Learn How to Sharpen a Pencil

Beginner Lesson

Sharpening and Holding Pencils

You will want to keep your pencils in the best condition for the job at hand, and often that requires a sharp point and for sketching, a good edge for broad strokes. Some of the different methods for sharpening are:

Conventional Pencil Sharpener
The old tried and tested pencil sharpener (metal can be preferential to plastic in the long term), is guaranteed to put a fine point on a pencil. The downside to this is it tends to waste a lot of the pencil in the process. Be careful not to drop your pencils, there is nothing worse than having to keep sharpening them because the point keeps falling out!

Arist's Scapel
A sharp blade can be used to expose more graphite. It is one of my favourite methods, not only because it saves on wastage, but you can expose more graphite for broader strokes.

To keep a refined point, rub the pencil on a piece of sandpaper as you twist it round in your hand to form an even point.
Although mechanical pencils remain sharp, if you are after some ultra-fine detail, you might even consider sanding an edge so you can work with a sharp chiseled corner.

Electric Sharpener
Quick, easy, and not quite as much wastage as a conventional sharpener.

How to Hold a Pencil

The notion of holding a pencil at firsthand may sound a little bizarre given the frequency in which we have used pencils/pens from such a young age. The typical “writing” hand is one which grips the implement close to the point in a majority of cases. In drawing and sketching, a similar posture can be restrictive and only really lends itself to detailing and facilitating the ease and accuracy with which to apply pressure to a small area on the paper.

how to hold a pencil
Typical grip - thumb and first finger, with second finger resting underneath pencil for support.
pencil grip
Same grip, different angle.

Bear in mind the tilt of a pencil as it can affect the thickness and quality of a line, which is less the case with a pencil sharpened by a conventional sharpener or a mechanical pencil which maintains its consistency throughout. In sketching, I often work with a relatively low level of tilt, placing my fingers slightly further away from the pencil's point and only in the more detailed of areas will I hold it near-vertical. To accompany the underhand grip is the overhand posture. Both offer a great deal of fluidity to the wrist’s flexibility leading to the easier drawing of curves and creating more variance in line width and/or pressure. The postures also eliminate much of the cramp that may result from prolonged periods of drawing in a rigid manner.

learn to sharpen a pencil
Overhand grip, allows full use of a graphite edge for broader strokes, and also allows more pressure to be applied.
how to sharpen a pencil
The underhand grip, useful for long sweeping curves and shading.
gripping pencils
In the videos to follow, you may notice I hold the pencil with two fingers and a thumb - not the most efficient posture, but you have to use what is comfortable to yourself.
conventional pencil hold
Same grip, different angle (see photo, left).


Ultimately, holding a pencil is akin to holding a plectrum when learning to play guitar. A standard method is often taught, but people like Metallica’s James Hetfield are unhindered by an unorthodox gripping technique, and players like Jimmy Hendrix dispense of the rules altogether! Essentially, use whatever is most comfortable, but do experiment, and do not give up and resort to old habits too prematurely.


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