Multilayer color realistic stenciling isn’t all quick and easy. Sure, you can crank one out in an hour, but it takes time and practice to be able to repeat the process and know how to tweak it for each different stencil.

In this instructable, I will attempt to show you your options…from image sources, to differing outputs, and all in between.

Although this is an attempt at a comprehensive stencil tutorial, this is still my methods, my individual knowledge, and my perspective. So, I’m sure that many others will have input and direction that differs. There are many before me that have done a great job with their instructions, and I thought I should give mine.

This is kind of a struggle for me, because I feel like it is perhaps giving away some of my ‘secrets’, well methods, but still ive spent pleanty of time perfecting my technique and giving it up isn’t that easy, but that’s how we all progress isn’t it?

1 don’t be convinced that everything I say is magic, steps will work differently for
different images, the best way to find out is just to try.
2 if you prefer a different method, that’s great, this is for community learning, no one is
saying these are the best or only methods.
3 feel free to let me know how you feel about these techniques, and how they turn out. I
don’t assume to know it all, and would be grateful to learn from you too.

Let the learning begin!

Step 1: The Plan

First, decide the image that you want to paint. The possibilities are endless so you may need some direction. For me stencils are location specific, so I have to find the right place before I make the stencils. Perhaps you just want to slap them up everywhere, in that case just decide on your imagery. Once you have a subject in mind, you have multiple options.

1- hand draw an image.
2- Find photographs/images online
3- Take your own photos

If you hand draw your image you have to keep in mind how a line drawing translates to a stencil. If you are new to the process I would suggest just finding an image. With thick lines it’s easy to convert a drawing to a one color line image, but I prefer multi layers.

If you CAN take your own images, DO IT! I know it’s easy to just snag one off the web, but come on don’t be lazy. When making art, and I consider stenciling a form of art, its best to use your own source material. You can take the perfect image and have many to choose from, and never worry about copyrights. Digital cameras are more than easy to come by these days anyway.

If for some reason you cant take your own image, for instance you want to stencil a penguin and there doesn’t happen to be a penguin hanging around your house at the time, use the Internet. I prefer a search like ‘Google Images’. Places like this give you the option to search by image size. Pick ‘large images only’ from the dropdown at the top. This will eliminate the possibility (and probability) of you getting images with a resolution lower than you can use. Sometimes you can get away with the ‘medium images’ and even small, but I would search the large first.

Step 2: Compile Your Image If Necessary

This is where it gets tricky to explain. Depending on your image, you may have/want to compile it first. What I mean is, if your image has multiple parts, but you want to stencil them at the same time, you should combine them in Photoshop. For example, the raccoon and the gasmask were different images, but I wanted to use the same colors, therefore I compiled the image in Photoshop with simple cut and paste techniques as well as free transform.

-Side note, if you don’t know Photoshop well, it may seem daunting. It’s not, just spend some time with it, trying out the tools, and you’ll get the hang of it in no time. The best way to learn Photoshop is just to use it.

Step 3: Resize

After you have your image worked out, make sure you know what size it is. If its too small go to the menu bar to- image > image size. This will popup a box which will allow you to change the dimensions of your image. You can wait to do this right before output if you want, it’s a matter of preference, but don’t forget.

Now what you have is a photographic image that you want to convert into layers. Steps from here on will be based on your preference. Every method of conversion that I show you will give drastically different results. Sometimes it’s best to combine these methods.

Step 4: Conversion

The next steps are very important, no matter your method. You want to find a friendly balance between detail, and an image that is realistically able to be cut out. You can only cut so small, and so accurately by hand, yet you want it to still be recognizable. I find myself pushing the detail higher and higher all the time, the more experience you have the more precision you will get, but there are limits. You can only paint so small, so keep that in mind. A good rule for me is to find the simplest point where the image is still convincing, then bump the detail back up a bit just to be safe.

This may be difficult to explain, as well as a bit long winded, but I prefer to use multiple methods to creating my layers. I tend to use a combination of these techniques before I’m satisfied with the result. You are more than welcome to simply apply one of these methods and get right to cutting, but the more you think and plan the better and easier to produce and more readable your stencil will be.

