Technique Tuesdays: 10 Tips for Stenciling

Stenciling is a key technique in a mixed-media arsenal because they’re so incredibly versatile. Artists never have to settle for a cookie cutter look, thanks to the huge array of gorgeous designs and mediums that can be used with them, including acrylic paint, watercolor, pencils, resists, bleach, and inks. These 10 tips for stenciling are geared to up your stencil game and ensure maximum fun and creativity.

1. Layer it on. Combining stencil designs, spray paint, and encaustic wax creates layered artwork that truly pops. In her article “Adventures in Encaustic Collage and Spray Paint,” in the January/Feburary 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, Lisa Thorpe says adding spray-paint patterns made with stencils to encaustic collage art enhances the depth of the piece. After coating wood panels with a layer of gesso, she glues on a strip of decorative paper. Next, she creates a bold pattern with vivid shades of spray paint and stencils, building up the layers. To that Lisa adds more paper and washi tape, then a coat of encaustic wax. On top of that goes lightweight tissue or rice papers, then—yes—more patterning with stencils if desired. The effect is stunning, drawing the eye in and around the piece.

Encaustic wax and stenciling by Lisa Thorpe

Combining stencil designs with collage and encaustic wax produces a beautiful layered look. (Art and photo by Lisa Thorpe)

2. Make your mark. To give stencil designs a painterly look, Margaret Peot recommends using Derwent Inktense Blocks. In her book Stencil Craft: Techniques for Fashion, Art & Home, she notes that these pigment-rich blocks of vibrant color are water-soluble, but waterproof once dry. “The very rough and active mark of these blocks looks great when used with a stencil,” she writes. “The stencil gives the rather granular mark a neat edge, and the texture gives the stencil a new life.” Margaret adds that if used on fabric, the blocks do not need to be heat set, and they hold up well to washings.

3. Burn, baby, burn. Leave it to Mary Beth Shaw, founder of StencilGirl Products, to discover that using a wood-burning tool with stencils is a recipe for artistic excellence. In her book Stencil Girl: Mixed-Media Techniques for Making and Using Stencils, she notes that the wood burning gives stencil designs a lovely rustic look. To start, trace a design onto a wood panel, and go over the traced outline with a wood-burning tool (remove the stencil before using the tool, or the stencil will melt). The design can be colored with watered-down fluid acrylic paint applied with a damp paper towel, which gives the appearance of a stain. Add details with a Derwent Inktense pencil in black.

Wood burning with stencils from Stencil Girl by Mary Beth Shaw

A stencil was used as a template to create this stunning wood burned design by Mary Beth Shaw. (Photo by Christine Polomsky)

4. Get in shape. Stencils make great jumping-off points for doodling. In the Winter 2016 issue of Zen Doodle Workshop magazine, Susan Ste. Marie starts her doodle designs with a bold stencil; in this case, a scallop shell was her inspiration shape. She uses the segments of the stencil as areas to doodle in, then divides those into even smaller areas. Using fine pens and markers she creates her patterns, adding emphasis to the black-and-white designs by filling in some areas, and shading others. Here’s another tip: Let the stencil design influence your doodle patterns. Susan used the scallop shell to create organic patterns that referenced the beach, such as waves, fish, and bubbles.

Doodled stencil design by Susan Ste. Marie

Stencils make great templates for doodling. (Art by Susan Ste. Marie, photo by Sharon White Photography)

5. To the letter. Pam Garrison saw potential in the outline borders of large sticker letters, turning those into stencil shapes that she embellished with color, plus her own doodles and drawings. In Lettering Lesson Volume 5: Lettering Jump Starts, she carefully removed the outline borders from the sticker backing sheet, and adhered them to cardstock. Next, she filled in the letters with color and a variety of designs, using markers. From there Pam added marks, doodles and drawings, staying with a defined color palette, and then removed the stencil border. Repeating some elements lends a cohesive look to the lettering.

Lettering by Pam Garrison

Letter sticker borders, which normally get thrown out, become stencils for doodled and drawn letters. (Art and photo by Pam Garrison)

6. Found out. The bounty of stencil designs isn’t limited to pre-made plastic or metal stencils. In Stencil Craft, Margaret Peot creates artwork using found items, such as leaves, keys, coins, mesh bags, and hardware. Experiment with various items along with different color mediums and tools to see what effects you can achieve. She suggests trying brushing and sponging on paint, and spraying on color. For even more depth, layer lace over found items, then use a spray color to create more complex patterns.

