Tension is a sneaky little devil that can creep in and hinder your art without you even knowing. It wraps it’s devilish paws around your shoulders, sending pain down your back, stiffening movements through the hands, while continually breaking your focus and flow. Okay, maybe we’re being a bit dramatic, but in all seriousness, tight muscles from years of repeated use and less than stellar posture can have a huge impact on your ability to loosen up with your art and flow.
Now is a pretty ideal time to explore what’s going on in your body and its relation to your art. Whether you are currently experiencing tension, have felt its wrath in the past, or just want to get ahead on your prevention game, this stuff is for you. We’ll cover how tension manifests itself in the body, the new environmental stressors you may be experiencing, and a few key ways to loosen up to create your best art.
The meaning of tension
Muscle tension refers to the "condition in which muscles of the body remain semi-contracted for an extended period". Tension can also be defined as "mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement". In the case of your art, both are important definitions to consider. Every change in your mental and emotional state produces a corresponding bodily response and vice versa. A change in your mental state could be stress from a pressing deadline or in relation to current events, it could be emotional grief and panic of the unknown. The bodily response to said mental or emotional change is to stiffen up, sending pain signals to the brain.
So how does this information actually translate to your artistic pursuits?
On the surface level, it can be easy to make a connection between tension and its impact on our daily lives. But let's take a deeper dive into some aspects that can be harder to quantify, such as creativity, skillful execution, and artistic merit. Tension can affect an artistic endeavor in 3 meaningful ways: musculoskeletal limitations, fatigue, and psychological obstacles.
When we talk about Musculoskeletal limitations we must first consider coordination, which is defined as the ability to use different parts of the body together smoothly and efficiently. In art, coordination is responsible for things like line accuracy and pressure control. The tension comes into play by reducing your range of motion and affects your ability to freely and easily carry out your movements. Additionally, tension places stress on the nervous system, which can cause erratic and involuntary muscle movements while you work. In other words, the extent and control of your movements directly will influence the marks you make, your efficiency, and sustainability while working on your art.
Another component of this concept is the impact of pain. Experiencing pain while working is a distraction at best and disability at worst. Pain breaks your mental flow and can cause you to avoid certain motions altogether.
It would be nice if we could visually translate the image in our mind’s eye directly to the canvas, but the reality is we are stuck with relying on our bodies to make intangible ideas into physical products that can be shared with others. With this in mind, your coordination and flow can be the deciding factor in how well you execute your piece, and in the end how well it communicates with your audience. Even if you are not experiencing chronic symptoms of tension, improving your body’s efficiency and range can give you that edge you didn’t even know you needed. On the other hand, if your musculoskeletal system isn’t functioning properly, you will be exerting more effort for less outcome.
Speaking of exertion, fatigue also plays a major role in this realm. Fatigue can present itself mentally, physically, or oftentimes both. Fatigue is characterized by reduced mental alertness, such as motivation and attention, and reduced muscle activation. These impairments limit the ability to maintain an optimal level of performance. Fatigue often occurs when working on demanding tasks for a prolonged period of time. But tension expedites this process by demanding more from your nervous system. Additionally, the physical and mental energy you expend dealing with pain is energy taken away from your work. Skillful art requires concentration, clear decision making, and in a lot of cases sustainable productivity. Tension and fatigue will make short work of those if left unchecked.
And finally, let's explore the relationship between tension and fear. Be it the blank canvas staring back at you or tackling a complex design, novices and masters alike are challenged with every project they take on. The very nature of making something from nothing lends itself to at least some level of uncertainty, let alone worries of deadlines, budgets, or personal lives. Simply put, feelings of worry and anxiety contribute greatly to muscle tension and pain. Vice versa, tension increases mental stress and induces anxiety. This vicious feedback loop can paralyze the best of us if the pressure exceeds our ability to manage it. Fear has a way of inhibiting confidence in your skills and decision making, which can eventually become noticeable to the viewer. This can manifest anywhere from creatively uninspired problem solving to reworking the same area over and over. Luckily you can take steps to break this cycle by addressing your physical tension, and you will find that your mind tends to follow suit. Shifting into a more positive mental state can make the challenges you face more manageable. This coolheadedness can propel your project forward in a way that the mentality of “pushing through the pain” never could.
Don’t push through the pain, do these four key things to manage your tension and create better art
I’m sure you spend time warming up your mind doing some simple sketches before jumping into your work for the day but have you ever considered warming up your body before jumping into your work? Taking a good 15 minutes at the start of your day to get the blood and oxygen circulating through your system heightens your alertness and loosens up your muscular system. Instilling mobility in your upper and lower body before sitting down for the day and releasing some endorphins effectively connects the mind and the body to more easily slide into a flow.
Movement breaks every two hours
Tension reactions in both the mind and body multiply even more when we move less. Being sedentary causes the body to tighten up and over time, muscles can start to shorten and atrophy. Movement breaks need to happen at least every two hours to prevent this. It may seem counter-intuitive to pull yourself out of work multiple times a day, but you’ll find that by taking a step back, letting go for a couple of minutes, and blowing out the cobwebs in your body, your mind will work a lot sharper. You won’t remember to do this one though, nobody does! Set an alarm every two hours for a quick movement break. Maybe it’s a walk around the room, a couple sit to stand exercises out of your chair, or better yet, a stretch from the list below, switch it up and do it frequently throughout the day.
Strength training for posture and pain control
Strengthening the upper back, core, glutes, and stabilizing shoulder muscles will change your posture game. It’s one thing to sit for a few minutes with the spine straight, core engaged, shoulders pulled back, and upper back strong, but can you keep that up all day?
Some exercises we love: planks, glute bridges, superman Y raises and lat slides, and back rows.
Stretch like it’s a part of your job
People tend to not make time for stretching, but it can help to re-frame it in your mind as just another part of your job. It’s that important to your work!
The hip flexor muscles, located at the front of the hips, get very tight when you sit. When the hip flexors lock up, they inhibit the glute muscles from firing, and pull the pelvis and lower back into an arched position, called an anterior pelvic tilt. This is very common, in fact we see it in just about every creative professional. This pelvic tilt puts stress on the lower lumbar spine, which can cause low back pain, and over time can do damage to the lumbar discs.
The upper body is where most look when they think of posture issues. The forward rounded shoulders, elevated trapezius muscles, hump in the upper back, and forward-tilted head are the things we dread, but most experience in varying degrees. These postural issues in the upper back and shoulders are referred to as ‘Kyphosis’. Kyphosis can cause pain, headaches, fatigue, impaired range of motion of the thoracic and cervical spine, and shortened mobility in the shoulders, arms, and ultimately the hands.
Stretching and foam rolling daily are a MUST to alleviate tension in these areas and prevent postural changes over time. Below are a few images of our top three moves: hip flexor stretch, doorway stretch, and thoracic spine foam roll. Spend five minutes a couple of times a day doing these mobility exercises.
To wrap it up
That was a lot, we get it. But you don’t need to sacrifice much time to reap the benefits that we covered. Spending as little as a few minutes a day on a couple of the tension solutions we mentioned above can save your sanity on days where you just can’t seem to get into a flow and push your capabilities to the next level on days where you’re rockin' it. We want every day to be a great art day. By managing your tension and treating the care of your mind and body as if it’s another part of your job, you’ll feel and see great changes in your creative endeavors.