|From top: Caran d'Ache Pablo and Mitsubishi Hi-Uni|
In the pencil communities where I hang out, we talk a lot about sharpeners – portable, hand-crank, electric and even knife. I have more than my share of all types because staying sharp – or consciously choosing something other than a sharp point – is critical to controlling the tool and getting the most of its use.
The other day in my post of the bell pepper drawings, a comment I made to a reader about keeping my pencils sharp prompted another reader to ask me to elaborate on how pencil sharpness relates to achieving a smooth tonal appearance. It was a very good question, and I thought it deserved a post to fully answer.
In all the graphite and colored pencil classes I’ve taken (as well as in most how-to books I’ve read on those media), the instructors always stress the importance of sharpening often. The reason is straightforward: The sharper the pencil, the better the point is able to deposit graphite or pigment onto all areas of the paper’s surface, especially in the recessed parts. Even paper that appears or feels smooth still has a subtle tooth. If the pencil point is dull, it deposits graphite or pigment unevenly, skimming over the high points on the paper’s surface and leaving the recessed areas uncovered. Then on future layers, different bumps and divots get covered, and the result is an uneven patchiness of coverage.
To demonstrate this, I went through my pencils and dug out the dullest points I could find. (This wasn’t easy, as I tend to keep them all sharp so that they are always ready for use.) I found a blue Caran d’Ache Pablo colored pencil and a Mitsubishi Hi-Uni in grade HB.
I chose a couple of different papers, both of which I enjoy using with colored pencils and graphite: a Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook and Strathmore 300 Bristol smooth. Both have relatively smooth surfaces, but the Bristol is smoother. In each test case, I applied eight layers of graphite or pigment. Here are the results:
With the dull points, blobs of graphite or pigment get deposited unevenly, and once they are on the paper, they won’t smooth out when future layers are applied. It’s more apparent on the smooth Bristol (which surprised me – I thought it would be more apparent on the Epsilon). It’s interesting that on the Bristol paper, the same number of layers with the sharp Pablo look less intense than the dull Pablo. I wasn’t conscious of it, but I may have been pushing harder on the dull Pablo simply because its dull point was uneven, and I kept having to rotate it.
|3/8/20 graphite in Epsilon sketchbook|
I do enjoy deliberately using dull pencils for specific effects. On location, for example, when I’m sketching trees or other foliage, and I want a rough, organic look, I use the flat, broad side of the pencil core or grind it into the paper hard so that the point will flatten quickly because I want those broad, irregular strokes. Other times I have cut thicker cores into chisel tips with a knife to make interesting marks. But for a smooth result, the sharper, the better.