your finger muscles with the opposite action of gripping a pen or stylus.

Master animator Hayao Miyazaki steps away from the drawing board.

The problem of overwork at the drawing board is a global phenomenon. In Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli in Japan a tune will play and staff animators suddenly stand for stretch dances. A video can be found here. If Miyazaki can pry himself from the drawing board, so can you!