1- The basic conversion in Photoshop, which is also the most popular is the cutout filter.
The cutout filter is located under filter > artistic > cutout. In Photoshop CS2, using any filters will give you a filter popup menu where you can preview the adjustments that you are making. Older versions of Photoshop will give you a simple preview, which will do the same thing, but look different.

Step 5: Cutout Filter Details

In this menu you will be presented with three options
Number of levels
Edge simplicity
Edge fidelity

Number of levels is how the filter converts how many ‘layers’ the image will appear to have

Edge simplicity is how simple the shapes and lines will be

Edge fidelity is how true those shapes will be to the original image.

Adjust all these settings to find the image that you want. This means adjust the number of levels first to create the number of color layers. After this you can use the other two sliders to increase or decrease the details. in this preview window you also have the option to zoom in and out on your image while previewing what all the adjustments are doing. I would suggest making a change to the settings, zooming in to see the detail and complexity, then zooming out to see if the image is still convincing.

This filter will sometimes create strange color areas. for example, you may be creating a stencil of an person and the filter makes one eye black, as it should be, but it interprets the other to be gray. There are two ways of dealing with this. The first is to just let it go and remember what it should be. The other is to step the detail, and levels up and down to eliminate these problems. Another option is to apply the filter to areas of the image separately to get the necessary results in specific locations.

When you have made all your adjustments you will hit ‘ok’ and Photoshop will convert your image. Keep in mind this is, for me at least, only part of the conversion process options.

Step 6: Index Color

The next option (which again can be used alone or in combination with other methods) is changing your image to index color. This is a fast simple way to convert your image to limited color sections.

In Photoshop go to (Image > Mode > Indexed Color). You will be confronted with a popup window with multiple options. The first is ‘Palette’, for simplicity’s sake, ill have you pick ‘local (selective)’ from the dropdown menu. After you figure this method out, feel free to try the others (especially custom). Next choose the number of colors that you want, this is equal to the number of color layers that you want. Under that you can choose to force colors, I tend to force black and white simply because I prefer to stencil with those colors anyway. Make sure the preview box is checked and the ‘Transparency’ box is not. Also, make sure that the dither option dropdown menu is set to ‘none’. At this point I tend to go back and change the number of colors so that I can see how the image looks.

Once you change an image to indexed color, Photoshop will not allow you to apply filters, but you can apply the indexed color mode then go back to Image > Mode > RGB color, and it will then allow you to make filter modifications.

If you think you may combine any of these methods, make sure that you have the same number or more layers, levels, or colors than you will want in your final stencil. You can always reduce detail, but you cannot get it back.

The indexed color along with the cutout can make a very precise and detailed image. It may not be as fast or easy as one filter by its self, but I find more clarity and better imagery when I combine a number of things, and even use them multiple times.

Take note that every process and filter is specific to the image, there is no equation for getting a good stencil layout every time.

Step 7: Brightness and Contrast

The next option is using simple brightness and contrast. TuTu does a great job of explaining this one. Basically in Photoshop, or a comparable program you can adjust the brightness and contrast to where you get a simple black and white image. Hit the contrast up to max, and play with the brightness slider. These are under image> adjustments> brightness/contrast. You can make multiple layers with this method, just make sure that they are different enough from one another.

If needed, make a new image, copy and paste the layers into the new image one by one, and use the magic wand to select then fill them with different colors. You can then overlay and organize the layers to get a preview of what your stencil will look like and what colors go well together.

Step 8: Stamp Filter

So far we have covered

The cutout filter
Indexed color
Brightness and contrast

Next is the stamp filter, the stamp filter (located under filters > sketch > stamp)
This filter works similarly to the brightness and contrast adjustment. Just like the brightness and contrast method, you will have to make the layers individually, then copy and paste them to new documents in order to create each layer. If necessary, copy and paste them into the same new document so that you can preview them compiled.

Like I said before, combining methods may not be the fastest or easiest, but sometimes give you much better results. Sometimes I like to create two color layers with the stamp tool then create a black detail layer from the brightness/contrast adjustments.

