Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Demo: Stay Sharp

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:
Stillman & Birn Epsilon

Strathmore 300 Bristol smooth

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.


  1. I really appreciate this demo. After your explanation about keeping points sharp on pencils, I realized how often I sketch with dull pencils. This is because my manual, helical blade sharpener is attached to the counter in the kitchen and I don't want to keep getting up to use it. My Kum sharpener makes sharp but asymmetrical points, my M+R double hole sharpener (the plastic covered one) breaks my colored pencil lead almost every time! So I ordered a Ruiya battery powered sharpener to keep at my desk or table. Thanks for the recommendation! I will have to make a post about the differences I see with these four sharpeners ;-)

    1. Glad you found this helpful, Anne! I've got a drawerful of sharpeners I've tried, so I know it's not easy to find the right one!

    2. By the way, does that M+R break all your leads equally? Or just certain pencils? Might be the pencil cores are already compromised (like contemporary Prismacolors seem to be). Or maybe the blades are dull?

    3. I've tried it on colored pencils prismacolor vintage and crayola with diastrous results. The pencils seem wobbly and the leads snap off and jam in the blades. I just tried it on several others, general's charcoal (broke point off), general's kimberly (didn't break), supracolor and museum (didn't break). So maybe it is pencil specific, but my helical blade sharpener doesn't break them. Will give it a second chance.

    4. Anne -- Hmmm, I don't see a pattern among the pencils, but one reason I have so many sharpeners is that some work better on some pencils and others work better on others. I still have no one-size-fits-all sharpener.

  2. Ahhh, now I can see what you are talking about! I thought it was my technique that was causing a more rough appearance! Thanks Tina!


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