Picture of Creating Complex Spraypaint Stencils by Hand
These instructions cover each step in creating complex multi-layer stencils from any source image. There are numerous great stencil tutorials on the web and here on instructables, and there's no right way to make a stencil. I've been working with stencils for many years now, have tried about every trick out there, and have arrived at a technique that really works for me, and I walk you through it in great detail in these instructions. The technique described here involves a lot more pre-planning and finesse, so it's probably not best for an artist looking to just bust something out quickly, but if you're looking to push your stencil technique to the next level I'm hoping it will help you out. This tutorial covers creating the template, various media and methods for cutting it out, and painting tips useful in the studio and on the street. Enjoy!

Step 1: Plan it Out.

Picture of Plan it Out.
The key to a good stencil is good planning, so if you're careful about the early steps the later ones will be a snap. To begin with, select (or draw) a source image. The key question you need to ask yourself here is how many colors you want to work with and what size. How many colors will determine how many stencil plates your image will require. Size is important because even the best artist can only reproduce a certain level of detail, and you need to think about how far you can reduce your image and still have it "read," or make it clear what it is. If your image in intricate but your stencil will be huge, you're in business. If your stencil will be small though, you need to select an image carefully. Also keep in mind that if you're working in a less controlled environment, such as outdoors where you might be dealing with uneven surfaces or working very fast, you might want to limit the fine detail in your stencil.

When choosing a source image, you want to make sure it will work as a stencil. For example, a very overexposed or washed out image won't work very well, because you're missing the details that make it recognizable. With certain subject matter there are certain details that make of break the piece (for example, with people, the eyes are what gives life to the image, with buildings it's the rooflines that define the form, and so forth). Think it out in advance as much as you can, and don't be scared to work with bits and pieces of multiple images to get exactly what you want. For example, let's say you want a stencil of George Bush bending over, and you don't want to draw it freehand. Well, you're never going to find a picture of that to work from, but you sure can take a picture of a friend in a suit and stick George's head onto it in Photoshop. Or see what you can do freehand. Remember, stencils are a form of illustration. Don't marry yourself to the photo.
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CJpaint2 months ago

old cearal boxes are good to

dorika103 months ago

Hi, I am just about to start with stencils. I cannot think of any question you did not cover. Thanks a lot. :) Dorika

djohn24 months ago

I'm showing my age but the building is the album cover of a certain Led Zep album... Guess which one ;-)

seaia135 months ago

Hi. This is a great tutorial, but I've got a question: One of my stencils has large areas without bridges, and parts of those areas tend to fly up when I spray. Do you think I should try spray adhesive? (I'm experimenting with surfaces--the final product will be a paper poster of some sort.)

andretti9 months ago
cool explanations, I found it very helpful
Great tutorial! Really well written. Thank you so much!
Anthrobodmod10 months ago

Im having trouble with the alignment guide concept and execution. Every time i've tried it for a multi layer stencil I haven't been able to get as clean as a look as I wanted. Can you offer any tips or advice on for this?

Thanks in advance and thank you for making this instructable. Its been immensely helpful for me.

The stencil always starts to curl up after I spray it, making it difficult to preserve. Any tips?

Use better stencil material. For the long term I use OilBoard. I also use posterboard that has the slick coating on one side, then it does not absorb liquid that makes it curl up. If you want to spend the bigger bucks, find some stencil paper from the art store or run a coat of house paint over your stencil after you make it, makes it more durable.

Reverey1 year ago
Do you have a recommendation for what kind of airbrush to use? Brand and / or model?
LewisOne Reverey11 months ago

Old School Krylon spray paint works best, lol.

Fenwick8 years ago
i'm glad this wasn't another image-to-stencil tutorial. Good read. I need to get some X-acto knives. What are some good places to practice stenciling? My school has a rock that you can paint, but it has no flat surfaces.
fluid Fenwick8 years ago
Fenwick.... all you need is a sheet of plywood. 4' x 8' is more than eonugh area to practice on. Plus it's 2 sided. When you run out of space, just repaint it. I'm working on a huge stencil that is going to wrap around the corner of a wall (if I can work it out well enough) And incase you didn't already know.... Banksy is the KING! check him out (I DO NOT condone illegal graffiti or tagging)
Patrixia fluid1 year ago

Good stenciling is street art and very worthy. (Yes, Banksy is AMAZING, mostly for his clever visual commentary and sheer ballz!) We have a phone switch-box in our neighborhood that kept getting regularly "tagged" by gang symbols and wannabes. I "decorated" the box with simple designs of local flora (palm and fern leaves). The tagging stopped. It was 8 yrs before anyone else tagged the box again. Another one is going on 10 yrs now, with my "artwork" still there unscathed!

