Stenciling 101

Learn how to make and paint a multi-color, multi-layer stencil from any image.

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    Introduction to Stenciling 101

    Let’s learn how to make and use stencils. A stencil is a mask that you lay down before painting, and after you paint, the pattern of the mask shows through. I’ll walk you through the basics of stenciling, how they work, what makes a good stencil, and tell you everything you’ll need before you get started. Then I’ll take you through all the steps: first capturing or finding your image second, using Bay Stencil to convert your image to a stencil; third cutting the stencil and finally fourth; painting your stencil.
    Before we do that, though, I need to tell you what’s in store if you end up cutting and using your own stencil. In order to get a stenciled image onto a surface, you’re going to need something to use as your stencil material, like stiff card stock that is at least an inch bigger on every side than the image you want to lay down. You’re going to need paint, probably spray paint.
    To cut the stencil, you’ll need to go one of three routes: you can use a sharp, new exacto blade, craft cutter or laser cutter. A pocket knife or kitchen knife is just not going to cut it. If you go the route of the exacto knife, expect that the cutting step is going to take some time, and if you make a mistake it’s pretty much game over. But it’s old school, and doing it will make you appreciate how awesome the computer-driven cutters are. Using a craft cutter or laser cutter takes some time to get up to speed, but once you know the drill, you can make new stencils really quick and really cheap.
    You’ll need a few other things that you probably have lying around, like a digital camera or iPhone. Plus, a pair of latex gloves comes in really handy while you’re painting.
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    The Art of Stenciling

    Let’s talk a tiny bit about the aesthetic of stencil art--like, what’s good and what’s bad--this will help you understand what we’re trying to do when we get an idea for a stencil and how we execute on that idea.

    What is a Stencil?

    A stencil is a mask that you lay down and then paint over, reproducing a pattern. The most common use of stencils you see everyday is markings on the street. The most famous stencils are the ones by Banksy. You use a stencil so that you can produce the shapes of an outline precisely, over and over again if you like.

    Examples of Stencils

    A stenciled image can be just one color on a background, like our street markings. Notice how, when we paint on different surfaces, we leave a ‘box’ when we paint on the light surface. Sometimes this is a desired effect, but more often we want the subject of the stencil to float in space a little, so we try to find a surface that is the right color to put our foreground color onto it.

    Single Color or Multiple Colors?

    Sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to put down a stencil, so you want just a single color that provides high contrast quickly. And then other times you have all day, and want to make something really elaborate and beautiful. Multi-layer stencils are really great. I like to do a three-tone stencil, where one of the colors is present from the surface. It’s pretty common for the surface to take the place of either the lightest layer or the mid-tone layer, but the surface can also represent the darkest color.

    Should I Cover the Entire Area With Paint??

    Notice that you can reproduce all the colors so that the surface color doesn’t show through at all. But I’ve never found a case where this looks interesting as a final result. If you’re covering the entire surface with paint, then you might as well print a poster and paste it to the surface. That’s cheaper and easier and probably more aesthetically appealing than stenciling multiple layers just to cover the surface.

    On the other hand, some artists use stencils to create interesting underpaintings which they finish by painting completely over the canvas. In this case, you want the canvas to be completely covered by the underpainting, so it makes sense to paint all the layers.

    How Do I Choose Which Color Should Come from the Surface?

    If you don’t have a choice about the surface you’re painting on (for example, you need to stencil an image on a door), then choose the color or tone from your image that most closely matches the surface relative to the other colors you’re using in the image.

    But if you do have a choice then maybe try to substitute a color from the edge of the image for your surface color. That way, the image you’re representing seems to float on the surface.

    Simulate Using a Photo

    I once created some stencils for reproducing on pavement, and I took pictures of the pavement before building the stencil to see what the overlaid image would look like. The idea of the original stencil was to create the illusion that fish are swimming ‘beneath’ the pavement, so it didn’t make sense to obscure the pavement except for where the lily pads are below the surface.

    I made these simulations by taking a photo of the surface in natural light, and then overlaying a partially transparent image to simulate paint. You can use a program like Photoshop to do this, but any program that will let you work with layers and transparency will work.