Using found items as stencils from Stencil Craft by Margaret Peot

Stenciling with with found objects, such as leaves and netting, produces unique results. (Photo by Christine Polomsky)

7. Customize it. Creating your own stencils with basic tools is easy. Draw a design onto cardstock and cut it out with a craft knife, or, for more sturdiness, use a sheet of mylar and a stencil-cutting tool. In the March/April 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, Cas Holmes created a stencil by drawing a poppy with a waterproof pen on a piece of plastic sheeting, then carefully cutting out the image with a craft knife on a cutting mat before painting the image. Using this technique you can stencil on fabric, paper, wood, or canvas for a custom look. To further embellish the design on paper or fabric, stitch around the design by hand or machine.

Custom stencil with collage by Cas Holmes

A handmade stencil becomes a custom element in collage. (Art and photo by Cas Holmes)

8. Rise above. Stencils are handy for creating more than 2-D artwork; make dimensional embellishments that add texture and interest to mixed-media art. Darlene Olivia McElroy and Sandra Duran Wilson show how in their book Alternative Art Surfaces. The process is super easy: Start by stenciling fiber paste (available at art supply stores) onto a sheet of polypropylene plastic, and allow it to dry. Next, peel the fiber paste elements from the plastic and glue them onto your substrate. The fiber paste can be painted when dry, or colored with paint before stenciling, or painted when dry.

Stencils with fiber paste from Alternative Art Surfaces

Textured stencil designs on this piece were created with stencils and fiber paste.

9. Book it. Make distinctive handmade book covers using stencils, paint, and sturdy paper. Andrew Borloz showed how stencils and color combine to create unique patterns in “Creating a Stenciled Pattern Book” in the January/February 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. His tip for success in making books with stenciled covers and book cloth spines: Create a color chart to help you choose the best color combinations. If stenciling on colored paper, cut small pieces of paper and stencil on them with paint to see how the colors look before committing to them. To create crisp patterns on paper, Andrew recommends pouring acrylic paint onto a palette, and lightly dabbing a cosmetic wedge into the paint—the sponge should be moist, not wet. Then, carefully and lightly dab the paint onto the stencil, being careful not to push down too hard, which may cause the paint to bleed under the stencil design. Use several colors to create a distinctive ombre effect.

Book cover stenciling by Andrew Borloz

Stenciling with different colors of paint creates an ombre effect. (Art by Andrew Borloz, photo by Sharon White Photography)

10. Focus on the focal. A stencil doesn’t just have to create a design—it can be the design. Take, for example, the tunnel book created by Sarinda Jones in the article “Art on the Cellular Level” in the Winter 2014 issue of Pages magazine. In it, she uses hand-cut designs sandwiched between pieces of cardstock to form the pages of the book. She first cut 10 5″ x 5″ pieces of black cardstock, then drew and cut out circles in the middle of each one. She then drew an abstract pattern stencil design with pencil onto circle-shaped colored cardstock, and cut it out. The cut circles were sandwiched in between two black cardstock pages and glued, and the pages were bound into a spiral book. The result: a dramatic dimensional effect created by the stencil cutouts.

Art book by Sarinda Jones

Stencils become the pages and the focus of this art book. (Art by Sarinda Jones, photo by Sharon White Photography)

I hope you’re excited about exploring the artistic possibilities with stencils. If so, check out our resources below from North Light Shop!

Alternative Art Surfaces by Darlene Olivia McElroy and Sandra Duran Wilson

In Alternative Art Surfaces by Darlene Olivia McElroy and Sandra Duran Wilson, discover what you can do with stenciling.

Stencil Girl by Mary Beth Shaw

Expand your stenciling repertoire with the techniques and ideas in Stencil Girl by Mary Beth Shaw.

March/April 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors

See how Cas Holmes creates a stencil to suit the theme of her collage in the March/April 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors.

Art Journaling Live

See stenciling techniques created in real time in both of these Art Journaling Live videos.

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