Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Colored Pencils

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Colored Pencils

Jana Botkin joins us today to talk about her struggles with carpal tunnel syndrome and colored pencils.

What do You do When Colored Pencils Cause Problems?

by Jana Botkin

For most of my life, I was a diehard graphite pencil artist, completely content with the simplicity of the medium. After about a year of giving weekly drawing lessons, some of the students started pressing me to teach them to use colored pencils. I thought colored pencils were for children. All I had was a box of 12 Prismacolors from Aunt Shirley for my tenth birthday.

The interwebs hadn’t been invented yet, so I bought a book, the title of which I have forgotten. The art work looked like crayon to me, reinforcing my bad attitude toward colored pencils. (Should have chosen another book, I know.)

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Colored Pencils
OJ ~ Colored Pencil

Getting Into Colored Pencils

My drawing students were counting on me, so I asked an older and wiser artist about colored pencil. She told me that there is much more to the medium, and lent me the first book published by the CPSA. After laughing—“Are you saying ‘Colored Pencil Society of America’ is a real organization?!”— I was astonished by the quality of art that people were achieving with colored pencils.

Convinced, I attended three CPSA conventions over the next five years. The fabulous teaching, easy camaraderie, and wide variety of styles equipped me to help my drawing students learn how to use colored pencils.

(Yes, I bought a full set of 120 Prismacolor, 120 Polychromos, and still there were NEVER enough colors.)

Earning a living as a full-time artist in a rural place with high unemployment, high poverty, and low education is tricky business. Expanding into color was a good idea, but each colored piece took a minimum of twice as long as it would have in graphite. Charging double the price of my regular work would mean it gathered dust on the wall of my studio/gallery (Rural = farming = dust).

Linda’s Barn ~ Graphite and Colored Pencil

Coping with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Another unexpected consequence was the dreaded Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. My doc told me surgery would help, but if I returned to the same activity, the syndrome would return to my wrist. Besides, I scar something fierce.

Way leads on to way, and after nine years of a public studio, I moved into a former shed at home and eventually learned to oil paint. Since my studio was now private, I had to expand my offerings in order to avoid job hunting. Oil painting eventually led to murals, plus I still had drawing lessons, commissions, and occasional art shows to keep me in business.

Family Cabin ~ Graphite and Colored Pencil

But what about those 240 colored pencils?? I lend them to my drawing students so they can experience different brands and decide if colored pencil is truly for them before buying. (Rural = high unemployment = low money).

But wait! There’s more!

I discovered the perfect solution: combine colored pencil with graphite. Just a touch of color enlivens my regular pencil drawings, grabs people’s attention, and sells those drawings. It also scratches my itch to use colored pencils without reigniting Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Colored Pencils
Can’t Find Scratch ~ Graphite and Colored Pencil

Colored pencils no longer cause me any problems, other than occasionally wishing I could complete an entire drawing with them.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Doesn’t have to Keep You from Making Art

And Jana has just given us two options for dealing with this condition.

I don’t have carpal tunnel syndrome, but I do sometimes wrestle with what feels like the beginning of arthritis. Rest assured I am making a note of Jana’s suggestions. I hope you are, too.

It’s also my hope that Jana’s openness gets us thinking about our responses to this and similar situations. Even for those still in good health, it never hurts to have a plan!

What’s yours?

Many thanks to Jana for a great article.

About Jana Botkin

Jana credits her 6th grade teacher at Ivanhoe Elementary School with teaching her to draw. She spent several years in college in San Diego, changing schools and changing majors, until she realized she belonged back in her native Tulare County. After drawing her future husband’s cabin, he told her that other cabin owners would also love drawings of their cabins. That was the beginning of Cabin Art. Now she also paints in oils, paints indoor and outdoor murals, and teaches people how to draw, with hundreds of happy students since 1994. Jana works from her studio at home in Three Rivers, with her 3 cats stopping by for occasional visits. You see her work and browse her lessons on her website and read more of her articles on her blog.


  1. Gail Jones

    So glad that Jana found a way to work around her hand issue and also develop such a wonderful art style. I too am battling arthritis in my left thumb and have to work around that for some art related stuff.

  2. Patricia E Wilson

    This article was very encouraging and makes you realize that there is a way to still do the things that you love. When diagnosed with RA, I had to give up my cross stitch but then went into card making. It exercises my hands and fingers and certainly helps. Loved your drawings.

  3. Gail Jones

    Hi Jana pencil extenders would be a great help. At one point I had carpal tunnel surgery done for both my hands and was very happy with the results of it. At the time I was doing a lot of hand embroidery. After that, to protect my hands more, I used a stand to hold my embroidery rather than using my hands for all that gripping of the hoop. Overall, now drawing or painting is much easier on my hands than embroidery.

  4. Max

    Oof that’s painful but at least you can still make art. Five years ago I had two ops on my writing hand’s wrist in 6 months and had to do a LOT of painful rehab. Military career full of injuries, the wrist rehab was worse than two shoulder reconstructions etc (and even spinal stress fractures).

    So I… picked up some Derwent Artist’s pencils for my self paced rehab on fine motor skills. Colouring in was not relaxing- with either hand.

    Yep you can laugh. They were a good reminder of why I didn’t do art at school- they were the pencils we had to use and I thought they sucked even back then. X(

    Art makers do not care about comfort, unless you’re a 3yo. Why is that?

    I got Copic markers instead because they were easier to hold. The Artists were recently gifted to a youngster I know.

    Few years back bought thicker pencils- starting with watercolour (Magnus Albrecht Duhrer by Faber-Castell). Lightfast applies like a dream, Luminance I’m still not sure about, and fell down the rabbit hole. The major bummer is the Chromaflow (for travel sketching) is terrific but FAR TOO THIN.

    I love the pencil extender Caran d’Ache released and the jumbo Staedtler Graphite… I am still limited to 15min in an hour max at a time with Luminance or narrower, but solvent blending has helped. Still frustrating though.

    1. Max,

      Thank you for the comment.

      I’m sorry to hear about your surgeries, but glad to hear you’re recovering.

      Have you tried those soft “grips” that are made for slipping over a pencil? They give you something a bit more substantial to hold on to, and might help with those thin pencils.

      I guess working through pain has something to do with passion for creating. The more you’re driven to do something, the less pain matters. Just look at all those Olympic athletes whoendure painful while training and who experience the pain of competition, and still do it!

      Thank you for your service, and thank you again for your comment!

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