Posted in art school advice

How to Sharpen a Pencil, or: Why Foundations are Important

Hey guys! It’s midterms time around here, and a lot of people are getting sick, so it’s been busy. I’m going to share a super valuable piece of advice today. On the very first day of drawing class and design class, both of my professors took some time to explain to us how to properly sharpen a pencil. To sharpen a pencil the Right way, you get an exacto knife (any blade will do but that was what most of us had) and, holding the blade at an angle, push away from your hands towards the tip while rotating the pencil slowly, exposing one to two inches of wood and at least half an inch of graphite, and then sharpening the tip to a fine point, still using the knife. My mom says this is how she was taught to sharpen pencils as a child in Soviet Russia, and how my drawing professor sharpened pencils growing up in China.


Sharpening pencils with a handheld blade is a life hack. You give yourself more pencil to work with and create a pointier tip for drawing finer details. My design professor said “you’re putting yourself ahead of the game by learning how to optimize your tools now.”

Which brings me to why foundations classes are necessary for art students.

  1.  Foundations put everyone on a level playing field

Not everyone starts at the same level. Some kids in my design class are film or photo majors who’ve never really drawn anything before. Some kids have been taking art classes practically since they were born. But if all of us are put in the same place and taught to make the most of what we have now, and if we can all learn from each other and work together, then everyone, regardless of initial skill level, can benefit from foundations instruction.

  1. Foundations help students develop good working habits

My design professor is very meticulous about things that you wouldn’t immediately consider to be important. He requires us to track how much time we spend working on our projects, take process photos, and to draw with pencil such that the grain of the paper is invisible. The reason for this, he explained, is because employers who hire talent from SCAD said that while SCAD students are enthusiastic and creative, they overwhelmingly have trouble following directions, meeting deadlines, and focusing on fine details. Foundations classes like this instill these habits early on so that, as a senior working on my final project, I can control my time and my materials better than if I hadn’t taken this class as a freshman.

  1. Foundations help students become familiar with quality materials

My drawing professor spends like, half an hour of each two and a half hour class just talking about the best pencils, the best paper, the best sharpener tool to use for whatever project we’re working on, how much they cost, where you should buy them to save money, and why he recommends them. With art supplies, a lot of the time you really can’t cut corners in terms of the cost, beyond buying from a specific location. Pastels, especially, are noticeably harder and duller the cheaper they are, so that for our pastel drawing assignment we’re not allowed to use any pastel set cheaper than Prismacolor Nupastels, and we’re encouraged to get bigger, more expensive sets if we can afford them. Learning about materials now, as a first-quarter freshman, means that I can choose where I want to invest more money now, where I should buy my supplies, and also how to use them best, lessons that will be useful in every class I take after this.

I have to confess: Drawing and Design are HARD for me. I spent 4 hours today working on a project due in two weeks.  I have Bs in both classes, which means my work is Good but not Great, and that I’m barely doing well enough to keep my scholarship.

But I think it’s important to need to work hard now, so that I have a solid foundation to build from for the future.



cartoonist, illustrator, reader, writer. SCAD 2020

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