Tips for Sharpening Pastel Pencils with Martin Aveling

Anyone who has used pastel pencils will know that the process involves an awful lot of sharpening. Poor technique can lead to frustration. However, if you know what you are doing then you can save time, product and even find the act quite satisfying.

I have been using pastel pencils (and little else) for over 20 years. I am a proud ambassador for Derwent Pencils and provided the cover artwork for their current Pastel Pencil range

In order to achieve the best results with this medium it pays to adopt a cautious approach. The same goes for sharpening. The pastel strip is soft and can crack under pressure. The contrast in consistency between the soft pastel strip and hard wooden casing means that a standard pencil sharpener on its own will not work. What usually happens is that the pastel strip crumbles away or gets lodged at the thin end of the sharpener and snaps when the pencil is withdrawn. What you need is a good sharp craft knife.

If this feels a bit like ‘sharpening 101’ then I apologise. My hope is that you find some use in this technique, which hasn’t changed for me in over two decades.

Sharpen with a craft knife

In your weak hand, place the pencil towards the base of your fingers and wrap them around to secure it in place. Give a ‘thumbs up’ action and make sure that the tip of the pencil is in line with the tip of your thumb. Take the knife in your other hand and place the blade a couple of centimetres back from the tip of the pencil. For more control, position the thumb of the hand holding the pencil behind the knife. You will use this thumb to push forward on the blade. With your strong hand, initially angle the blade slightly downwards to cut into the wood, and as you push forward with your other thumb slowly bring the blade back around. The cutting motion is a shallow curve, and the resulting wooden shavings should look like thin little wedges. When you are no longer cutting into wood and just focused on the pastel strip, the chance of it snapping is increased. So slow down and apply less pressure. Rotate the pencil and repeat until a little over a centimetre of pastel strip is exposed all the way around. You can then taper the strip by gently brushing it with the blade and continuously turning the pencil in your hand. 

Close Up on sharpening method

If you taper it too fine then the pastel strip will snap when you put pencil to paper. In order to avoid this happening, yet still maintaining a sharp point, you can finish it off with a pencil sharpener. Now that you have exposed the pastel strip, the wooden casing is no longer a problem. Insert the strip into the sharpener and slowly rotate. This will carve a fine point at the end of the strip to assist with detailing, but the overall thickness of the pastel strip will remain sturdy enough to avoid snapping. 

Shape with a craft knife and finish with a pencil sharpener

In amongst the jumble of videos on my YouTube page, you will find little hacks for avoiding sharpening too often. Search ‘Missing In Art’ for pastel pencil inspiration.

Happy doodling! There is no better time than to go missing in art. 

Thank you to Martin for providing this blog.