Introduction: Stencil Graffiti Art With the Silhouette

Inspired by the graffiti style art of Shepard Fairey, this instructable uses the Silhouette Portrait to illustrate the process of creating detailed stencil portraits. In the instruction below, you'll find the steps to of transforming a digital photograph into a stencil and then using the stencil as a basis for spray paint graffiti-style pop art.


  • Digital Image
  • GIMP (software)
  • Silhouette Studio (software)
  • Silhouette Portrait (hardware)
  • Spray Mount
  • Spray Paint
  • Painter's Masking Tape
  • Cardstock
  • Mat board, Poster Board, or Other Surface (for finished stencil application)

The graffiti style stencil art project was created at the Tech Valley Center of Gravity using a Silhoutted Portrait provided by the Instructables Build Night program.

Further inspiration for this project came from Turn a Photo in a Stencil.

Step 1: Locate and Prepare Your Image in GIMP

First, find a digital photograph that you'd like to see turn into pop art. For a portrait, you'll want a good facial expression, the ability to separate the individual from the background, and contrast. I used the previously noted instructable Turn a Photo into a Stencil as the starting point for my transformation of the image.

  1. Open the image in GIMP.
  2. Posterize. From the navigation menu in GIMP, select Image>Adjustments>Posterize
    Posterize 10 is a good starting point but adjust for contrast as needed.

  3. Adjust the Threshold. From he navigation menu in GIMP, select Image>Adjustments>Threshold.
    A threshold level of around 100 should give you an image that has separated into black & white. You want to retain some detail and the Silhouette will handle cutting out fine lines but you don't want significant "islands" or "noise" in the image where there are small, disconnected areas.

  4. Optional advanced clean-up step. For stencil pros or those working with complex images that have a lot of "islands" and "noise", you may want to manually clean up the image by using the eraser tool to delete unwanted pixels. Increase the zoom level of the image to a pixel level of the image for detailed work.
  5. Blur. From the navigation menu in GIMP, select Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur
    Start with a 4 pixel radius and adjust as needed. Look for evenly blurred edges

  6. Save/Export. From the navigation menu in GIMP, select File>Export As and save the file as a .png.
    Multiple file types are supported by the Silhouette but for those needing guidance, I suggest a .png.

Step 2: Insert Your Image Into a Silhouette Canvas

The Silhouette Studio is used create designs for cutting on the Silhouette Portrait. When the Silhouette Studio launches, a blank canvas is automatically created. The steps below will bring open your newly stencil ready image in Silhouette Studio.

  1. Open image. From the Silhouette Studio navigation bar, select Open and open the .png image modified with GIMP.

  2. Adjust image position. The image will initially load into the far left corner of the Silhouette Studio canvas. Drag the image to the center of the canvas. The image should be places on the digital Silhouette Studio canvas in the same respective location as your card stock will be placed on the physical Silhouette backer board. In other words, position your image on the screen in the place you want your cut to begin on the paper.

  3. Adjust image size. Drag the lower right corner of your image to resize. The size of the image indicated on the digital Silhouette Studio canvas be the size of the cut/final image when processed.

Step 3: Set the Trace Areas for Silhouette

After opening, positioning, and sizing the image in Silhouette Studio, the next step is to select the trace and cut areas for the image.

  1. Set the Trace Area. Select the Trace button on the upper right hand navigation bar. When the Trace options appear, underneath the Trace section choose Select Trace Area. On the image canvas, highlight the portion of the canvas containing the image. The outer edges of the image will appear traced in yellow.

  2. Apply Trace Method. Once the outer yellow images appear, underneath the Apply Trace Method of the Trace options screen select Trace. After selecting Trace, the outer edges of the image will appear traced in red and the yellow will no longer appear.

  3. Set Filters. Uncheck the High Pass Filter and check the Low Pass Filter.
    The default Threshold & Scale settings can remain unchanged.

When these steps are complete, a large portion of the image (previously black) should now be yellow.

Step 4: Set the Cut Area for the Silhouette

After the Trace area is defined, specify the Cut Settings for the Silhouette.

  1. Set the Cut Settings. Select the Cut button on the upper right hand navigation bar. When the Cut options appear, underneath the Cut Style section choose Cut Edge.

  2. Select the material type for the cut. Underneath the Material Type section, specify the cut material. Card stock is recommended for this project but other materials can be used including vinyl.
  3. Note the blade settings. When the Material Type is selected, additional information will display below specifying the blade type and blade settings needed to process the selected material. For card stock, the Silhouette ratchet blade is used at a depth of 4 as specified in the blade settings section. If an alternate material is used, note the necessary settings for the Silhouette ratchet blade.

Step 5: Prepare Paper/Cardstock & Adhere to Sticky Mat

After the image processing and initial Silhouette trace and cut area are defined, the project really picks up the pace!

