“But Jess,” I can hear you say, “I can't stop! I need to be on the computer at least eight hours a day! Researching, drawing, social media, everything I do uses screens!”
It’s true that it is hard, if not impossible, to 100% avoid looking at screens these days. It’s especially hard for us freelancers. Working from home usually means that screens like phones and PCs are needed for almost all work activities. “What do I dooooo?”
I've got a bunch of tips that can lessen the chances of you getting the dreaded ‘square eyes’.
And please note that, although this article is aimed at freelance digital artists, many of the tips can be adapted to suit anyone that spends long hours looking at screens, from office workers to stay-at-home mums.
Protecting Your Eyes At Work
1. Hand-Write As Much As You Can
Using apps to brainstorm and sketch art ideas can be a lot of fun. But, aaahhh, those screens! In the quest to save your eyesight, we must start here. It’s time to ditch the devices and turn to our old friends, pen and paper. Pick out a notebook and pen that you want to use, and prepare to feel cramps in muscles that you may not have used since high school.
Here’s a list of just some of the text and drawings you could be drafting and refining by hand:
I wrote this very blog post out by hand, just using a A4 notebook and a clicky ballpoint pen.
Now would also be a good time to set up an analog way of taking spontaneous notes, rather than opening up a note-taking app on your phone. Get a mini notebook and pen to carry around with you like, all the time. Use this to write down sparkly new ideas, to-do lists and things you want to Google later when your eyes are feeling better.
If you carry your phone around everywhere, you could get a wallet-style case for it, and turn it into a portable note station. Put in some sticky notes, and hook a pen onto the spine. Voila, easy to reach, and you won’t forget to take it with you!
2. Digitise Your Handwritten Notes
Now that you’ve got pages...and pages...and pages of handwriting, it’s time to turn them into typed text. You could manually type it out, but there are other ways...
2.1. OCR Software
There are many programs designed specifically to take a photo of your handwriting and turn it into type...which is just so damn cool! Unfortunately, pretty much all the good ones cost money, so you’ll need to decide for yourself if that’s a justifiable business expense.
As for free apps, I’ve tested a couple on the iPad, with… iffy results. I’ll provide the results in a blog post of eventually.
Just don’t forget that, if you’re gonna use OCR, your handwriting has gotta be neat. You can’t use the software on your first-drafts with crossed out sentences and arrows all over the place. Write out a legible version before you attempt to OCR it.
If you happen to have a typewriter for typing out notes (unlikely, but super-cool, and I’ve very jealous!), there are more OCR options available. Since you’re not working with handwriting, many more digitizing tools will work with your text, like the OCR built into OneNote. Or, if you want to be really techy and I dare say, over the top, you could try the ScanMarker, which is basically a pen-sized scanner that’ll convert the type you drag it over to digital type.
2.2. Paper and Pens with Superpowers!
There are some notebooks you can buy that have techy features. The Evernote Notebook from Moleskine lets you perform a search on handwritten text once you’ve taken a photo of the page. Same for the notebooks made by Rocketbook.
You are spoilt for choice when it comes to notebook innovations. Investigate what will best suit you!
2.3. Type More Efficiently
If you decide to go down the simple typing route, that’s fine too! My biggest tip for decreasing eye-strain here is to get faster at what you do! Faster work means finishing earlier; less screen time, less stress! The best way to get faster is to use the right tools, and to use them efficiently.
I want you to learn all the shortcuts of you word processing software! Practice them, memorise them! For example, in Google Docs on iPad with an Apple Keyword attached, I can jump to the end of a line by holding Cmd + Left Arrow or Cmd + Right Arrow. Cmd + Up Arrow will take me to the top of the document. Option + Arrows will jump the cursor to the next word. Shift + Arrows will create selections of text. Using these shortcuts will save you a lot of time. I only learned these ones while playing with the keyboard during the writing of this post - imagine what actual dedicated effort could achieve!
Another tip for word processing is to learn to touch type. This will save you so much time! Plus, you’ll feel like a badass, churning out paragraphs of text without having to look at your hands. (As far as typing speed, I checked mine on TypingTest.com, and got ...26 words per minute. I’ve gotta practice more!)