    Color and Value

    Let’s talk for a minute about color and value. Probably the easiest way to get a stenciled image to be ‘understood’ is by using shades of gray (which we call ‘values’ from white to black). But shades of gray can get boring. A nice way to mix this up is to use different colors for each layer, but to respect the dark/light value of each layer. So, basically, you’re creating an image that will make sense in shades of gray, but you are adding color--maybe even random color--to make the image more artistic or more interesting.

    Sometimes a color adds meaning to an image, and the color should be present in a specific place in order for the image to make sense. Then, if it’s important to you, get the colors right!

    Detail and Recognition

    You uploaded your image, and so you already know what it looks like. You will probably always recognize your image in the stencil. But if you want other people to recognize the image in the stencil, you need to test it to see how it ‘reads’ with somebody who has never seen the image. Generally, the more detail a stencil has, and the more layers, the more easily it will be recognized. But if a stencil has too much detail, it can be difficult to cut--and paint. And what’s more, it can become very fragile with repeated use.

    So let’s try to get our image to be recognizable with the least detail possible--that’s the goal and the aesthetic of the stencil.

    Spray Intensity and Pattern

    We’ll talk more about this later, but if you spray your paint on (which is what we’ll do), there will naturally be some variation in the coverage of your spray. You may spray lighter in some areas than in other areas. And you may spray lighter on one layer than on other layers.

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    Finding or Capturing Your Image

    Let’s look at how to find or capture an image that you can turn into a good stencil.

    Good Subjects

    What kind of image makes a good stencil? Here are some that often work well:

    • faces are good because our brains are specially tuned to recognize human faces
    • I like to say ‘trains, planes and automobiles’ but what I mean is familiar objects with well-defined edges
    • text makes a great stencil, because like faces, our brains are trained to recognize letters, numbers and words
    • graphic art (like a logo) is good because it is conceived from the beginning as lines and shapes, and doesn’t start life as an image with all the distractions
    • professionally lighted photos of almost anything: pros instinctively look for the best light to show the features of their subject (and in particular, high-contrast black-and-white photos)

    Subjects to Avoid

    Some things make crappy subjects for stencils:

    • pets--they don't sit still and their faces are often dark and furry
    • landscapes: simple landscapes really don’t have a foreground subject, where is the recognizable object with hard edges? FAIL
    • blurry or impressionistic photos, smoke or clouds and sprays of water, none of that is going to come through
    • photos with big gradients in them, like a gradient from very dark to very light--stencils quantize the color, whereas a gradient wants smooth transition

    So, you can look for images that make great stencils: there are millions of professional photographs to license online. There are even repositories full of free photos that have had the background removed.

    Take a Picture

    I like to start with my own image. I’m not a professional photographer, but I’ve made hundreds of stencils, so listen up:

    When you make your first stencil, choose your subject--choose a physical foreground object: a person or a thing. With surfaces. That you can touch. Then find the best light you can. Dramatic lighting is good, as long as you can see the features of the subject. Sometimes having a second light source on the side really helps. Natural daylight is also usually okay. As for the direction of light--you want the light to fall across the object so that its most important and recognizable (and desirable) features stand out. Frame your shot so that the background is really simple, or contains a non-distracting pattern--in a stencil you really don’t want to have objects of interest in the background.

    Bonus Tips

    For two or more subjects: they have to be close together--like touching each other, and they have to be equally well lighted (you don’t want one in shadow while the other is in light)--same rule as regular portrait photography.

    If you have to jack up the exposure or contrast of a poorly lighted photo, that’s going to make the stenciled version jagged and blotchy. So, get a crisp, bright, clear photo the first time.

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    Using Bay Stencil

    Let’s learn how to use Bay Stencil to create an incredible stencil from your image.

    What is Bay Stencil?

    Bay Stencil is a service that color separates your image using a variety of options and lets you pick the best one for your application. Bay Stencil then creates vector cut files of the bridged stencils that you’ll need to cut it out.

    Upload Your Image

    Pick your image and upload to Bay Stencil. If your image isn’t cropped already, then you can crop it as you upload so that you are just stencilizing the most interesting, recognizable part of your image.

    You’ll need to enter your email address so that Bay Stencil can email you when your color separated image choices are ready.

    When you receive the email, you can choose from nine options. Pick the one you like best. A five-color image will take longer to cut and paint than a two- or three-color image.

    If you don’t like any of the nine options, you can try a different cropping of your image to make a stencil, or you can condition your image before you upload it.

