Monday, March 14, 2011

On Maintaining a Firm Grip

Since cartoonists and artists presumably rank pretty high on the TSA terrorist profile index, I left my trusty pocket-knife at home for the transplant. And so, along with the wit, my pencils have been getting mighty dull around here as of late.
There's a certain satisfaction and skill to sharpening a pencil that's an overlooked detail in drawing. I often joke that the only thing I ever learned about art in high-school was from my 3-D art teacher Mr. Wallowitz, who packed a little pen-knife which he would whip out and use to sharpen his pencil (this would be back in the day when faculty was allowed to carry weapons). Far from being yet another artistic trivial pursuit, it's on par with the slavish attention any handyman would lavish on sharpening tools in the shop, or a competent chef with a knife before doing prepwork in the kitchen.
(More mullings below)

This post was in part prompted by a demo that went up over on Boing Boing about the latest gadgetry for sharpening one's pencils, which peaked my interest. It's a two-stage sharpener that uses two different openings to produce a perfect pencil point. There is quite the passionate attention to detail on this topic - read Pencil Revolution's post, and another by artist Matthew James Taylor over here.

Somewhere else along the spectrum is this demo on using a knife (or in this case, a box-cutter), which, short of using your teeth is about as low-tech as it gets. This way helps in maintaining a good grip (nomatter how it's held), by exposing a custom, contoured surface, around an inch of exposed wood. Maybe it feels better to my warped and gnarly fingers but I find it infinitely more intimate than the usual, perfectly cylindrical barrel.
For some odd, obsessive reason I cannot stand the creepy feel of any utensil that's coated with those funky rubber grips or, worst of all, the squishy gel that has all the aesthetic appeal of holding onto a dead tentacle. Along with ergonomics, speed, dexterity and long-term comfort over extended sessions are factors to consider: always seems to be someone who has such a death grip that their hand'll cramp up after white-knuckling it for a couple hours. 
Shaking out the hand with simple stretching exercises is handy in that case, not just because of potential issues with arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome, but just taking care of basic tension. Along with the related topics about proper lighting and posture (rarely discussed in the art class) such pointers can really make a difference - ask any musician how important it is:

Parsing it down even further, being so in touch with what's at hand means being constantly aware of exactly how the tip is wearing. When it gets dull, a slight rotation while sketching will compensating and maintain the point or edge for a sharp, crisp line. Alternately a shift back over gets a nice, smooth plane for even shading (sometimes a few quick strokes off to the side or with sandpaper work as well).
That's another reason I tend to dislike mechanical pencils, since the diameter of the lead is too narrow for my taste, and it either breaks under pressure or will emboss the Bristol.
You also get to find out real quick while sharpening whether the pencil has been whacked about too much (say, during an impromptu drum solo) and the lead is shattered so far up the shaft you might as well spare yourself a stumpy and start over with another one.

Too often I've endured watching the painful shredding of pencils by students who feed those dreaded hand-cranked wall-mounted units in many a classroom. As with electric ones, these grind the pencil down with all the finesse of a rabid, drunken beaver. Most of them have already been effectively ruined by the gunk left over from other people shoving in charcoal, pastels, soft leads etc. and gumming up the works. X-acto blades, while handy in most tool-boxes, are too sharp and tend to slice off too much too fast with less control. To say nothing of how pissed you'll be rediscovering what the knife was last used for upon cutting into some nice, clean matte-board or foam-core. 
Which brings me to the last, and most crucial thing to remember: never use any old knife just laying around the kitchen, as the telltale streaks of graphite left on the blade are a sure sign pointing to attempted lead poisoning.

Whittling away the hours with the new Case "Sod Buster JR" ($20)

And if you simply just don't have the time or find the pursuit of perfection to be intimidating, hire a professional craftsman to "REACQUAINT YOURSELF WITH THE PLEASURES OF A HAND-SHARPENED PENCIL" from Artisanal Pencil Sharpening by cartoonist David Rees.


  1. Actual lead isn't an issue except as noted here regarding pencils from countries where lead in paint is still common.

    Someone still might get pissed at you for crudding up their kitchen knife, but you will not face charges for attempted murder by lead poisoning.

  2. I like to use colored pencils. Their "leads" are very fragile and can be frustrating to sharpen by any means. I still have not solved this problem reliably. Just by the bye.

  3. Yep, the soft ones are a chore to use, painstaking points - Diane uses 'em, in conjunction with a manual twisty unit.
    If someone doesn't have the finesse with a blade, than that 2-stage doohickey sounds like it'd be well worth a try.

  4. re: lead content

    Urban legend or what?
    Guess that's behind "get the lead out" campaign?

    (Nobody ever seems to bother me much when there's a knife in my hand anyways)