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How to Sharpen Pastel Pencils

As a pastel pencil artist, I get asked a few things very regularly and one is, ‘how do you sharpen your pencils?’. It might seem like a straight forward question and most assume a pencil sharpener will cut the mustard, but you would be mistaken. Pastel pencils are wonderful tools but they are prone to shattering. In order to form a beautiful point, they require a little love and care.When I started my pastel pencil art workshops, I would spend an hour the night before sharpening everyone’s tools. This was good prep but it left people confused when they got home. I realised my students needed to learn how to sharpen their pencils. Now, I begin each art class with a breakdown of all the materials I use, why I like using them, and how best to proceed with each item. Students are sometimes bemused by the apparently fussy method I insist on – why bother when you can have it so much easier – but it achieves great results.
To sharpen your pencils, you will need:· Fine/Mid grain sanding paper (150 works)· Tissue· A craft knife· A bowl for shavings
To begin, using your dominant hand, take the craft knife and rest the BLUNT of the blade against the thumb – you need to hold the knife in this slightly awkward grip to steady the blade. If you don’t, the knife can shoot off and snap the pastel with it. Gently whittle away the wood around the pencil into your waiting bowl.

When you have exposed around a half inch of pastel, like below, you are ready for step number two. Now would be a good time to put the knife somewhere safe.

To begin sanding your pencil, perch your fingers on one side of the pencil so that the bottom edge is exposed.You want this to be exposed so that you can angle it almost flush with the table and get as much pastel in contact with the sanding paper as possible. This is important for two reasons: so that the pressure is evenly spread and you reduce your risk of snapping, and so that you have a long and fine point. Lightly rub your pencil on the sandpaper until you start to see a fine point emerging.

When you have achieved a point similar to the picture above, the last step is to wipe it on tissue and remove the dust. If you don’t, you can find that this settles itself into your painting which is particularly irritating on fine areas which need to be sharp, like a highlight.

Ta-Da! You’re done… just several hundred left to go. To keep your pencils safe after you’ve got them so lovely and sharp, here are so tips. Firstly, I have a lovely pencil holder on the bottom of my drawing board so that I don’t try and hold twenty pencils at once, and then wonder why they are all over the floor…again. If you don’t have one of these, fashion your own out of half a plastic pipe screwed to the bottom edge of your desk or use a tea tray. Simply pop some kitchen towel down on the tray to make it easy to clean and to give the pencils something soft to lay on, and remember to return your pencils to the tray once you’ve finished with them. If you have a large amount of pencils and, like me, you pick a few out to start with, you could keep the other in jars or I use big yoghurt pots and pop some bubble wrap in the bottom so the pencils land nice and softly.

I hope this helps you use your pastel pencils to the fullest of their potential and please leave a comment below with how you get on or any questions, happy drawing! xx

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