Finding Your Happy Workspace

Ah yes. Start up the ol’ computer in a beach chair on the Caribbean and have the waiter bring you a Pina Colada to help inspire the next comic….Yeah, right. It’d be nice, but most of us have to deal with make-shift bookshelves, Ikea desks that included a migraine upon assembly, and a hand-me-down scanner that works on occasion, during a full moon or when it feels like it. We may splurge on a detail or two (like a Cinitq tablet), but for the most part we have to make do with what we got. And that does not include a fine-lookin’ waiter/waitress and a private beach. We don’t got those.

I am a creature of habit and efficiency. Any decision I make when it comes to my workspace where my comics are born, is made ONLY for the purpose of getting comics done quicker and more comfortably. And if you’re serious about your career in comics, you should be considering any possible improvements you can make to the area in which you work the most…. in effort to get as many comic cranked out as possible. A sloppy workspace, in a noisy area with nothing but distractions will not only make writing hard, but drawing and inking less enjoyable. Some of the more successful cartoonists may even have their own studio, away for their busy families and restful homes… but like the beach workspace pictured above, that’s pretty much a pipe dream for the rest of us.

My own workspace has gone through many changes over the years. But I’ll get to that in a bit. First, I’ll share with you some tips I have learned and some handy purchases that can make the fun of cartoonin’ less of a pain in the neck/back/arse.

The Furniture:

  • A Drafting/drawing table. A MUST, C’mon now people. You don’t need me to tell you this. The key, for the sake of our necks, is the tiltable function of a good drafting table. I like the ones with the built-in lip along the bottom, I get sick of dropping my pens and having to dive under the table to get them. You can go for a simple inexpensive model, or something more configurable to your tastes. And while you’re at it, make sure you have a good clamp-on lamp.
  • Computer desk. Obviously, the size of desk depends on how much space you have to work with in your studio/office/living room/basement to which you have been banished. You will need room for a scanner and printer, space on the the main keyboard area for a wacom tablet if you have one, and plenty of storage. I would steer clear of the space-saver desks made for the “I only use my computer to check email” crowd… and go for a medium-size. I found the tall corner desk from IKEA worked well in my tiny little office.
  • Computer chair. This is an important purchase, and one many people gloss over. No, that goofy looking 80’s-patterned office chair you snuck off with from work will not do… when it’s after midnight and your butt is sore and you’re hunched over since it won’t adjust its height. Your chair doesn’t haver to be patent leather, but it should be adjustable height-wise and have high-back with lumbar support. This is a good example.
  • If you’re a laptop-er, like I am now, 2 inexpensive little As-Seen-On-TV items I stumbled on made my back and neck MUCH happier. MyPlace laptop Workstation combined with… yes.. The TableMate (god that’s embarrassing)… plus a very comfy easy chair…. equals a happier more relaxed back and neck. Key point: make sure the tablemate can slide UNDER your easy chair. I had to buy wooden footers to prop up my chair, so now I can lay back and pull my laptop right up to draw on. It’s quite relaxing compared to sitting at a regular desk.

The Tools:

When it comes down to it, the most important items in your workspace are the tools you’ll use to MAKE your comics. Going into that is a WHOLE different article, so I’ll assume you already have your favorite tools. If you are a traditional artist and draw (*gasp*) on actual paper:

  • Your favorite tools such as pencils, pens, nibs, brushes, kneaded erasers, inks, cleaners, etc… as well a a solid artbox to store the stockpile. But that kind of goes without saying huh?
  • Pencil sharpener. Get a real one. Yknow, the ones that plug-in? Good ol’ X-Acto makes a nifty one.
  • T-Square. They DO come in handy.
  • A “smudge glove”. Whether you go ghetto and use a thin fingerless glove you have lying around, or spend a bit on a “Pro Smudge Guard”, having your pinky and side of your hand covered in lead after 2 hours at the drawing table is never fun. Also great to use if you use a Wacom tablet or Tablet Laptop… no oily mess on the screen! Plus, a smoother slide as you draw.
  • Scissors. Because, you WILL need them, and they won’t be there. Trust me.
  • Scrap paper, for those of you who use fountain pens or brushes, and to test out those new brush pens.
  • If you’re like me and use your drawing table for more than just drawing, an X-Acto knife mat is a nice addition. On that same note, a Rotary Trimmer comes in very handy for as well. I’ll use it to cut out the my button pack labels, and use my trusty X-Acto knife to carve out cut-outs of my characters for my convention table.

And for those of you who are totally digital, you’ll need some other key things as well (the traditional artists may need a separate table for these other non-drawing items):

  • Gum, mints, hard candy. Just DON’T start bringing bags of chips or cookies to your office and expect to A: get work done crumb-free, B: NOT gain weight, or C: have full focus. Please, if there’s a cookie nearby, I am totally distracted. COOKIE, I KNOOOOOW YOU’RE OVER THERE……
  • Water. As always, stay hydrated. Plus, it can curb your appetite and keep you from violating the rule above. (note: this is a DIFFERENT glass than where you wash off your brushes. Um, duh. If you’re drinking THAT, you have problems)
  • Remote. To turn OFF your TV when you need to focus. To turn ON music channels (I have found they help me concentrate). Or to turn ON the news when you need inspiration for current events, or the Cartoon Network, when you need artistic inspiration.
  • Microfiber cloth, to clean your computer screen.
  • Headphones, or headset for bugging your friends on Skype when THEY’RE trying to work.
  • Cell phone. You know you’ll get a call as SOON as you enter the “groove”.
  • Slippers, if your feet get cold. Mine do. They’re blue and fuzzy. I have them on right now. Stop making fun of me.