Step 9: Transfer

Ok time to transfer digital to reality. Here are some options.

1 – regular 8.5x11 printer > paper/acetate/duralar/cardboard/posterboard
2 – large format printer/plotter > heavy matte paper
3 – 8.5 x 11 transparency and overhead projector > paper/cardboard
4 – digital projector > paper/cardboard

Size sometimes dictates output method, as does cost. So keep these things in mind.

If your image is small or you plan to only paint it once, you can simply use printer paper. Either print out your image one layer at a time, or print your compiled image once for each color layer. (I usually print a couple extra)

If you are printing layers on separate sheets, it’s a good idea to make sure either they line up, or that you create registration marks to ensure good layering. I tend to eyeball register things by picking a spot on the image to use as reference, usually important parts like eyes or words where it is crucial to have registration.

If your image is larger than 8.5x11 inches, you can still use a regular printer and print in sections and tape them together, just make sure that you align everything as well as possible, or your layers wont line up right. If you haven’t, check out the rasterbator online. It will rasterize smaller images and collate them so that you can print large images using multiple sheets of paper

For smaller stencils, I prefer to print on a regular printer then tape the printout to the back of a sheet of acetate. You can use mylar or duralar to get simlar results, but I find that acetate is better because it has less tendency to tear and crease. Plastics are a good choice because they tend to cut easily and accurately, don’t fray edges, and hold up forever. You can paint countless stencils with one sheet of acetate as long as you let it dry between uses. Images of duralar and acetate and taping to the back

If you are transferring to carboard or posterboard, you will need to tape the image on the front and just cut through it. You can trace it onto the board, but that just takes more time, I prefer to just cut right through the paper and board at the same time. If you have a more complicated stencil you may want to use spray adhesive to hold the paper down instead of tape.

If you have access to a large format printer, lucky you. I was at a university for a few years that had a few, and the cost was more than reasonable so I took full advantage. The heavier paper that is used in the plotters and printers usually holds up to spraypaint well and is reusable. In this situation, simply print out your images actual size, with enough room between images to prevent overspray, and get right to cutting.

OVERHEAD PROJECTOR – overhead and opaque projectors are a lot cheaper these days, and a lot easier to get ahold of.

Ive definitely used this method a few times to save a lot of printer ink and money. Take your image and reduce it so that you can fit it on an 8.5x11 printable transparency (laser or inkjet, make sure you get the right kind). For this, you want to make sure that your color layers are in high enough contrast to be differentiated because the light from the overhead will tend to blow out your detail if you aren’t careful. Also find a dark area, you may think it looks ok with the lights on, but you will miss detail. Now, position the projector somewhere where it WILL NOT MOVE. You don’t want it shifting in the middle of the transfer. From here, its your call, but I like to tape either thin cardboard or thick paper, (brown paper on the roll works ok) to the wall and simply trace with a marker. Its harder to register larger pieces, so if you are into registration marks do it here, or cut all your paper the exact same size and register according to the corners of the paper.

Same process as the overhead, but if you have access to one of these bad boys, then you don’t have to print out and project, just hook it right up to the computer and get to tracing.

Step 10: Cutting Time

Now its time to cut… BUT, don’t jump into it without your brain and your foresight. Remember, the computer decided what the templates will look like, but you have the final say in the finished product.
Knife and cutting board 1976
Things to think about BEFORE cutting.

sometimes you create the template with too much detail, this may mean its too hard to cut, paint, or perhaps its just overkill.

‘islands’ or ‘floaters’ are sections that wouldn’t be connected if you cut out exactly where the template says to cut. These are the places that require the most visualization. You need to connect the islands with bridges to parts of the stencil that will remain intact. Depending on your material you may be able to get away with one bridge, if you are using paper youll probably need at least 2.

if you are creating bridging lines or you have colors that meet up exactly in the same place, youll want to take some time deciding on overlap. If you can create a bridge in an area that will be covered by the next layer, that would be ideal. Sometimes you don’t have that option, but you still have to make decisions based on the finished stencil, not just the layer that you are working on. If you have colors that boarder each other exactly you should create some overlap, (if you didn’t do this in your templates) the guide is to paint the lighter colors first and overlap the darker colors on top. For example if you have an underlayer of gray and a final layer of black, you can paint the entire underlayer solid and simply paint the black over it. Instead of painting the gray layer with gaps where the black would be, then fitting the black exactly into those gaps.

