Hey, Not so Rough! (AKA, Teaching Kids to Draw Lightly)

A couple of tips for teaching kids to draw lightly.

Teaching kids to be gentle with their pencils when drawing is a tall order! There are two root problems here, and they’re related: how to hold the pencil and how much pressure to apply.

Holding the Pencil

The fundamental problem is how kids are taught to hold their pencils when they draw: like they are writing. I explain when we are writing it is essential for people to see the result. That’s the whole purpose of writing, right? It’s to have our words read! If words are too light on the paper, then you can’t see them well.

Well, when we initially put our ideas on paper for an artwork, we’re actually sketching. It’s pre-drawing! Meaning, it’s the work we do before we do our final piece. As a class, we go on to have a discussion about making mistakes and using our eraser. I demonstrate what happens when we try to sketch holding our pencil in a “writing” position. Students see that it’s often impossible to get the pencil marks off the paper.

Switching to a sketching position—holding the pencil towards the middle—reduces the amount of pressure most kids are able to apply to the paper. Trying it this way, makes erasing a snap!

By holding the pencil in the middle, students often can't press hard.

Alternate Approach

Another technique I use with my students more recently is to have them rest the pencil on the knuckle between pointer and middle fingers. With fingers somewhat extended to allow the pinky to serve as a ‘kickstand’ if it’s needed, students will often find they can’t press hard. This works really well for some students. Keep in mind, though, some kids may tighten their hand almost into a fist in an effort to control the pencil more; remind them to keep their hand loosened up.

Resting your pencil on your knuckle can help students draw lightly.

The issue with either of these techniques, of course, is the same with anything new: it feels weird until it becomes a habitSo, my students will hear me reminding them during class, “Sketching positions everyone!”

NOTE: In college and some drawing videos, you may see instructors hold the pencil in an overhand position. It provides a nice sense of fluid motion to your lines. Unfortunately, I haven’t had success teaching this to my younger students. This is really drawing from your shoulder, and my kids tire easily and can only process so much. In the end, I try to reinforce the above two suggestions, but you may have a different experience. So, give it a try!

Applying Pressure

Changing the way kids draw or sketch with their pencils is a means to an end. That end, of course, is encouraging a gentle touch on the paper so unwanted lines can be easily erased. I have never met a kid who has said to me, “Gee, Mr. Phillips, I love those indentations on my paper from where I pressed too hard on my paper!”

First, it has to be said: some kids won’t try these ideas. They don’t want to look foolish or fail in their attempts to try something new. For them, no technique is going to make life easier or their artwork any better until they are ready to accept it. There. I said it. You know who those students are in your class. These ideas are for kids who are open to struggling a little while trying something new.

Tickle the Paper

The solution for me has been to use my finger tip to draw on the back of my student’s hand when I demonstrate this skill. The kids immediately get the concept as my finger tickles their skin. It’s a visual and sensory reminder for students: tickle the paper, don’t hurt it!

But, does that solve the problem? Sadly, if life in the Art Studio were only that simple!

To reinforce the idea, I have students practice drawing different sized circles (any shape will do, though) on the back of their paper. I usually ask them to only use half of the paper on the back just in case I have them do thumbnail sketches on the other half.

I prefer a circle because so many of my students think drawing a circle perfectly is somehow the end-all-be-all of artistic accomplishment because I did it once during a demonstration. (Well, they thought that I had anyway.) I tell them, “Draw me a perfect circle, and I’ll give you a quarter.” (Boy, the things teachers say, right?) Actually, most people say they can’t draw a straight line, but I think straight lines are overrated. And, so, I push circles and not squares.

Steps to Success

  1. I have a students draw 5-10 small circles on one half of the back of their papers. (You can have them draw a line to divide it up if that helps them know when to stop.)
  2. I demo one of the techniques I mentioned above (i.e., holding the pencil in the middle or over-the-knuckle grip).
  3. The students draw 10 circles using the technique they just learned. Be sure to ask if them if they noticed a difference. Some will probably say no because they may have rushed. If your kids are like my students, you should have at least half the class who sees an improvement.
  4. I demo the other technique.
  5. The students draw 10 more circles of different sizes using this last technique. Draw the class back into conversation about how they felt about trying something new. Reinforce for them the reality that change takes time and practice. It’s okay that it feels awkward! Quickly scan the work done and provide lots of positive reinforcement.
  6. Have your students move on to doing thumbnails or whatever drawing work they have. If you have stations, post photos and directions for each of these techniques to reinforce their importance. I always ask students to write down what technique they used when drawing on the back with their thumbnails: Writing, Middle, or Knuckle is how I have them refer to things.

That’s it! I hope you found this helpful. Please provide me with your feedback. I would love to hear what you do to help kids draw.

Featured Artwork

The artwork featured in my title graphic is called The Nut Gatherers (1882) by William Adolphe Bouguereau (Note to parents: This link includes nude paintings.) Bouguereau, who liked allegory, was a splendid draftsman. Some of his work can be a little frothy for me, but his drawing skills and skin tones are phenomenal! In addition to The Nut Gatherers, I also really like:

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