Monday, July 09, 2018

Four ways to hold a pencil to draw

How you hold a pencil to draw is different from how you hold a pencil to write.

This post is for those who'd like to explore different ways of holding a pencil and what each offers you. It shows you:
  • why different grips offer you more scope to draw in different ways
  • affect the range of movement that is possible from both your hand - and arm
  • enable you to move your pencil in different ways
  • offer you the scope to draw more effectively - in different ways
    Below I look at four different kinds of grips for drawing
    • the basic tripod grip
    • a basic drawing grip
    • the overhand/gesture grip
    • an extended underhand grip
    How to hold a pencil to draw - four different ways

    I'll be systematically showing you
    • what the grip looks like - in diagrams hand drawn by me!
    • which fingers it uses
    • what it's useful for
    • what it limits
    • who it's recommended for

    If you find it useful you might like to share it with your friends who also draw - or want to learn how to draw.

    Context - How we learn to grip a pencil


    It's often the case that those who have taught themselves to draw continue to use their familiar grip for holding a pen or pencil - the one they've probably learned at school when they learned how to write.

    However this can cause problems and it also limits HOW you can use a pencil to draw.

    It's also the case that many people who are teaching people 'how to draw' haven't necessarily been taught to draw themselves and are still using the grip they learned when little.

    For me, the essential thing is that people have the information to make a choice. After that, how we choose to use a pencil is entirely up to the individual. 
    • There is no right or wrong way. 
    • Your way is your way. 
    • However experimentation can lead to expanding and improving your skills in different ways of drawing - and ultimately change

    Different ways to grip


    Study the ways the grips vary. Look at people you know who draw and watch to see how their grip works. Ask them why they use the grip and why they like it. Ask them what they can do with it.

    In particular note:
    • which parts of the hand and arm are involved in the grip 
    • what the role of the thumb is
    • where and how the pencil rests if not gripped tightly by the fingers
    • whether the hand and/or the fingers move the pencil
    • what provides the pressure
    • what provides balance 
    • whether control is exerted via pressure or balance.

    The basic traditional / tripod grip



    This essentially is the grip that we learn when very young and we learn how to write.  Those who teach this grip tend to focus on better control over the the formation of letters.

    It can be used for drawing - but it has distinct limitations - and that's entirely down to what the grip allows us to do.

    The basic trip grip

    Which fingers control the pencil: the thumb, forefinger and second finger - placed close to the tip of your drawing implement

    How the pencil touches the paper: Just the tip

    What else touches the paper: very often the heel and side of the palm also rest on the paper

    Useful for:
    • Limiting the stroke length; 
    • Limiting gestural drawing;
    • improving control over the tip of the pencil and drawing very precisely
    RECOMMENDED for:  People working
    • in detail
    • in very small sketchbooks or 
    • on small sheets of paper (less than A4)
    In this position, the grip is said to be 'braced' and the grip tends to be tight. The angle tends to be 45 degrees but can be much more vertical. It often involves pushing and pulling strokes.

    This grip is also often used by artists who paint with very small, very controlled dots or strokes in one direction only.

    NOTE: This grip can damage your hand if you use it continuously for too long. This is because of the strain it places on your tendons and the scope to inflame the synovial sheath by exerting tension all the time.

    I speak as somebody who acquired tenosynovitis after writing continuously and intensively for two weeks - and I can no longer grip tightly with my drawing hand and can experience intense pain if I try using this grip for too long. (For an equivalent, think back to the way your hands would often ache when you were doing exams and writing as much as you could in the time allowed)

    I've also known quite a few artists who have also experienced the same when using this grip for too long - to get a drawing or painting finished

    Which is another good reason to explore other ways of holding a pencil to draw!

    If you use this grip and work intensively, you are well advised to
    • give yourself regular breaks and 
    • find ways to loosen your hand up in between drawing sessions. 
    Or else you'll be drawing - and bracing using a hand/wrist brace.....

    A basic grip for drawing


    If you hold the pencil further away from the tip you open up the scope to move the pencil in different ways - because you enable more use of your whole arm

    A basic drawing grip

    Which fingers control the pencil: the thumb, forefinger and second finger - placed further up the shaft of your drawing implement.

    How the pencil touches the paper: Just the tip

    What else touches the paper: The heel of the hand is near but does NOT touch the paper as that instantly limits wrist movement. As the space grows between the paper and the heel of the hand you open up scope to involve the wrist, elbow and shoulder in directing movement. Sometimes the little finger touches the paper when additional control and/or balance is needed using this grip

    Useful for:  
    • making a much wider range of marks e.g. longer, looser, larger strokes
    • hatching at speed
    • drawing at speed
    • maintaining control over smaller marks (once you are used to holding the pencil further from the tip)
    RECOMMENDED for:   People who want an efficient way to draw with freedom of movement to make a bigger range of marks but scope to maintain control when required.

