Safety First: Lighting & Eye Strain

This month’s entry to the Safety First column proves to be a poignant one: Asthenopia (eye strain).  After starting the column last month, I was brainstorming topics to do in the future, and for some reason eye-strain came to mind.  Whether this was my subconscious trying to tell me something, or was just an ironic tale of foreshadowing, I can’t know for certain.  Whatever the case, I did find myself in the Ophthalmologist’s office last week.

Two weeks ago, on two separate occasions, I had experienced a blinding in the center of my vision—similar to what you’d see if you stared at a light for a while.  My peripheral vision was unaffected, but I was unable to see anything directly in front of me.  Since it has been years that I’d been to an eye-doctor, I figured it was a good reason to go.

I was diagnosed with an “atypical ocular migraine,” which actually has nothing to do with my eyes at all—it’s really an artifact with my brain playing tricks on my eyes.  Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done about that—but the good news is that these things are most often rare and extremely intermittent, so it’s possible I won’t ever experience it again.  As for my eyes: besides being a bit near-sighted, they  were given a clean bill of health. 

While I was there, I did get to probe him for some pointers.  I’d like to share those with you now, along with some other things I’ve dug up online.

Before I begin, I want to point out that I’m not the foremost authority on safety; I’m just a concerned hobbyist that wants to make sure that everyone takes time to think about what they’re doing.  This post is by no means a substitute for any safety practices available to you: be those from the manufacturer, or things you’ve already learned—it’s just an attempt to raise awareness to safety.  Ultimately, if you’re experiencing problems with your eyes: please consult a doctor.

Eye Strain Basics:

Eye strain occurs when your eyes get tired from intense use…  Although [it] can be annoying, it usually isn’t  serious and goes away once you rest your eyes.  In some cases, signs and symptoms of eyestrain are a sign of an underlying eye condition that needs treatment.  Although you may not be able to change the nature of […] the factors that cause eyestrain, you can take steps to reduce [it].

Symptoms include:

  • Sore, tired, burning or itching eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Dry eyes
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Headache
  • Sore Neck
  • Increased sensitivity to light

What this means is that, when you concentrate on a visually intense task, your eye muscles contract.  If done for an extended period of time, this can cause your eyes to become irritated and uncomfortable.

As hobby enthusiasts and computer users, we’re hit with a double-whammy.  The below information really applies to both painting/modeling, as well as computer use:

Proper Lighting

The basics of lighting are simple: have enough light available so that you can clearly see the model you’re working on—but much to my surprise, there’s a lot more to it than that.  Some other things to think about include:

  • The Type of Lighting:  Natural light is far superior to artificial.  This is because natural light (ie. Sunlight) distributes the spectrum of colors evenly.  In contrast, incandescent light from normal household bulbs, has an uneven distribution of colors tinted red or yellow.Because of this, your best bet is to setup your painting table in Texas.  Unfortunately, there are a few stipulations you must meet prior to doing so:
  1. You must have enough disposable income to facilitate such a move.
  2. You must have a predilication towards warm weather, cowboy boots, and oversized belt buckles.
  3. Depending upon which town you wish to live in, you can have no more than 4 teeth in your head.

Assuming all of those are true, you’re welcome to move to the Lone-Star state and paint ‘till your heart’s content; however, if Texas isn’t the place for you, there is something else you can do.  You can either make use of natural light (by painting outdoors, near windows, or under skylights), or you can look into “full spectrum lighting.”

Living in Alaska, we refer to full spectrum lighting as “S.A.D. Lights.”  S.A.D. stands for seasonal affective disorder, and is the result of the overwhelmingly long nights we experience during the winters.  As a result, people succumb to something called “Cabin Fever,” or just a general malaise.  The most popular means of combating this disorder is through the use of these full-spectrum lights.  Essentially, they simulate the light that you would get from the sun at noon on an average day. 

On top of keeping the blues at bay, these types of bulbs also provide a more accurate depiction of reds and yellows—giving you a better look at the colors being used on your models.

One other thing to note here is that it’s probably best to avoid ballast fluorescent bulbs (the big tubes) as the flickering can prove to be hard on your vision).

  • The Location of Lighting:  You’ll want to watch for glare when working.  There are two types of glare to avoid: direct and reflected glare. Direct glare involves a light source shining directly into your eyes.  Ceiling lights, lamps, bright windows, etc. can all be this culprit.  The way to avoid it is simple—you’ll want to paint with the light source behind you and over your shoulder.  Be careful that you don’t place the light in such a way that you cast a shadow over your model.  The sharp contrast created between darkness and light can be hard on your eyes as well.Reflected (or indirect) glare is simply light reflecting off things into your eye.  From a painting standpoint, this doesn’t seem to turn up that much, but it is very common with computer monitors.  Again, this is something to avoid.
  • The Amount of Lighting:  Too much light can be just as harmful as not enough.  Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any sort of official rule as to how much to use, as it depends upon your age, the level of detail in the model, and “other factors.”  Realistically, you want enough light to be  comfortable—so you can pick out the details of your model but not be bothered with the overall brightness.

Everything in Moderation

Wiser words were never spoken.  With modeling, as with all things, there is such thing as “too much of a good thing.”  Since Asthenopia is caused by intense use of the eyes over a period of time, the best way to avoid it is to simply avoid intensely using your eyes over a period of time.  No, that doesn’t mean you can’t work on detailed models anymore—it simply means you should take breaks.

A good rule of thumb is the 20/20 rule.  Every 20 minutes of painting, take a break and stare at something about 20 feet away for 20 seconds.  This allows your eyes to rest—even if only for a minute or so. 

Likewise, if you’re going on an extended painting marathon, take breaks often.  A great way to do this is to have a wife or children.  With them around, it’s guaranteed that you won’t be able to sit still for 20+ minutes without being interrupted for something. 

Additionally, there are exercises you can do to relive visual stress, including palming, scanning, & head rolls.  Vision Works USA’s website has some good examples of how to do each of these exercises.


For those hobbyists who aren’t blessed (cursed) with near-sidedness, there are plenty of magnification options available.   Unfortunately, I don’t have much input on the matter as my eyes fail at distances, rather than detail. 

Luckily the guys over at have an amazing write-up of the benefits of magnification.  Really, I’d like to go into it more, but that article is amazing: it goes over everything I’d dream of covering and more.  I’d highly recommend it.

That said, I do believe I’ve rambled in this post long enough.  Sadly, I haven’t taken the time to go through multiple drafts on the subject, and I think this post shows that clearly.  In the future, I hope to make these “Safety First” articles a little more concise.

Thanks for stopping by!


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