    • You might remove the background
    • or replace the background with a mid-tone
    • You might increase the contrast

    Get the Cut Files

    Once you have a color separation that you like, request the breakdown of the different color layers. This will create each layer as a separate file, and send you another email when it’s ready. Have a look at the result, to make sure you like the look of the vector shapes you see in the bridged file. If you like what you see, buy the vector files and receive an email with a download link in it.

    The digital download contains SVG and JPG files. These are for computer-controlled cutting devices like a craft cutter (like the Cricut Explore Air or the Cricut Maker) or laser cutter.

    Did you notice that there were four stencils in the download? That’s because the image separation we chose had four colors in it. You’ll see that typically you only need three out of the four, since the surface you’re painting on already has a color. Let’s look at the other options.

    Here’s a good three-color option. I didn’t pick it the first time around because this area had more detail in it than I wanted. There’s just too much going on here. This one would make a pretty awesome stencil to paint on a dark surface. But to me, it just doesn’t look that much like Frank Sinatra. Sure, we know it’s Frank Sinatra because we saw the picture that we uploaded. But the person looking at your stencilized reproduction doesn’t get to see the original, so I picked the one with a few extra details, and more resolution to the face. I feel like most people would recognize this one. I would paint this on a blue or neutral-colored background.

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    Cutting Your Stencil

    Let’s use a craft cutter to cut out the stencil we ordered from Bay Stencil. Specifically, we’re going to use the SVG files that we downloaded from Bay Stencil to cut our stencil on a Cricut Air Explore 2. You can apply what you see here to any craft cutter, vinyl cutter or laser cutter that accepts a vector file as input.

    Supported Craft Cutters

    It’s an incomplete list, but you can also check your cutter’s instructions to see whether it supports SVG cut files.

    • Cricut Explore (all versions)
    • Cricut Maker (all versions)
    • Cricut Venture
    • Silhouette CAMEO 2
    • Sizzix eclips2
    • Bosskut Gazelle
    • Brother ScanNCut
    • CPazzles Vue
    • Silhouette Curio
    • Cricut Explore One
    • Silhouette CAMEO 3
    • KNK Zing Orbit
    • Silver Bullet

    Stencil Materials

    The first thing to do is to decide which material to use for your stencils. Card stock and mylar work well. I use card stock if I think I’ll just use the stencil fewer than ten times, and throw it away without cleaning it. For card stock,I like to use 400gsm or 120# cover. If I think I’ll use the stencil again, or if the card stock is tearing on the cutter, I’ll use mylar instead. You can also clean and reuse mylar indefinitely. Mylar will stick around for generations, so keep that in mind when making your choice. For mylar, I like 7mil mylar. If you can’t find 7 mil mylar, then 5 mil or 10 mil mylar works pretty well. 5 mil is better if your stencil is smaller than an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper (or A4 if you’re outside of the US). 10 mil is better if your stencil is A3 or bigger. But 7 mil works well for almost any application.

    Which Layers Should I Cut?

    With your material in hand, you need to decide which layers you need to cut. As we saw earlier, a three-color stencil may be composed of the background color plus two painted colors.

    So, if you downloaded three cut files, you probably only need to cut two of them. Take for example this image of a famous photographer. We’ll reproduce it on a white background, so we just need to cut the mid-tone layer and the dark layer.

    Using the Software: Cricut Design Studio

    We use Cricut’s design studio to upload the image, and then remove any components of the cut file that we don’t want. In our case, we’ll remove the annotations for the layers.

    Different cutter software treats vector files differently. Here is how Cricut Design Studio shows the DXF file, for example. Notice that there is a big solid box that is part of the image. I’ll have to delete this before I cut.

    Because these are vector files, we can make them as big or as small as we want. You’re just limited by how thin your cutter can cut, and how strong your material is. I have scaled these files down to about five inches with success, and I’ve also made them six feet tall.

    It’s important that you cut all the layers at the same scale. In other words you don’t want to scale one of them up, and not scale the other one up by exactly the same amount. Trust me, you don’t want to eyeball this one. One way to make sure that you scale them the same is to select them both and scale them at the same time in the design software.

    Making the Cut

    We press the stencil material to the cutter mat. For these craft cutters, you’re looking to strike a balance. If the material isn’t stuck tight enough to the mat, then it will slip while cutting, and game over. On the other hand, If it’s stuck really tight, then when you’re done cutting you go to pull it off the mat and you tear the stencil.