  1. Cut the paper/card stock to size. The paper/card stock must be at least the size of the defined stencil/cut area on the digital Silhouette canvas. The paper/card stock can be cut to the full size of the Silhouette sticky mat. A larger paper area will be easier to work with so I recommend using paper/card stock cut to the full size of the Silhouette sticky mat.
    *Tip. Use a printed or colored paper to help make smaller pieces easier to find & position. With a colored paper, you can be sure you're working with the "right side" of all your image's pieces.
  2. Stick the paper to the sticky mat. After the paper has been cut, simply stick the paper/card stock to the Silhouette sticky mat. The sticky mat keeps the paper aligned during the cutting process and holds the stencil together so the smaller pieces don't fall into the machine as the cut progresses.

Step 6: Set Cut Blade & Load Sticky Mat

With the paper/card stock adhered to the mat, you're ready to set up the Silhouette for cutting.

  1. Set the ratchet cutting blade. Based on the setting determined by the type of cutting media used, use the Silhoutte ratchet tool to set the appropriate blade depth. For card stock, set the cutting tool to 4.

  2. Insert the ratchet cutting tool. Insert the ratchet cutting tool into the machine and secure by using the blue lever.
    For more guidance with either of these steps, refer to the Silhouette Portrait instructions.

  3. Feed in paper & cutting mat. Align the top left corner of the Silhouette sticky mat with the marked guides on the Silhouette Portrait. Feed in the paper & cutting mat by selecting the paper feed button toward the top of the machine.

Step 7: Print, Remove Image From Stick Mat, and Separate Cut Pieces

Print, wait, and separate is a step requiring some patience depending on the complexity of your image and the intricacies of the cutting.

  1. Send your cut to Silhouette. After your paper has been loaded, send the image to Silhouette by selecting the "Send to Silhouette" button.
    *This step assumes that your computer is connected and configured for the Silhouette which has been powered on.
  2. Wait. As the Silhouette cuts the stencil, you may see minimal separation along the cut lines. The stick mat keeps the loose pieces in place and allows the Silhouette to make multiple passes in different locations on the image to complete the cutting. When the Silhouette is complete, the sticky mat will eject.
  3. Separate from the sticky mat. To minimize curling, place the paper/card stock face down on a flat surface and peel the Silhouette sticky mat away from the paper. Small pieces may remain adhered to the sticky mat. If necessary, small pieces can be removed with the "spatula" tool included with the Silhouette.
  4. Separate image components. Gently separate the image along the cut lines. Go slowly to avoid tearing. After this step is complete, you'll have both the positive and the negative components of your stencil and either can be used in the next steps to create painted images.

Step 8: Admire, Position on Canvas & Apply Spray Mount

Once the image is separated into positive and negative components, think about design.

  1. Lay it out. Position the pieces of your image on a contrasting background (scrap paper is recommended). Determine where to position and "islands" like mouths, eyes, ears or chins.
  2. Turn over & apply spray mount. Turn over all of the selected image pieces onto scrap paper & lightly spray with spray mount. Allow spray mount to dry just a minute or two until slightly tacky.
    *Reminder. Do not use spray mount directly on or near your intended canvas.

Step 9: Set Up Canvas & Mask Unpainted Areas

With all of the prep done, it's on to the business of laying out the art.

  1. Position on canvas. Stick side down, position the stencil pieces onto the canvas. Remember to put all the islands (ears, eyes, chins, noses, mouths, etc) in place. When positions are committed, firmly press down on all stencil pieces to assure the edges are firmly affixed to the canvas.
  2. Mask. Using painters tape & scrap paper, mask off any portions of the canvas that should remain unpainted.

Step 10: Shake, Paint, Wait, Paint, Unmask!


  1. Paint! After shaking the bottle, paint in thin, light coats over the stencil and unmasked areas. For best results, paint 10-12" away from the canvas and paint at least two light coats on the image. Allow the paint to dry fully between coats.
  2. Wait. Wait for the paint to dry.
  3. Paint! Apply a second (or third) light, thin coat of paint as needed.

  4. Unmask & remove stencil! Gently remove the masking tape and scrap paper from unpainted portions of the canvas. Gently remove the stencil & all of it's component pieces from the canvas.

Some experimentation may be necessary to achieve the desired result. Some spray paints or thickly applied paints can bleed through the stencil, especially at the edges. A glossier canvas will allow for easier removal of the tape & stencil components.

If you don't like the first attempt, try fully coating the canvas in spray paint & repainting the stencil in a contrasting color.

Use a second stencil in a contrasting color to create a more interesting image.

Step 11: Optional: Frame & Display

Finally, finish it up with a frame!

While graffiti style stencil art was inspired by the streets, you can bring the street style inside by framing and displaying your canvas bound art. A frame turns your graffiti canvas into an instant display piece, lending some credibility to an afternoon of technology enabled spray painting.