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How to Hold and Control Your Pencil

January 14, 201438 Comments

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Are you tired of messy, wobbly lines? Tired of not having any control of your pencil? Are you only capable of using a series of short strokes? Well don’t throw in the towel just yet! Try drawing from the power of your shoulder! With just a few short years of practice you can draw gestural, fluid lines like you’ve always wanted. By using this patent-pending new arm motion we guarantee you’ll be able to complete that curve with one beautiful stroke! Stay tuned to find out how you can CHANGE YOUR LIFE!

Holding the Pencil

There’s two common ways to hold your pencil while drawing:

Tripod Grip

drawing tripod grip

Holding the pencil with your thumb, index and middle fingers, like writing. This grip is more comfortable for using the tip of the pencil. Not practical to use the side. It’s also comfortable to control with your fingers to draw very small precise lines. So, it’s good for small strokes and thin lines that are uniform in weight.

Overhand Grip

drawing overhand grip

Holding your hand over the pencil. Your hand should be relaxed with the fingers and thumb lightly holding the pencil. You can still use the tip of the pencil by one of two ways. If drawing on a horizontal surface like a tabletop, simply bend the wrist forward a bit. If drawing on a vertical surface such as a pad resting on your knees or an easel, you can flip your wrist upside down to use the tip. Along with the tip, the overhand grip allows you to use the side, which is much more versatile than the tip. You can get thick soft lines, thin lines, and a transition between the two.

Controlling the Pencil

Wrist

The wrist serves well for small strokes and details.

Since grade school we are accustomed to using the pencil for writing. Since writing only requires our wrist, we have decades of muscles memory developed for handling the pencil with our wrists. Though there’s nothing wrong with using our wrist when it makes sense, we would be limiting ourselves if we didn’t go beyond the wrist.

It’s ok to use your wrist and hold the pencil with the tripod grip for smaller details, but watch out for this…

Since using your wrist doesn’t allow longer strokes, we end up drawing a bunch of short lines to create one longer line. This can get messy and you may end up with hairy lines.

Shoulder

The shoulder serves well for short AND long strokes. It’s much better for steady lines and fluid gestural lines.

Your shoulder provides a greater range of motion than your wrist. So, when drawing larger shapes, curvy lines, use your shoulder. This is especially useful for gesture drawing. Once you need to add some little details, you can switch to the tripod grip.

Using the Overhand Grip

Holding the pencil overhand allows you to use the side of the pencil. When sharpened correctly (as I explained in the pencil sharpening video..) this allows you to get larger strokes of tone. If you press lightly and layer one stroke over another, you can get soft gradations.

You can roll the pencil forward or backward to control the thickness and edge quality of the line. Use the area closer to the tip for a thinner sharper line and use the middle for a thicker softer line. And everything between..

Also, you can change the angle of your stroke to control the line thickness. Stroking perpendicular to the length of the pencil creates a thick line like I just showed. Pulling the pencil downward, parallel to the length of the pencil creates a thin line. So you don’t need to use the tip, though you can.. With a slight turn of the wrist while you’re pulling the stroke, you can create a line that changes from thin to thick. This variation in line weight adds a good dynamic to our drawings. It’s kind of like using a calligraphy pen instead of a ballpoint pen.

The combination of an overhand grip and using your shoulder allows for the widest range of motion and line type. Most of the drawing can be done this way.

Muscle Memory

When we first start holding it like that it feels weird because we don’t have good control of our shoulder. We’ve only practiced using our wrists to write. We need to train our shoulder. It’s like playing sports. Repeat the motion so many times that it becomes intuitive.

Our friends at Wikipedia say Muscle memory is

“a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.”

So, at first, drawing in this new way is a distraction. Our mind has to focus on moving the shoulder correctly instead of making decisions about the drawing. Fight the temptation to revert back to just using your wrist with the tripod grip. Overtime as you develop the muscle memory you won’t need to think about it and you’ll use the pencil like a Jedi master.

“Patience you must have my young padawan” – Yoda

Exercises

  • Start training you shoulder by filling pages of curves, circles and straight lines.
  • Draw two dots and connect them with a straight line to train your hand eye coordination.
  • Or draw 4 dots and connect them with an ellipse. Try “ghosting” the lines first by practicing the motion before making contact with the paper. This is a great warm up before starting your drawing session.
  • You can also practice controlling your line weight by shifting your curves from thin to thick.
  • Or if you struggle with filling in large areas with clean tone, then draw a 6×6 inch square and fill it in with a clean tone. It helps to shade only on the down strokes and lift the pencil off the paper on the way back up. Focus on keeping the distance between each stroke consistent and using the same amount of pressure each time. A very good exercises for hand-stability and pressure sensitivity. If you end up with dark and light lines, it means either your stroke distance or pressure is inconsistent.

btw, a well sharpened pencil helps a lot…

***

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Comments (38)

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  1. chris says:

    3 things
    1. When using what you call the “tripod” grip you can extend the grace of the line by sliding your hand to the far end of the pencil. This also takes the pressure off the tip and allows for more gross motor (shoulder)movement.
    2. When using the “overhand” grip turn your wrist so the styloid process of te radius is facing up, away from the paper surface. This allows you much greater sensitivity with the pressure of the pencil on the paper when drawing contour lines.
    and
    3. When controlling for line weight make certain that the pencil is parallel to the line direction, as if the line is liquid flowing from the end of the pencil. This will help control the tendency to make mushy, soft tonal lines instead of controlled contours.
    Thanks for the vids.

