I love layering stencils to create mixed-media art—there’s something about the look that always makes me linger over it. When I first saw art journal pages that featured layered stencils, I wondered what alchemy happened to create such beautiful complexity.
Luckily there’s no magic, just a lot of fun and play with stencils and paint. Layering stencils is easy, as long as you leave yourself open to trying new things without worrying that you’ll ruin anything. Because you won’t. It’s not possible.
These holiday cards started as one big layered design on a 12″ x 18″ sheet of cold-press watercolor paper. This technique can be used for art journal pages, of course, but seeing as we’re thisclose to the holidays and some people (I’m not saying who) might need to make some quick cards, I thought this would be a fun way to do it.
I started by priming three sheets the paper with thick gesso (If you’re going to work on one sheet, you might as well work on three). As Dina Wakley often reminds us, gesso is like primer for your pages. Since we’ll be subtracting as well as adding paint to the paper, I highly recommend not skipping this step. I used DecoArt Media Gesso in white, which is nice and thick, providing a great base coat for the paint layers.
Next, I chose a palette of tube acrylic paints to work with. I find that keeping your colors in check is a good way of not only streamlining your process, but also taking some of the anxiety out of wondering what colors to add. This palette was simple—pink and green, my favorite colors for the holidays. I used light and dark values of pink and red (crimson and neon pink), green (light green, sap green, and phthalo green), plus titanium white, ivory black, and DecoArt Media Translucent White.
After the gesso layer dried I scraped on splotches of light pink and green paint with an old gift card. If you wait for the paint to dry you can overlap complementary colors without getting mud, and acrylic paint dries pretty quickly.
Then I placed a stencil over some of the paint swatches and removed the paint through the stencil, using a baby wipe.
It’s easiest to do this when the paint is still damp, but if your gesso layer is solid, you can also do it when the paint is dry. You may not be able to take as much paint off, but even rubbing off a little bit can result in a really cool effect. Here’s where you’ll be thankful you added the gesso layer. Without it, you’ll damage the paper as you start to rub the fibers off.
I added another stencil layer in a darker pink with a sponge, painting the motif in a few spots and making sure to go over the previous layer, to start to build some depth. Also, make sure you go off the paper to create an overall design; otherwise it looks like the motifs were squished onto the paper. I also added some shading. When the first layer dried, I mixed some ivory black in with the original color and sponged it on in the lower part of the design.
Here’s the palette I used—as you can see, I built on the original colors to make sure that the colors worked together.
Time for another stencil layer; this one is simple dots done in a mid-tone green. I also used the stencil to remove some of the paint again, creating more dimension.
Next I used a mask and an even darker shade of green. I didn’t worry too much about how messy the paint looked around the image, since I knew I’d be layering stencils over it.
I stenciled the mask two more times, then added more of the original leaf design in a very dark pink, and used that stencil and a baby wipe to again remove paint in some areas. Layering stencils is all about the push and pull of color, value and pattern; I worked on this page in one stretch of time, but if you’re not sure about where to go next, come back in about an hour or so and look again. Or, take a photo—this gives you a more objective view of the piece, and you can often see immediately what it needs. Don’t be afraid to include very dark values—this adds an incredible amount of depth and interest to a piece. If you feel you’ve added too much you can always lighten it. The times I’ve pushed myself to add dark values I’ve never regretted it.
After working with deeper colors I wanted to put a little bit of light back in, but not too much, so I added an abstract stencil design in a few areas with Translucent White, which gave an almost 3-D effect. As I worked with each layer I tried not to overthink the process, and that freed me up to just go for it. You can always add another layer if you really don’t like something, or use gesso to cover it up.
I thought the piece needed some detail, so I doodled in a few areas with a white gel pen.
The piece also needed a touch of bling—it’s the holidays, after all! I used transfer foil in gold to add some high shine. To do this, I first brushed on some heavy matte gel medium with a stiff bristle brush. I was going for a sketchy look to complement the abstract design.
When the gel went from wet to tacky I pressed on some Therm O Web iCraft Deco Foil in gold and burnished it with the end of the paintbrush.
Here comes the big reveal….ta-da! Is there seriously anything better than metallic foils? The wow factor is off the charts, and it’s incredibly easy to do.
Here’s the finished full sheet:
I cut up the finished sheet to make holiday cards and tags, and added some machine stitching to incorporate one more texture element. This is a great way to get a lot of cards done in a short amount of time, and you can add stamping or embellishments. Here’s one more card:
There’s so much to explore with layering stencils; I’ve gathered a few of my favorite resources below, and I hope you’ll check them out!