Getting Comfortable:

The human body wasn’t made to sit in the same position all day. Many of us cartoonists also have a day job that consists of, yes, sitting in front of a computer. And there’s probably little we can do to customize our work workspace so that it’s easier on our back, shoulders, neck or posture. Coming home and working on comics at night, although it’s fullfilling and relaxing, it’s more of the same on our bodies. Exercise helps, obviously, but periodic stretching throughout the day is a great way to loosen muscles and give your body a break. I have terrible stiffness in my shoulders and neck, and I try to do these neck exercises once a day at the very least. I also purchased this Accumassage device which got excellent reviews and I have to say it’s better than any heating/massaging pad, as odd as it looks.

Here are some good wasy to prevent neck, back or shoulder problems:

  • Adjust your chair height according to your computer screen. Here is a good article on getting the precise settings on your computer screen and chair to keep your neck happy, plus some more exercises that can help.
  • Keep yourself from slouching or hunching over your work. Sit up straight, just like your mama always said. Mamas are often right.
  • Stop once in a while to get up, move around, and stretch.
  • There are all sorts of lumbar-support massagers and the like for your chair.
  • Keep in mind any heat you apply to tired or achy muscles should ONLY be for 15-20 minutes. Sometimes switching between ice and heat can help as well.
  • Stay hydrated. It helps with circulation (therefor muscles) and has many other health benefits.

Now, a quick glimpse into my workspaces, from the drawing table, to the corner desk, to my current laptop+MyPlace workstation+TableMate set up. I have recently added an ottoman so I can stretch my legs. It’s a an odd concoction, but it works, and gives my body a new position from the usual office desk and chair configuration.

Drawing Table

IKEA Corner Desk for my Mac

Tablet Laptop + MyPlace Workstation + TableMate

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  1. My wife thinks I’m insane for using an extra-large clipboard for my drawing surface while I’m lying on the bed on my tummy drawing. I like it that myself, although I would prefer a nice drafting table. I haven’t found one that I really like since I’ve moved out to California though. I’ll definitely be taking your advice soon, Dawn!

  2. I draw the first 45 pages of JTEH on a ZARTY laptop cart, and my studio space was about 6 square feet. The apartment was cramped, but I had everything within arm’s reach, so it worked.

    I did another 50 pages on a cabinet shelf board leaned on a window sill with the bottom edge on my lap… but I was in a cabin in the woods, so options were limited. My next studio setup, I’m definitely going back to a big, juicy drafting table.

    Overall comfort and easy access to your tools rule the day.

  3. Here’s my process and workspace:

    First, I grab my sketchbook, mechanical pencil (9mm lead) and extendable eraser (you know, the one in the red pen-like plastic that clicks to bring the eraser up) and pencil my panels. Then I head over to the micro studio, a drawing table shoved into the corner of what would normally be the dining area, but we have converted it into a make-shift office, old computer that I no longer use in one corner, a scroll-top desk in the middle and my art table on the left corner. In the back of the art desk, a row of books for reference, along with issues of ImagineFX in those nifty Ikea magazine boxes, against the wall. On the left side of the art table, my scanner stacked on an older scanner that worked fine for Windows XP, but Vista didn’t like it so I had to buy a new scanner. Pressed for room, I just put it on top of the older one. In the middle of the art table is a stand to hold my laptop and on the right, a portable HD with cups and cups of pencils and markers and ink pens behind it that never get used. In front of the laptop sits my Wacom tablet with a mousepad squeezed in next to it and in front of the portable HD. The USB multiport that has everything USB connected to it dangles off the edge. Under the art desk are those plastic storage bins with more reference books on top of it, so I can’t slide my feet under the desk when I ink. To my left, next to my chair, two more plastic storage bins with supplies and other books I don’t use that often, along with more ImagineFX magazines stacked on top of that.

    Of course, being pressed for space, I put client folders and stuff on top of the scanner, so I have to pick that all up in one bunch and place it on my desk chair for my scanning step. I then scan 1 – 2 weeks of pencils into photoshop, while standing, since I can’t sit in my file folder occupied chair. I then carefully grab the stack of folders, place it back on my scanner and sit down to name the scans accordingly. Grabbing template files, I cut and paste the penciled panels into the inked boxes and rename the files, closing the pencils and prepare to ink. By this time, my left hand is numb due to the fact my forearm has been leaning against the thin metal pencil catch on the art desk. I would remove the pencil catch, but it is holding my tablet in place.

    I ink all the pencils in order, then go back to the first, lay color flats and fx for all, then go back to the first again and letter. Going back again to the first, I save, resize, save again to another file name, then convert to .jpg to upload into my buffer. By this time, my fingertips on my left hand are a nice shade of bluish-purple so I go and sit down on my recliner for a bit to get the right color back.


    As I don’t use traditional ink, the only true tools I use are those yellow pentel mechanical pencils and red plastic white eraser holder along with my Strathmore 400 series sketchbooks. The only comfortable place in all this, is on my recliner, otherwise, it is a rather cramped and painful experience producing Willow’s Grove.

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