Posted on Leave a comment

The Best Sharpeners for Colored Pencils

The Best Sharpeners for Colored Pencils

What are the best sharpeners for colored pencils? That’s our topic for today’s post. I want to thank Jack, who asked about sharpeners. Specifically, sharpeners for Prismacolor pencils.

Sharpeners are one of the more frequently discussed topics on my art blog, and I get questions about them on a regular basis. With so many people starting to use colored pencils every day, this is a good time to share with you the three types of sharpeners I find work best with Prismacolor pencils.

Why Prismacolor Pencils in Particular

Before we begin, let me explain why so many artists have difficulty sharpening Prismacolor pencils. I won’t go into detail about quality control and all that, because that is not the only issue.

Quality Control

Yes. Quality control is always important. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making colored pencils or beef stew. The better the ingredients and the more attention you pay to the details, the better the end result. Right?

There is room for improvement in both areas when it comes to Prismacolor pencils. Problems with breaking leads, cracked wood casings, and pencils that aren’t straight all contribute to problems sharpening them. Changing sharpeners isn’t likely to help.

The Best Sharpeners for Colored Pencils
The cracked wood on the orange pencil is both a result of sharpening, and a problem for sharpening. Either way, you will lose valuable pigment working with a cracked wood casing like this one.

Enough said. If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, take a look at Why Prismacolor Pencils Break So Often, published on my art blog.

Soft Pencils

Prismacolor pencils are also soft. Color application has been described as “buttery,” “creamy,” and “smooth.” Those descriptions require a fairly soft pencil so that color goes onto the paper easily.

And Prismacolor pencils do layer color smoothly! We all know that.

But with smooth pencils comes the tendency to break during sharpening, and to crumble while drawing. Especially if you draw with heavy pressure.

A pencil sharpener will not help you resolve either of those two problems.

But the sharpener you use can reduce the amount of breakage and still give you nice, sharp points.

The Best Sharpeners for Colored Pencils

I’ve used a variety of sharpeners over the years, and have had decent success with all of them. My collection of old sharpeners includes electric, battery-operated, mechanical, and hand-held sharpeners, and even a trusty X-acto knife!

These days, I’ve narrowed the selection down to two types of sharpeners.

Old-Fashioned Sharpeners

The best sharpener I’ve ever used is an old-fashioned sharpener like the ones that used to be in school rooms. It’s a crank sharpener designed to be bolted to a wall. The one shown below has different sized holes for different sized pencils.

My husband bought this sharpener when he was in school. It’s an APSCO Premier Standard. It’s easy to use, fairly portable, and easy to clean. What’s more, it’s all metal! No plastic parts.

You can still find them on online auction sites if you’re patient and persistent. You might also find them in estate sales and antique shops, but beware! Prices in those outlets could be high.

This sharpener is great with all of my pencils. Yes, even Prismacolor. I think the reason for that is that the opening for the pencil has a small spring device that holds the pencil. The pencil doesn’t wiggle, turn or twist, so the sharpening blades do not put excessive or unnecessary pressure on the pencil.

That’s just a guess on my part. I’m not an engineer, but that explanation makes sense.

Hand Held Sharpeners

These sharpeners are available in the school and office supply sections of most grocery stores and discount stores. They come in a variety of shapes and styles. Some have containers to catch shavings and some haven’t, but they all have one thing in common. You hold them in your hand.

I currently have two styles. Both of them come with shavings containers and both were very inexpensive. Under $2 each.

But one sharpens pencils to a short point, while the other sharpens a longer point.

Sharpeners like this are very portable in addition to being inexpensive. I throw one into my field kit or pencil box when I plan on drawing away from the studio.

One tip: If you have problems with breakage with a sharpener like this, hold the pencil stable and turn the sharpener. I’ve been able to sharpen the more stubborn Prismacolor pencils without breaking them by this simple trick.

The Two The Best Sharpeners for Colored Pencils

Yes, even Prismacolor.

