May 8, 2021

Holding the pencil to draw

Two ways to hold a pencil when drawing.
There are a few differences between using a pencil when drawing versus writing, and I want to cover a few of the basics of using a pencil as related to drawing. Understanding these basics will make drawing and sketching easier and more exciting.

As many of us are self-taught artists up to this point, we could benefit from the information below to improve our drawing technique. As self-taught artists, we may not have been introduced to these techniques.

Let's start by looking at how to hold a pencil.

How we hold the pencil is an often overlooked but essential part of a good drawing technique. I am sure that we all have struggled with drawing a line or mark as we sketched at one point in time. This struggle happens because we put our hand into an unnatural position to draw a line angled in we couldn't otherwise draw. If we find that we are rotating the sketchbook often, we are doing this for the same reason. We can't position the pencil as we need to move the pencil in the direction we want. Anyone who has drawn before has developed cramps or pain in the fingers and hands as they draw. There is a solution to all these problems. That solution is to adjust the way we grip the pencil.

When we hold the pencil appropriately, we will have more control and flexibility as we draw. We find that the pencil becomes easier to use as there is a greater range of movement within the fingers, wrist, and elbow.

We can hold the pencil in a variety of ways to help us when we draw. Let's look at the two basic types of grip.

Writer's Grip

To draw, one way to hold the pencil is the writer's grip.
Most of us are already familiar with the writer's grip, as this grip is similar to how we hold the pencil when we write. However, there are some subtle differences in how we handle the pencil using this grip when we draw compared to when we write. 

To properly hold the pencil in this way, we grip the pencil with only two fingers. We place the pencil between the index finger and thumb. We then allow the pencil to rest on the middle finger. We also want the pencil to rest comfortably against the crook of the hand between the thumb and index finger.

We want to avoid holding the pencil with three fingers. If we grip the pencil with the thumb, index finger, and middle finger, we will find that two problems occur. First, we will limit our range of motion as it is a little more difficult to reposition the angle of the pencil. Second, we are more likely to strain our hands or get fatigued more quickly. 

This grip is suitable for precision line work and drawing details. If we use this grip as described, we will find more flexibility in our range of motion, but there are some limitations. The next grip addresses those limitations.

Overhand Grip

To draw, one way to hold the pencil is the overhand grip
The overhand grip will be new to many of us. Art teachers teach the overhand grip in observational drawing classes, painting classes, or any class where we stand at an easel. These classes teach this grip as it provides for a broader range of movement when using the pencil.  

This extra range of movement offers several benefits. We can draw lines at angles that would be difficult to do using the writer's grip, avoiding the need to rotate our sketchbooks as we draw. We can choose to use the side or point of the graphite tip by adjusting the position of the pencil to different angles. We can also speed up the time it takes to draw because we can move the pencil around the page faster.

To properly hold the pencil in this position, we grip the pencil with three fingers this time. We rest the pencil on the index finger and the middle finger on one side of the pencil. We then lightly press the pencil into those fingers with the thumb. A significant change from the other grip is where we rest the body of the pencil. This time the body now rests under the palm side of the hand. The position against the palm side of the hand will vary. Don't worry about the exact location of the pencil's body. Just remember to place the body of the pencil under your palm. 

We will find that we get the most range of movement and flexibility of control of the pencil using the overhand grip. Using the overhand grip, we can move the pencil more freely as we use the whole arm to draw, not using the just wrist action to move the pencil. Along with the wrist movement, we also engage our shoulder and elbow to move the pencil. When we involve the shoulder and elbow to draw, we are accessing two more points to articulate the arm, consequently the extra range of movement. We can draw longer, fluid lines and move the pencil in more directions along with the page. 

The overhand grip also provides the ability to adjust our grip with our fingers. This grip allows us to position the pencil's angle against the hand in ways we could not position using the writer's grip. We can adjust our grip to draw with the side of the pencil, creating thicker lines, or modify our grip to draw with the point of the pencil, creating thinner lines.

By changing the position of the pencil as it sits against the hand, we can also adjust the pressure we apply to the pencil as we draw, creating lighter or darker lines. We can hold the pencil out to the side of our hand, allowing us more control over how much downward pressure to apply to the pencil as we draw.

Finally, with the overhand grip, we can push the pencil to draw. Usually, we pull the pencil using either grip, but there are some times where pushing the pencil to make the line or mark is advantageous.

This grip is excellent for expressive line work and shading as we can change the thickness or darkness of the line with greater ease using this grip. 

The overhand grip is beneficial for quick sketches too. The extra freedom of movement is helpful with the sketching technique for a couple of reasons. One, we draw faster. As mentioned earlier, sketching is a quick exercise. The faster or more efficient our drawing technique is, the better we can focus on our ideas and designs. The other benefit is that our drawings appear more confident. The lines appear smooth, self-assured, and consistent. A sketch with these types of lines suggests an experienced artist effortlessly sketch it.

A Note About Learning the Overhand Grip

I encourage you all to try this method of holding a pencil when we sketch for a while. Don't abandon it just because it feels awkward. . It will feel awkward at first but, with practice, it will begin to feel natural.
I see students abandon using the overhand grip because of how awkward it feels drawing this way at first. This is a mistake. The benefits of drawing with this grip are worth going through that stage where drawing using the grip feels awkward. As with learning any physical activity, it takes time and practice to master it.

Switch Grips as Needed

Each method of holding the pencil has advantages. We may find that we prefer one grip over the other but switching grips gives us the broadest range of flexibility in how we draw. We should choose the grip that works best for the drawing problem we face at each stage of the process. For example, I often start my sketches using the artist's grip to sketch the more general elements within the drawing, then move to the writer's grip to refine the sketch, and then back to the artist's grip for shading.

A Loose Grip or Light Touch

Avoid holding the pencil too tightly, as doing so will create problems. The most common problem when we grip the pencil tightly is that we lose the ability to adjust the pressure we apply with the pencil to the paper. When we hold the pencil with an overly firm grip, we are likely pressing the pencil down onto the pencil harder. The extra pressure in our grip translates into an extra pressure we are pushing the pencil into the paper. 

This extra pencil pressure on the page affects our ability to make dark or light lines. It can also impact our ability to make thick or thin lines. We can also damage the paper when we grip the pencil too tightly as the extra pressure we are. All this creates stiff and problematic-looking drawings. A light touch is all that is needed when holding a pencil. We want our fingers to lightly rest against the pencil with the slightest amount of pressure. 

A loose grip also helps us avoid developing pain or fatigue in the hand as we draw.