    After the cut is done, you carefully remove the stencil from the mat. I like to use a spatula or two for this part. Once the stencil has come free, I use the spatula again to remove any cut out pieces from the mat.

    Improving the Stencil

    Sometimes I cut out a few of the bridges that cover a large area or are just distracting. But I always look at all the bridges I plan to remove *first*, before cutting any of them, to make sure that the stencil will still be strong once you’re done. I’ve made the mistake before of cutting out one bridge, and then noticing later that it was the next bridge over that was really long, but by then it was too late. The only way to patch a stencil when you were too enthusiastic about removing bridges is to use a screen patch. Advanced topic.

    Once you have the cut areas done, you might want to enhance your stencils to make them easier to use. If I’m only going to use a stencil one time, I usually just cover the edges with an l-shaped mask while I’m painting near an edge. But if I know that I’ll use a stencil over and over, sometimes I build the extra masking onto the stencil itself.

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    Painting Your Stencil

    Let’s paint a few!

    Paint Selection

    We’re going to need some paint. You can use Krylon or Rustoleum, but Montana Cans and Molotow are the ‘art spray’ brands in vogue now. I like Montana Cans (the ones from Barcelona, not the ones from Germany). And I like Molotow because I think these two companies are trying to do the right thing. I mean, as far as you can be a spray paint company and do the right thing.

    Low pressure cans work well for stencils, but for those of you stenciling under time pressure, you can get done faster with high velocity cans.

    A word about safety: if you paint indoors just one time, you’ll notice, for the next few days, every time you blow your nose, that you see the paint color--? That’s because the paint is in your lungs. I’m not your mom--but you know that professionals always paint with a mask that keeps both particulate and fumes out of the lungs.


    Let’s start with a stencil that we paint in grayscale. We’ll use just one color: black, but with different levels of coverage for each layer. We paint the mid-tone layer with a light spray. And then we paint the dark layer with a solid coat of black. That’s easy, right?

    Basic Can Mechanics

    Orientation of the surface and the can is a compromise: if the stencil sits flat on the surface, then gravity helps keep it in place without tacking it down. But then you would have to hold the spray can horizontally to spray the stencil; and spray cans tend to gum up when you use them horizontally. So if I’m painting on a movable surface, I often orient it to about 30 degrees from horizontal so that gravity keeps the stencil in place, and the spray can isn’t totally horizontal. I sometimes lay coins on top of the stencil so that it doesn’t blow away from the pressure of the spray.

    Always spray perpendicular to the surface, about 8-10 inches away. If you spray at an angle, the spray will blow the stencil away from the surface, and the paint will cover the area that you are trying to keep clean. If you spray too close to the surface, it’s the same problem: the spray hits the surface and is so strong that it spreads the paint laterally below the stencil. You want the spray to arrive at the surface with just enough power that it coats the exposed surface but does not lift the stencil.

    More often, the surface is vertical and not movable. In those cases, I tack the stencil to the surface and then press it tighter in each spot with my hand while spraying. If you want a totally clean stencil, you can buy some quilt basting spray--this is not available everywhere, I know--so if you can’t find it get some Spray Mount instead--with this you can tack the stencil to the surface temporarily. Be careful when pulling the stencil away from the surface, so that you don’t smear the paint. Sometimes I wait a minute before pulling the stencil away, so that the paint has a chance to dry or at least coagulate in place.

    Variations in Coverage

    You know how we said we wanted to avoid gradients--smooth changes in color or value--in the source image for the stencil? Well, that doesn’t mean that your stencil always has to have uniform paint coverage. In fact, you can create a gradient within the pattern of your stencil very easily, just by slowing the travel of the paint can as you move it.

    When you’re painting a face, it’s always going to come out better if you deepen the coverage toward the most significant features: the eyes and mouth are the areas of most recognizable expression, and we want attention there. So make sure those are crisp and dark. The rest can be fuzzier. It’s like you’re a photographer using soft focus around the edges.

    You can even use different colors on the same layer. Really you can paint it any way you want.


    You can clean a mylar stencil with acetone or paint thinner and a sponge, and then just let it dry flat. The stencil will live longer than you will, so I hope you made one that you like.

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