2.4. Take Voice Notes
If handwriting is not your thing, there are alternatives! You could take voice notes instead. OneNote offers voice to text capability. I’ve also had good experiences with writing notes into Google Keep using the keyboard’s Voice Input on my Android phone. There’s so many speech-to-text programs and apps available to try. Of course, being programs, you will need to use your screen a little bit. But, once you hit that record button, you can close your eyes! Give them a nice rest while you dictate.
3. Use Reference Images Without Using Screens
Reference images are an artist’s best friend (along with a good set of watercolour pencils… and a high quality 2B pencil… and 150GSM paper…) I’m not gonna make you give up using references. Here’s some ideas for cutting the reliance on screens for this activity.
Where possible, use real life references. Yes, classical traditional artists, you were right all along! It’s a often-shared tip. But I’m the first to admit, I’m might sometimes, say, Google a pic of a pillow as a ref rather than walk allll the way to my bedroom and grab a pillow. Ditch those lazy instincts! Get up, pick a flower, pose a mannequin or a willing friend, reference reality!
Secondly, there is a treasure trove of reference images at your local library! Books with oodles of images, from anatomy to geography to… trigonometry? (Math art is totally a thing...maybe. Or at least, drawing a sexy math professor’s office!)
Make use of books wherever you can. My fav art books to refer to for a healthy dose of inspiration are Some Nice Things by Fukari and The Art of Loish: A Look Behind The Scenes.
If you can’t do the tips above (artists with lack of mobility or living in a heckin’ isolated area, I hear ya!), then I give you permission to get reference images online. Find them, save them… and print them! If you’re worried about wasting ink, just dial down the print quality and make the images black & white, or even lower the opacity in Photoshop so the bare minimum of ink is used. You could even put these print-outs in a folder to create your own personalised reference book.
4. Use Traditional Media For Making Art
Digital art is awesome to make because of all the options available...especially the ability to undo mistakes. But that doesn’t mean 100% of your work has to be done using a tablet. Using traditional media could save your eyes some screen time, as well as bringing more fun and spontaneity to your artmaking practice.
Consider trying some different mediums like…
When you’re done with your experimentation, you can digitise your artwork using a scanner or a camera. Make sure your tripod/lighting setup is on-point, as it’ll save you photo-editing hours later.
5. Create Digital Art More Efficiently
Ok, we are at the point where you simply can’t avoid screens any longer. You've got to start actually editing things in your software of choice (I’m gonna just say Photoshop on PC from here on out coz it’s what I use). How can we decrease your eye fatigue here? It’s a tip I gave earlier - get faster at what you do!
Once again, learning shortcuts is gonna save you a bunch of time when editing. In Photoshop, let’s say I wanted to copy an image that’s open, and place that image on a new canvas. I could manually click every menu option to do this… or I could just press Ctrl + A (select all), Ctrl + C (copy), Ctrl + N (new), Enter, Ctrl + V (paste).
Saving canvas, brush, and swatch presets that you use often will save you time as well. For example, I’ve saved canvas presets for some Redbubble products, such as Water Bottles and Wall Tapestries.
And finally, read or watch tutorials on how other artists do things that you regularly do, to see if they have found a better, more efficient way of doing it. Maybe you’ve been using the Eraser tool to manually remove a solid background on an image, when you could do it in 10 seconds using the Quick Selection Tool or a mask!
6. Bulk-Post To Social Media
Sharing artwork and communicating with fans and customers is super important to freelance artists. Let’s speed up your social media updates by posting the same content to multiple sites simultaneously.
I currently use the free plan from Hootsuite for this purpose. It lets you post to three sites at once - I picked Insta, FB and Twitter. I also love that you can schedule posts. I schedule mine for about 2AM AEST, so they’ll come out at a high-traffic hour in America. Hootsuite rocks, but there are two caveats y’all should know:
You may not even need a separate sharing app! Instagram will natively share your post to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. However, if you have specific app needs, or just wanna use the cheapest app out there, there are many to choose from. In fact, I’ve compared a whole bunch of social media management apps! [Link coming soon].