tedmaul Fenwick8 years ago
cardboard boxes retrieved from bins (dumpsters) are good for practice sprays, look in the bins behind your local shopping areas. I get all my cardboard out of garbage dumpsters, I take a craft knife with me & cut them up into sheets.
JuCo tedmaul7 years ago
yup, yup... that's what i use for "canvases" for my paintings. it's a great way for me to avoid the guilt of sucking at it. :P
id say a wall would be a good place but the exact location really depends on what your stenciling
Patrixia1 year ago

For those who use spray mount and want to "de-tacky" the stencil for storing or moving, use baby powder. It also works for de-tacking paint if it doesn't want to dry completely. Make a little "pounce bag" out of an old sock; cut off the end, add baby powder, tie up with a rubber band. Pat the surface. The powder essentially disappears and makes the surface not sticky.

apollard62 years ago
have you considered using lighting gel as a stencil?

its flexible, easy to cut and will keep its shape, and depending on the colour see through, and probably re-usable. The best brand would be Rosco as its thicker than the more popular Lee gels.

I haven't tested it myself but I think might be a good alternative to laminating.
For small stencils I have had success with overhead transparency film, it can be sprayed with a Basting Spray for quilting to make the back tacky.
pbarb2 years ago
i've always chosen stenciling for my projects, the beauty of clustered blobs to form a clear picture just gets me...appreciate the suggestions for cleaner work, i normally do large projects, any suggestions for large scale stenciling as mural work?
This is awesome! Thanks so much! I cannot wait to try this out!
trishoolin3 years ago
this is the best how-to out there! Exactly what I needed to know and the pictures help too!

Thanks a lot!
Hi, I loved your Instructable and I want to start getting into it. I see it has been up for a number of years and I am still hoping you could give me some advice. I saw another stencil artist who goes by C215 and he does some really fine detail. Not that I could ever compare myself to him or anyone but how do you think he does it? I am pretty sure he cuts directly over a photograph but does not admit to it. Someone said he uses regular poster board but somehow i doubt it as his work is highly detailed. Your work is excellent to by the way and I was hoping you could give me some advice. Thanks, hope to hear from you. :)
zurkuhlenm4 years ago
for smaller ones i've found that manilla envelopes/folders work really well. they cut easily and hold a pretty surprising amount of detail and are easy to get a hold of cheaply. for the drawing of the cutting guide I skip the photo editing software entirely: i tape the material to be cut (manilla envelope) to the wall and use a mini photo projector to shoot the image up there and draw it by hand. Photo projector is made by sunpak i believe and cost around $80
alpal4 years ago
Great stuff, should have said thanks long ago.
good bad ugly.JPG
corsairgryl4 years ago
Really great and through 'ible, one of the best I found! I have some airbrushing experience but as others pointed out you brought up points I never considered and will help immensely, thank you
can someone please help me get a little information on where to go to make a stencil. i have an image that i want to be turned into a stencil. I live in seattle washington and im having trouble finding a place to do this for me.



just email me if you know of a place
Thank you, great instructions, i am about to get stuck into some stenciis and you gave me a good grounding. My background is mainly pastel/charcoal/ printmaking.
Sound, sensible advice. I might avoid the cans (toxicity, I have kids around) so I might invest in a spray gun(compressed air) and experiment. Many years ago I did airbrush work with friskets, but I found getting the right consistency difficult, and water was always a problem.
I am in the process of working on some projects for clothing and shoes and am going to do stencils to paint and bleach the designs in.

I'm an artist, so I have a design eye for design, and am a Photoshop pro, but there are prep and design details I don't even know to consider. So this was enlightening and I got some good pointers. So thank you!
hes modest too
hey dude... tell me how to print the photo on card board for cutting purpose...
Print on regular printer paper and use spray on adhesive to attach it to the cardboard. Don't use corrugated! Use something flat like a cereal box, or poster board! Also, photo paper holds up quite nicely and you can print directly to it!
transparency (or acetate or whatever) is also really good.
donsknotts5 years ago
im guessing the cracking is due to the "certain" colors' ability to absorb heat from light, but then again i have yet to stencil...
no, its that krylon is just the cheapest manufactured paint on earth just use rustoleum flat black or even quick color flat black its 97 cents a can and is decent
toasty875 years ago
Thank you for such an advanced instructable, I have just gotten into stenciling and this has been a huge help!
jaydubs5 years ago
great instructable. I've just gotten into this art form and have found it not too easy to find good info on how to do it. You've got great tips. thanks again!
Toddson6 years ago
thanks, i'm gonna use this for my art project
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