Remember that these are what work for me. They’ll probably work for you, too, but that’s no guarantee.

Try any sharpener that catches your eye, inexpensive or expensive. Test each one with all of your pencils if you use more than one brand.

Also listen to what other artists say about the sharpeners they use. Hearing what other artists have to say is helpful in finding the right sharpener for you.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!

Posted on 4 Comments

Is Using a Light Box Cheating?

Is Using a Light Box Cheating

There are some questions that guarantee a heated debate in the art world. Tracing is one of those topics. Is using a light box cheating is probably another such topic. We’ll soon find out, won’t we?

Here’s the question to get the discussion started.

When I started using colored pencils I used a light box. I still use one. I can draw without it but it takes so long to draw freehand. I have used the grid method but it does not work as well. Do you think that it would be better to wean myself from the box? I am 69 so taking shortcuts helps. I enjoy your help.


Thank you for your question, Jim. I think I can put your mind at rest.

Is Using a Light Box Cheating?

The short answer is no. Using a light box is not cheating. A light box is just another tool.


Using a light box is no different than using a camera to “sketch” a subject instead of taking the time to draw the subject from life. Using solvents to blend could also be considered a form of cheating if an artist considers using a light box to be cheating.

You might also look at it this way: Is it cheating to use a calculator to tally up your grocery bill as you shop, or should you do the math by hand?

We could take the comparisons a lot further. For example, is using a cell phone to contact family members cheating or should you write a letter? Or is using a car cheating when you can walk?

But I think you get the point.


For the longest time, I thought all tracing was cheating. I believed I had to draw every drawing by hand. I called it freehand, but I actually used a grid to create my line drawing. (Is a grid cheating?)

I also used transfer paper or a light box of sorts (large windows) to transfer the drawing to the painting surface. Was that cheating?

In the end, I came to the conclusion that none of those art-related tools was any more a form of cheating than using my calculator to keep track of purchases while shopping. I had no problems with the calculator, so why did I feel differently about art?

Does that Mean You Don’t Need Freehand Drawing Skills?

Not at all.

It’s always good to know how to do things the old-fashioned way, by hand, whether you’re working on your next drawing, or basic math. Knowing how to draw well frees you up to draw and sketch wherever you are, whether you have an electronic device or other tool or not.

It’s not a bad thing to practice freehand drawing skills, too, because that does give you an additional drawing tool.

This is a life sketch of some trees as seen from my backyard. I have no problem with using a light box to transfer line drawings, because I know I can draw freehand. Is the light box a substitution for drawing? No. But it does help me finish work more quickly.

But it’s absolutely all right to continue using your light box.

What’s the Bottom Line?

What it all boils down to is personal preference. Some things really are written in stone and are always right or always wrong. If you jump off a cliff without a parachute, you will fall. (Even with a parachute, you’ll still fall; you’ll just fall more slowly.)

This is not one of those things. If you believe using a light box is cheating, then you shouldn’t do it. Doing something that you perceive to be cheating diminishes your pleasure in the creative process.

If you have no problems using a light box, then make the best use of that light box that you possibly can and enjoy making art!

There are, however, a few guidelines you should follow:

  • Never copy someone else’s art and call it your own. That’s not cheating; it’s stealing.
  • Using a light box doesn’t guarantee a perfect drawing every time. You still have to do all the layering, blending, and shading. So keep up with those skills.
  • Take the time to work on freehand drawing skills by sketching either from life or from photos. You won’t regret the time you spend in that activity.

What do you think? Is using a light box cheating?

I’ve shared my thoughts on this topic. Do you agree or disagree?

If you’d like to weigh in (and I hope you do,) click the “leave a comment” link at the top of the post. I’ve underlined it in red in this illustration.

You can also scroll down to the bottom of the page and type your comment.

Our goal here is to help one another learn in order to find the best solution for their individual needs, so keep it friendly!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!