A Quick Stencil Primer

An immediate, low cost alternative to silk screening or photocopying

Like screenprinting, stencils are a low-fi, low-tech approach to artistic reproduction, and show up everywhere, from t-shirts, to posters, to sidewalks and alleyways to gallery walls. Certain well-known stencil artists, such as the UK’s Banksy, France’s Jef Aérosol, and the Bay Area’s Scott Williams maintain styles as instantly recognizable as any modern-day painter, and their impact on the art world is no less powerful. Fine arts aside, there’s a purely practical side to stenciling too — as an immediate, low cost alternative to silk screening or photocopying that can be utilized effectively even by a complete beginner.

You Need

  • Cardstock, manila folders or envelopes, wallpaper scraps, sheets of laminate, acetate or transparency film. Resist the temptation to use cardboard as it is difficult to cut cleanly. Old cereal boxes are good though.
  • Tracing paper
  • Pencil (with eraser!)
  • Masking tape
  • Cutting surface
  • Exacto blade
  • An image or design to replicate

How To

1) Lay tracing paper over your image and trace with a pencil.

2) Tape the trace to cardstock. If using laminate or other transparent paper you can skip the tracing paper step and just tape the laminate over the image you want to cut (provided you don’t mind cutting into it).

3) Decide on the part of the image you will cut away. I like to color these areas in on the trace, which helps me to visualize where to add “bridges” (tabs to hold the “islands” of the leftover image together). Text is always a good first stencil project since it’s easy to determine where to put the bridges — the more detailed the image the more of a challenge this step can be.

4) Cut out your image on a cutting board or mat using controlled strokes; use masking tape to repair any accidentally cut-away bridges.

5) Test drive your stencil on leftover paper/cardstock scraps before unleashing it on the general public.

6) Check out more advanced Photoshop and layering techniques on DIY sites such as Instructables and eHow for stencils with a higher level of detail.


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