    This is a variation and extended version of the traditional tripod grip.  The big difference is that the hold is much higher up the shaft of the pencil - meaning that smaller movements of the fingers achieve larger movements of the pencil tip.

    You only need to grip as much as you need for the drawing implement to do what you want it to. You do not need to grip tightly or risk damaging your hand.

    This is a video of me using this grip to sketch trees and their shapes in pen and ink (i.e. no running out!) in a fairly precise way.  My wrist does not touch the paper. My little finger provides the balance. I'm holding the pen a little further down the barrel - because this is a quite precise phase of the sketch. However it allows me to draw at speed - the video is not speeded up.



    I'm using a Pilot G-Tec-C4 pen and a Stillman and Birn Epsilon sketchbook - designed for line drawings

    The overhand / gesture grip


    This is the grip which many students get taught in art schools which teach drawing.  It has a number of advantages over the two grips identified above

    This one feels really, really weird when you try it for the first time. You have to persevere to understand why it can be very useful grip to know and use - in specific circumstances.
    The overhand / gesture grip
    Which fingers control the pencil: all of them, the index finger and arm control direction. The thumb and other three fingers contain and support. The thumb can be used to exert pressure to emphasise mark-making.

    How the pencil touches the paper: The sides of your drawing implement - and the tip when required

    What else touches the paper: nothing; your hand AND ARM are completely free to move anyway you choose

    Useful for: 
    • drawing using the whole arm all the time
    • drawing vertically - at an easel; 
    • drawing on large sheets of paper; 
    • filling large areas with drawing medium very quickly
    • free flowing lines - involving the whole arm
    • gestural marks 
    • working with charcoal or pastels on large sheets
    RECOMMENDED for:  people who like the freedom of being able to use their whole arm when drawing and/or want to stand to draw and/or liking working large with large gesture strokes and/or working loose and from big shapes before they refine their drawings

    A variation on this grip is to create a very long implement to hold your drawing tool (eg charcoal). You can then move in very large arcs.

    I've often noticed that those working with charcoal or pastel often don't get the point of how you can use these media until they start to explore this grip.

    The extended underhand grip


    This is a modification of both the basic drawing grip and the overhand grip.
    • Fingers are straighter 
    • the trick is to get the pencil to rest and balance in a controlled way without a tight grip. 
    • "Extended" means the grip is away from the tip and nearer the top of the pencil. 
    I'm unable to grip a pencil tightly due to tenosynovitis - due to overuse of the basic tripod grip for interviewing people!

    Hence I need a grip which is both loose and relaxed but where I can control what I do while only holding the pencil very lightly.

    This is the grip I use by choice. It allows me to do 95% of what I want to do when drawing. However
    • I don't typically draw standing up or on huge sheets of paper; and
    • I'm very happy using it on paper sized (say) upto A3. (20+ inches) e.g. double page spread of an A4 sketchbook (see video below) - and can also work on larger sheets using this grip.

    The extended underhand grip

    Which fingers control the pencil: the forefinger and second finger move the pencil. The thumb holds it lightly to provide a pivot point. The grip need not be tight and can be very light.

    How the pencil touches the paper: The sides of your drawing implement - and the tip when required

    What else touches the paper: nothing; your hand and wrist are free to move anyway you choose. The little finger might touch down occasionally to help with balance.

    Useful for: 
    • looser marks - using the side of the drawing material rather than the tip
    • covering large areas with colour quickly
    • working on larger sheets 
    • hatching - loosely or precisely
    • quite precise marks
    RECOMMENDED for: people who want to (or need to) loosen up their drawing / sketching - AND their grip - but still like to retain some control.

    I can use this grip and hatch very precisely and at speed using this grip - essentially because the grip loose rather than tight and it allows me to use my wrist to help with the drawing movement.
    This is a video of me sketching using coloured pencils. Note in particular:
    • where I hold the coloured pencil is entirely down to the length of the pencil!  I typically hold it loosely halfway down the pencil length.
    • how much of the drawing uses the shaft of the coloured pencil core to fill space with colour.
    • The pencil is resting between the first (index) and second (middle) fingers during fast hatching. The fingers move the pencil and the thumb provides a very light touch to hold it in place


    The very short version is in my book!


    The VERY condensed version of this is contained in my book. It's really nice be able to write the long version of how to hold a pencil!

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