7. Take Your Work Outside
Any work activity will feel more relaxing if you do it outside. Fresh air in your lungs and on your face will help prevent that tech burnout feeling. Take your phone, tablet or laptop outside and proceed with whatever jobs you want to do. My fav outdoor setup is sitting on a low camping chair, with my iPad held upright using a Book Seat.
If you can’t do the full outdoor experience, set up a desk in your garage next to the door, and leave the door open as you work. Then you get the best of both worlds - outdoor air and a supportive desk environment.
Resting Your Eyes While You’re Relaxing
8. Try Some Screen-Less Hobbies
There’s a lot of ways to enjoy your free time besides watching TV, playing video games, and scrolling through Tumblr (I swear!). Here’s a list of just a few pass times to try:
9. Enjoy Some Screen-Less Media
If you’ve just gotta consume some media to relax, I got you. There’s plenty of ways to be entertained without using your eyes. Here’s a couple to consider:
If there is digital text you want to read without reading, there are ways to have them read out to you using text-to-speech software. On iPad, almost any text can be read out loud to you if you select it and click Speak. On PC, you can install the Read Aloud add-on for Chrome to have a webpage read to you in just one click. And of course, there are many apps and programs that can provide text-to-speech services. Do some research to find one that suits your needs.
General Eye-Saving Tips
10. Put On Your Glasses
If you own prescription glasses, remember to wear them! If you don’t, consider getting an eye test. If you’ve been dealing with screens and sore eyes for a while, there could be actual damage or an underlying issue affecting you. I recommend getting tested if you’ve noticed any of the following about your eyesight:
11. Use Screen Filters
Speaking of damaging light in the blue to violet range, there are ways to block it out other than glasses. For example, there are many programs and apps that can adjust the colour of the light your screen emits. Making it more yellow-orange will cause the light to be gentler on your eyes. My OPPO phone and iPad Pro both come with this feature built-in to the operating system.
As for PC users, the software I currently use is f.lux, which offers a wide variety of colour profiles, as well as the option to disable those profiles when a program is running in full-screen mode (so if you’re using a photo editor, you don’t have to worry about colour distortion!) f.lux can also auto-adjust depending on the time of day, increasing the warmth as it gets later. This could even improve the quality of your sleep if you tend to use your computer at night - win win!
12. And Most Importantly… Rest and Exercise!
When you are doing any screen activity, take regular breaks. Some people recommend the 20-20-20 principle: for every 20 minutes of screen viewing, take a 20-second break to look at something 20 feet away.
As for me, I’m partial to the eye exercises I learned from Dr Kawashima's Sight Training Training (I think, it’s been many years since I last played it) on the Nintendo DS:
Look up for 3 seconds, then relax
Look left for 3 seconds, then relax
Look right for 3 seconds, then relax
Look down for 3 seconds, then relax
Squeeze your eyes shut for 3 seconds, then relax
Look at something close for 3 seconds, then relax
Look at something far away for 10 seconds, then relax
Blink your eyes rapidly for 10 seconds, then relax
For me, the biggest obstacle for resting my eyes is simply remembering to take the necessary breaks. So, I decided to put a reminder app on my phone. The app I use is called Repeat Alarm (it's free!).
I programmed two alarms into it. One tells me to rest my eyes every 14 minutes [just so it won't overlap with the 2nd alarm). The other tells me to do some physical movement every 30 minutes. A great feature of this app is that the alarm can be a standard sound, vibration, or a text-to-speech sentence. That means you wouldn’t even have to look at your phone screen to tell you what task to do!
With these two working together, I feel like I’m taking much better care of myself during work hours. Now the only thing I’ve gotta remember is to open the app at the start of my work day (and sometimes I do forget… oops!)
I hope this blog post has been helpful to all the people with strained eyes out there. I want all my crafty bros and sisters to treat their bodies well so that we can stay healthy, and keep on being amazing creators for years to come.
Any questions, just slam-dunk them into the comments section below.
Peace, love and sunshine,