Step 11: Painting

Ok cut layers will look something like this.

Number them or make notes to remember what color they are to be and when to paint them.

Output is up to you. You can paint on paper (to keep or wheat paste). You can paint panels, walls, on the street, wherever.

When I stencil I tend to, more often than not, use spray adhesive. Make sure you test the brands out. I prefer elmers regular, not heavy duty. You need to find something that holds the stencil down (or against the wall) well, but will not pull up existing painted layers, or leave residue. Its all preference and timing. If you wait for the underlying layer to dry, the adhesive can be stronger. If you don’t want to wait, use something lighter.

Spray adhesive eliminates underspray, if you are painting inside you can use the penny method or just hold it, but if you are in the elements outdoors, id recommend at least a light layer of adhesive, especially on the last layer of detail.

If you are painting with a stencil that has a small amount of boarder, you will most likely get overspray, this is when the paint shows around the shape of the stencil plate. So you would end up with a stencil that has a boarder around it and a ghost outline of the shape of the plate. Be careful about overspray and underspray both. If you need to, use a plate that has more of a boarder, or attatch sheets of paper around the edge when you finish cutting, to eliminate overspray.

Now do it. Paint away. Make sure you wait long enough between layers to let both the stencil plate and the painted image dry. This will allow you to use the plate more often, and keep your image clean that you painted. I find that most flat paints dry faster than gloss. Some paints will bleed or crack on top of others, and some will actually seep through plain printer paper. Just test your paint first and you wont have any problems. I find colors and brands that I like and stay with them, they are predictable.

Step 12: Other Options

Your last option here is to not spray paint, but roll on the paint. This is what I do to make shirts and paint on cloth. You can use a hand cut stencil and a little spray adhesive to apply silkscreen ink to cloth for a permanent image that wont fade and doesn�t get stiff like spraying.

Just apply the adhesive to the back of the stencil and stick it to the cloth. Make sure there are no wrinkles. Use a small sponge roller to apply silkscreen ink from the middle out, make sure to not lift any of the parts of the stencil with the roller. Dry it with a hairdryer, this will also heatset it. Then register and apply the other layers. Its easier and sometimes faster than silkscreening, with way less equipment. And if you want a one time use stencil, just print it out and cut straight from the paper. Silkscreen ink wont bleed through paper, and can be mixed to get any color you could dream of.

So now you have a stencil on the street, a panel, a paper, a paste up, a tee-shirt, or somewhere.


(i added some images of a painted bunny, a silkscreen inked mammoth, and a paste-up virgin rambo and child.)
Fantastic work, very impressive.
Thanks - this is probably the best guide to the 'photoshop' process I've read. - The indexing of the colour was a new idea on me and has proved very useful with a tricky stencil I've been working on - thanks for sharing :-)
Bansky...is that you? thanks for the tips.
dude i have tried for ages to get this kind of stuff to work thanks
the same thing can be done with more control in illustrator using the live trace function [under object menu]. and you can output the separations from ill as well. but you can take the different colours you want, put them on different layers and create traps for underlying colours, and give each separation a reg mark, so one doesn't have to worry about drift. this is a shorthand technique from making graphix for t's, but it works the same for stencils. cheers!
Wow, amazing job at revealing some fantastic techniques. These are very nice, I only wish I had photoshop, but most of these techniques can be used in other programs too with slight variations. I'm glad you also made steps 9-12, and went beyond just the program.
thanks, yea the program is just another tool. there are many you can use, and eventually you can do stencils with the same realism without the computer if you want. it is just the easiest form of translation.
neat process! why are you worried about secrecy? are you doing this professionally? even if you are, publishing is a good way to become a known expert in something.
thanks. im not really worried, i guess its just normal when youve spent a while working on something to be reserved about giving it away. but honestly im more than happy to explain everything i do, community is invaluable.

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