Getting To The Point.

I don’t know what possesses me to work in colour pencil now and then, but it happens, and as usual all the frustrations and annoyances of working with them set in. You need to get your pencils sharp, while at the same time there’s always an anxiety over just how much pencil you’re eating when sharpening. There are many ways to sharpen a pencil, and everyone has their fave method. I’m not overly skilled at hand sharpening with a knife, so I save that one as a last resort. If you’re like a whole lot of people and use Prismacolor pencils, you’ll find the frustration levels to be very high indeed. A lot of people settle on Prismacolor because they are in the higher range of quality, and somewhat affordable. That said, they are extraordinarily fragile. Being quite soft, it doesn’t take much to break the core, and when a core is broken, you end up with: sharpen, core breaks. Sharpen again, core breaks. Lather, rinse, & repeat until you have about two inches of brand new effing pencil left. When a pencil costs you around $2.00, that tends to make you yelling angry. Some retailers have a specific policy on Prismacolor, such as Dick Blick, where they will replace your stub with another pencil.  This does not take away the sheer inconvenience of this little problem. If you’re doing a return and replace at a store, you’ll need your receipt, so it’s always good to hang on to Prismacolor receipts until you go to sharpen them.

You can’t tell if a core is broken by looking. If you start sharpening, and start losing point after point, stop. Prismacolor recommends you place your pencil in a warm, sunny spot for up to 5 minutes, which repairs the break in the core. This is not exactly sterling advice for people who live in places which have 6 months of winter, and often have cool, overcast days in Spring and Summer. Some people swear by microwaving them, but this can be a good way to utterly destroy your pencil, with the often metallic stamping going up in a shower of sparks, and setting the wood casing on fire. There’s much debate about time, too – people say anywhere from 5 seconds to 25 seconds. Another method is using your oven, which is safer. The basic consensus seems to be 5 to 10 minutes @ 250 F. Some people insist the pencil should go in cold (on foil or a baking tin), but my oven takes its time heating, so I wait until it’s at temperature, then put it in for the least amount of time. You definitely should check on your pencil at least halfway through – if the point is bubbling, get it out! On the opposite end, some people claim freezing Prismacolor pencils makes them easier to sharpen. I haven’t tried this.

Storage is very important when it comes to Prismacolor, and all pencils should be treated well. Dedicated pencil holders are truly best, padded cases with elastic to hold your pencils. Tran pencil cases are quite affordable, and work well. I have this one, along with a number of smaller roll ups. If you keep your pencils in a cup or similar, generously pad the bottom with something soft, like cotton batting. Whatever you do, try to place your pencil container in a place where they will not get knocked over. When your lovely Prismacolors hit the ground, you can count on broken cores.

There is one thing which makes a massive difference when it comes to Prismacolor pencils, and that is how you sharpen them with a small, hand-held sharpener. It goes without saying that you should change your blades often, but what coddles your Prismacolor pencil is holding your pencil still, and turning the sharpener. This is counter-intuitive, but it will become habit soon enough. This applies a much lighter pressure, which is less likely to break the core, and it actually produces less waste. Give it a try, you won’t go back. I do this with all my different brands of colour pencils.

© C. Ford, all rights reserved.


  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    ZOMG, this is FANTASTIC, Caine!

    I have two littles who are both going to be excited about this help. The elder is already past the age where most kids stop with the drawing, but others show by their continued doodles and drawings that art it going to be a lifelong companion. The elder most definitely has the bug. We don’t have too much sun, but we do have a microwave and an oven, so we still have options.

    I never draw anymore (and I was never any good to begin with, I’m not a visual artist), but even I want to sit down with some colored pencils now.

  2. says

    Have you tried sharpening on a wooden block with 60 grit sandpaper glued to it? Kinda like sharpening a chisel.
    I use it sometimes for marking pencils in my workshop if they prove to be too brittle to be sharpened by knife.

  3. says

    Oh yes, I have a sandpaper block, standard equipment for pencils of all kinds. You can get small ones here, with layers of fine sandpaper on, so you can tear off the top layer when it’s been used up. Much like knife sharpening, it’s not a method I’m terribly good with, so it’s on the last resort pile too. Generally speaking, anything I do in pencil requires an extremely sharp and fine tip, so using the counter-sharpening works best for me.

  4. voyager says

    They might be fussy, but I like the result. Do they offer you more options in shading or layering? I’m also liking the poisoned hypodermic effect of the thorns. It adds so much fear and loathing to the monster.

  5. says

    Voyager, thank you. I think the shading and layering is equivalent to that of other media; I know it is with watercolour. That said, I’m a stone amateur when it comes to colour pencil. I’ve never liked working with them enough to learn all the intricacies, along with all the proper ways to use them. I like them in the same way a sprog lights up over crayons -- pretty colours!

    I really don’t know why I get this bug sometimes. This would have been almost finished by now if I had gone with watercolour. I get very uptight with colour pencils, perfectionism is at its worst, whereas with paint I’m much more free and not worried about things being all perfect. And I’m perfectly fine with regular pencil, it’s just colour pencils which make me a bit crazed.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Caine: Don’t care if you don’t like it ;-)

    I’m just an old man with lots of powerful phrase-music associations stuck in his head. But I’ll try to stay away from CSN(Y) around here. Try.

  7. says

    I like a lot of CSNY, Rob. But that particular song? Ugh. I didn’t like it to start, then that turned to hate and loathing what with it being played every 5 fucking minutes on all radio stations.

  8. Raucous Indignation says

    That makes perfect sense. The sharpener is larger than the pencil. It gives you better feel when you turn the sharpener because you have better leverage. Like when you firmly hold the champagne cork and rotate the bottom of the bottle when pulling a cork. Better leverage, better feel.

  9. says

    Raucous Indignation, well um, no. It’s not a matter of leverage as much as it is pressure, and standard sharpeners come with two holes, one small, one large. The small one is for obtaining a very fine point; the large for ground up sharpening. The range of sharpeners is wide, and Prismacolor did come out with one of their own design, built to use less pressure, which is what the counter-intuitive gives you. Some people will only use cosmetic sharpeners on their pencils, and I give them a high rating myself.

    Thing is, when you turn the pencil, you’re applying a great deal of pressure on the middle and upper part of the pencil, and that pressure is likely to break your core. Prismacolor is high wax content, so the core is very soft. When you turn the sharpener, you apply less pressure to the pencil. It doesn’t feel better at all, it’s quite awkward, really, but you get used to it. There are other crucial factors, such as changing your blades often (or simply replacing sharpeners, changing the blades is a pain), and most of all, keeping your sharpeners very clean. Any build up at all can cause a bump in rotation (either way), which will often break your core.

    A lot of this is dependent on just what pencils you do use. Not all pencils are as high wax as Prismacolor and Caran D’ache, frinst. Cretacolor holds a point much better, but they are considerably harder with a lower wax content, so you don’t get that lovely, waxy sheen without a lot of work. Crayola colour pencils are in between, higher wax than Cretacolor, but lower than Prismacolor. Their metallics are grand, nice and waxy. So, as with all things, this could go on all day, because there are so many variants. :D

  10. rq says

    This is some advice I will keep in mind and try a few of the core salvaging tricks this summer.
    Incidentally, the thorns? That’s sort of what I would have pictured as ‘lurid’ (but in a good way!) before your edifying post about pale yellow. :D

  11. says

    I hope you’re successful! Yes, I think the thorns qualify as lurid. I’ve recently come across lurid used the way most people think of it, in a couple of books, and every time I see it, ‘pale yellow’ pops into my head. :D

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