Why I Hand Sharpen My Pencils

When my pencil dulls or breaks, I don’t reach over to a pencil sharpener. Instead, I have to get up, grab an x-acto blade, walk to the trash can, and sharpen my pencil by hand. I’ve been doing this for a long time, in fact, I’ve been doing this since I’ve been in college. Anytime some one sees me hand sharpening my pencils, they laugh and ask why—why don’t I just use a pencil sharpener? Aren’t I wasting my time? Isn’t a pencil sharpener more efficient and more effective?

I’ve never been quite sure how to articulate why I do this so I’ve always just told people, “I can better control the shape of the graphite by hand.” This is partially true, but is more of a pretentious cover up to save myself from a full response. However, this past winter an illustration professor of mine helped me realize why I do this.

Nearly every class we’d have a model present for figure studies. The advice he gave us in getting started with drawing live models ties back to why I hand sharpen my pencils. He had told us the most common mistake people make when doing timed figure studies is that they jump straight into it. With the pressure of a time limit looming over you, your instinct is the get drawing as quickly as a possible. He says this is a mistake because the first thing you should actually do is stop and look. By taking the time to stop and look at the model, you can start to understand the form and underlying shapes. In simply taking a few seconds to think and observe what you’re about to draw, you’re going to save yourself time later on that’d otherwise be wasted fixing your hasty mistakes from jumping straight in.

That’s what hand sharpening pencils is for me: a means of stopping and thinking. Before I start a piece, I probably need to go sharpen my pencils. This gives me time to just think before doing anything. Even beyond the start, I’ve found it to be extremely important to have to stop while working just to sharpen a pencil. It forces you to literally take a step back from your work, you otherwise may not have done with a pencil sharpener right beside you.