  2. Beth says:

    Thanks for this great video Stan. You make me laugh. I am a new art student trying to break away from the short-stroke thing. Good timing as I have to fill a 3′ x 2′ page with my next drawing (industrial scene) so I will try to use my shoulder and see what happens.
    Best wishes
    Beth

  3. Adam says:

    Thanks for the tutorial. Do you have any advice for holding digital stylus for drawing on an ipad (where there is no tilt support) or any advice for drawing on a tablet in general?

    Cheers

  4. Matthew says:

    Hey!

    Could you explain how you systematically control the pressure of the pencil while drawing? Do you create pressure from the turn of the wrist and fingers? Or with more of a pushing motion from the arm? I’d love to hear how you think about it.

    Thanks!

    Matt

    • chris says:

      Matt, I’m not sure what Stan does , but if you read my comment I offer 2 variations on Stan’s method. For the first one (tripod) by moving your hand far back on the pencil you greatly reduce the pressure on the tip since, in effect, if you dram parallel to the direction of the line rather than perpendicular to it, the resulting line will be much thinner and subject to very slight changes of hand pressure to accent the mark. It also has the added benefit of keeping you off the tip, as in a writer’s grip, so it doesn’t get rounded off and dull.
      For the second method, by keeping the styloid process of your radius up, (opposite the paper surface as opposed to palm down like Stan is doing, you can change the pressure (and consequent line quality, simply by squeezing the pencil slightly between your thumb and forefinger. This action all very slightly encourage a pushing motion towards the tip, resulting in a darker mark.
      As I am sure Stan would encourage: it takes a bit of practice.

    • Hey Matt, you could try out Chris’s method, seems like it would work well.

      I control the pressure mainly with the pushing motion from the arm.

  5. margaret van eyk says:

    Why do you always manage to brighten my day??

    Love watching your videos.

  6. Lucas Ribeiro says:

    Thank you so much for this tutorial! That’s exactly what I and my schoolmates are being currently taught _ controlling our own hands _ , thereupon, a subject that I’ve been trying to find out on the Internet for days. So, thank you one more time and congratulations for your website. It’s really very well crafted.

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  8. Aliska says:

    Hehe…don’t know which I enjoyed more – the learning part or just watching you have fun on the video. Thanks for the lesson and for making it fun!

  9. Cindy Huerta says:

    Hi Stan. I’m very excited watching your videos! My 3 year old son uses to ask me to draw things for him, as I imagine all kids do. I got him a notebook where I teach him things and I’ve found it’s such a good way to connect with him since he loves learning new things. I just got tired of my messy wobbly lines, as you so well put it! Then I found your webpage. Thanks a lot for your great job! Greetings from Chile

  10. Alvin says:

    Hi, I never learned how to grip a pencil properly, so I use the thumb wrap grip.

    Will this effect my lines?

    • Yes. You can’t control the angle of the pencil. Can’t use the side of the pencil. This means you can’t control the line weight, thick to thin. When shading, using the side is very useful to get even tones and covering large areas.

      You’re not any worse off than most people though, since everyone is used to holding the pencil in tripod grip, which has the same limitations. Most people have to relearn how to hold the pencil when they learn to draw. Just part of the process.

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  12. Eveleen says:

    Hi,I just started learning how to draw, but I really don’t know if I should use the wrtist or the shoulder. I draw better with the tripod grip moving from the wrist but it gets so tense and it really hurts and I cannot draw very fluid. Nonetheless, I have been doing for some days exercises to learn to draw from the shoulder with the tripod and the overhand grip.

    I feel more confortable with the tripod grip but I draw very slowly and the shoulder feels like I’ve just been hit by a car; I don’t know what to do… Should I continue with the exercises? Should I draw only from the shoulder or should I use it only for larger lines? Currently I am training to draw everything from shoulder,(I even try to write like that because I have horrible handwriting) but I feel like I’m never going to achieve precision.

    Thanks in advance!

    • chris says:

      Eveleen,
      Try drawing standing up with your paper vertical. Or prop your paper (on a board) on the seat of a chair (vertically) and sit opposite it.

      • Eveleen says:

        Thanks for the tip. I propped the papers against my laptop stand (very professional btw)and it feels way better. I still don’t feel very confident when I finish with the pen (lines are kinda wobbly) , but I hope to improve that.

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