Stencil art is one of humanity’s oldest creative forms. Some of our species’ first artists used stencil art techniques when they placed their hands on cave walls and blew ground minerals over them, coating the rock in blooms of red or black pigment and leaving behind their ghostly palmprints.
Fast-forward some 30,000 years and stencil art techniques remain essentially unchanged. Using a sheet of cardboard, plastic, or metal with a pattern or letters cut out is surprisingly versatile, allowing craftspeople to color cloth, illustrate manuscripts, print t-shirts, and create some fantastic street art.
Let’s take a quick look at this rich history. And once you’ve gotten a bit of inspiration, we’ll share some common stencil art techniques and show you how to create stencil art of your own.
“You Leave a Part of Yourself”: Blek Le Rat, Banksy, and the Modern Stencil Art Masters
Though they’d long been used for official labelling by government, military, and industrial groups, stencils first met street art in the 1970’s. Multidisciplinary artist John Fekner set the tone when he used cardboard graffiti stencils and spray paint to create what he called “word-signs” -- conceptual graffiti art pieces that employed letters, symbols, dates, and icons to explore social and environmental issues.
Following in his footsteps in the 1980’s was Blek le Rat, now considered the “father of stencil graffiti.” Inspired by the pioneers of 1960’s and 70’s graffiti, but eager to offer a unique take on the burgeoning form, Blek le Rat learned how to create stencil art, which he claims has allowed him to spray “tens of thousands, maybe a hundred thousand” images in the streets of his native Paris.
Blek le Rat’s work touches on social justice issues with empathy and a dash of humor, and, as his name implies, he’s most famous for his portraits of rats, which he’s described as “the only free animals in the city” (humans included). His stencil art techniques and themes have had an enormous influence on contemporary street artists like Vhils and C215, but Blek le Rat’s most notable successor is the now-legendary Banksy.
Though volumes have been filled with this Bristol native’s impish exploits, Banksy’s significance is still hard to overstate. He’s produced some of the most iconic works of modern stencil art, including the famous Girl with Balloon, Kissing Coppers, and Rage, the Flower Thrower, directed an Oscar-nominated documentary, and rigged a painting to self-destruct at auction. Hard to believe it all started with graffiti stencils and black spray paint.
Other stencil art legends include fellow Bristol native Nick Walker, best known for his gentleman vandal character -- a covert spray can artist clad in a bowler hat and striped suit. Meanwhile, stateside, there’s Shepard Fairey, whose enigmatic “OBEY” imagery and iconic presidential portrait have propelled him to international notoriety, and Logan Hicks, a master of intricate, multi-layered, hyperrealist stencil art.
Take a quick look at the work of these stencil street art legends and you’ll understand stencil art’s enduring appeal. As Blek le Rat tells us: “Go once in the street with a spray can. Spray your signature. Then go back the day after to see. I’m sure you’ll go back. Because when you leave something in the street, you leave a part of yourself.”
How to Create Stencil Art: The Basics
Now that you’ve seen the work of some stencil art legends, we bet you’re eager to try it for yourself. And you’re in luck: with a little practice, you can learn basic stencil art techniques and get started quickly.
Create A Stencil Art Design
First, you’ll need an image to work with. You can use something you’ve drawn, choose a photo or pre-existing artwork to adapt as stencil art, or combine elements of all three.
Whatever you choose, make sure your design can be rendered in two-tone black and white without losing too much detail. Typography, icons, bold, comic-style illustrations, and high-contrast photos all work well when you’re first learning how to create stencil art.
You can ink your image by hand or use a program like Photoshop to adjust its brightness and contrast until you’ve got something that’s both “readable” and stylish. If you’re planning to make spray can art on a wall, most people will only get a glimpse of your work from a distance, so it helps to make it pop with bold shadows and crisp lines.
Keep in mind that your stencil can only be so detailed. Even if you’re a utility knife wizard, you’ll have trouble cutting extremely tiny lines (a half-millimeter is too small) and, more importantly, such detail will make it harder for your paint to pass through to the wall.
As you create your stencil pattern, be sure to plan for any necessary “bridges” in the artwork. You need to make sure there aren’t any lonely “islands” of blank stencil material, otherwise you may accidentally cut away important design elements.
If, for example, your piece includes the letter “O”, you’ll have to leave some blank space in your design to ensure the middle part of the letter doesn’t fall out when you cut your stencil. Think of it like this: if the black part of the “O” was water, and the white background was land, you’d need a bridge on either side to cross, which would make the “O” look more like a set of parentheses. Check out a stencil art diagram and you’ll see what we mean.
If these bridges don’t fit your style, you can always “mend” them with touch-up paint after you’ve sprayed the wall.
Stencil Art Materials Needed
You have a lot of choices when it comes to the material you use for your stencil, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Foamcore and cardboard are cheap, but more difficult to cut, which could lead to tearing or to fuzzy edges when spraying. Bases like laminated paper cut more cleanly, allowing for greater detail, but can also be flimsy, which could be a real problem if you’re working outdoors. Paper stencils are easy to cut, but can only be used once, while stiffer materials can be reused.
Ultimately, you’ll have to experiment and see what works best for you in terms of cost, labor, and end result.
Regardless, the basic stencil-making process is the same. Tape your pattern onto your selected material or glue with adhesive and begin cutting. It’s not a requirement, but if you can see yourself making stencil art for awhile, consider investing in a self-healing cutting mat to keep things from slipping and protect your surfaces.
Cutting & Spraying Your Stencil Art Design
Some consider cutting to be the most tedious part of making stencil art, while others see it as the most compelling and challenging aspect. But there’s one thing all stencil artists agree on: never use a dull blade! X-Acto blades are powerful and reliable, but they don’t last forever. You should cut out the most detailed parts of your stencil first, as your blade will be sharpest then, and your stencil will only get flimsier with each piece of material that’s removed.
Tu, in their terrific Instructable guide on how to create stencil art, makes it simple: “Be prissy about your blades -- they’re cheap to replace and make all the difference in terms of the precision of your cuts, and in turn the level of detail you can render in your stencils.”
Now for the best part: spraying your stencil onto the wall. It may sound simple (just attach to the wall and spray), but here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Aim for steady movement and even coverage to avoid dripping (unless that’s an effect you’d like to try out). You don’t want to follow any funny path or try to trace your stencil. Position your nozzle about 9” away from your stencil, hold your can at about a 90-degree angle, and spray in short strokes in a single direction, without “doubling back” over parts you’ve already coated.
If you can spare 10 minutes to allow your stencil to dry, you’re less likely to end up with smeared edges, but if you’re in a rush (no judgements), 30 seconds should be good enough.
If basic one-color designs are too simple for you, you can experiment with advanced stencil art techniques like color layering, using overlays to add texture, using found objects, and working with multiple colors on the same stencil. It’s just such a rich and versatile form.
Take it from veteran stencil artist cutanddestroy: “I have made several life-long friends simply because we share a passion for cutting tiny holes in paper,” he says. “I will still continue to cut, for both my love of the artform, as well as the peace I get when I put on my headphones and get lost in cutting. For me there is no greater relaxation.”
Ready to try your hand at stencil art? Or maybe you’re already a budding spray can artist? Share your IG handle in the comments!