Creating Complex Spraypaint Stencils by Hand





Introduction: 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.

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.

Step 2: Digital Tweaks

Once you have your image, bring it into an image editing program of your choice. It doesn't need to be Photoshop, anything with a Brightness and Contrast adjustment will do. Some people find that using a Photoshop filter is the only way to get their template going, but I prefer a more manual method-- see which you like best and go with it. Here's the way I do it: First, if your image in in color, convert it to grayscale (in Photoshop this is done by selecting Image > Mode > Grayscale). Be sure to save a clean copy first so you can refer to it later. Jack the contrast to 100% (in Photoshop, Image > Adjustments > Brightness and Contrast). Now, adjust the brightness until you get something that looks about how you want your stencil to look. In Photoshop you can use clipping mask adjustment layers to adjust the contrast differently on different elements (there are many Photoshop tutorials on adjustment layers out there, hunt around). For multi-color stencils you simply save a copy and repeat this brightness adjustment until you have distinct plates for each color. You can also vary the brightness for different parts of the image. For example, maybe you're stenciling a picture of a person and find that when you expose the face properly, the detail is lost for the body. The solution here is to create two different guides to work from.

How do you know that you have the right exposure? Well, if the image is coming through, and it looks like it is physically possible to cut, you're there. Like I suggested before, focus on the key details that make the image "read".

If you're an ace illustrator or a longtime stencil fiend, you might find that you can skip this step entirely. After enough stencils you develop an eye for this and can do it with a pen if you need to. This is a very cool thing. Drawing stencil plates by hand from a photo source will impress your friends, but more importantly it's good for you as an artist, because the less married to the digital process you are, the more freedom you have with composition.

Step 3: Draw It Out

Once you have your templates, now you need to draw your stencil. This is the step most people skip, going straight from Photoshop to cutting, but I find it to be the most important. A really good stencil is created by thinking out how it will look (see a theme here?), not by mimicking the output of a Photoshop filter. Photoshop doesn't think about how much detail you can reproduce, or how you need to avoid islands, and so forth. Being able to negotiate between what the computer sees and how you want your stencil to actually look is what separates the men and women from the boys and girls in stencil-world. This is where you add your artistic touch to the piece. I do this using Adobe Illustrator, but you could just as easily do it by printing out your results from the previous step and tracing them on a sheet of tracing paper. As you draw your stencil, you want to consider a few things:

1) There's only so much detail you can cut. Even if you're handy with the steel you can't knock out 0.5 mm thick lines, and if you could the paint wouldn't go through them anyhow.

2) Unless you're willing to cut multiple plates of the same color, you can't have islands in your stencil, or areas of "blocking" material that are not connected to the "frame" or border of the stencil. For example, you can't stencil an "O", the best you can do is something like "( )," or a "C" on one plate and an ")" on another, lined up to form a perfect "O".

3) The jaggedness or smoothness of the lines is what will give your stencil image texture, so think about it as you plan your cuts. For example, if you are cutting a stencil of a face, smooth curves will suggest even, smooth skin. Jagged lines will suggest a rough, uneven surface. You can really breathe life into your stencils this way.

4) if you remove too much material when you cut, your stencil will be brittle and flimsy, and more prone to lifting at the edges in the breeze of the spraypaint. This isn't necessarily bad, but be aware of it. If need be you can re-enfroce it with wire (see the Step 5).

Once you're done, print it out. This will be your cutting guide. If you're creating a multi-color stencil, you may want to include some sort of alignment guide so you can line up the plates. Really smart artists will sometimes hide an alignment guide in the piece for themselves. For example, maybe one strand of hair is exactly the same in each color plate, allowing you to line it up.

Step 4: Choose Your Weapon

Now that you have a nicely planned-out stencil, the time has come to make your plates. You have many options here. Some artists use cardboard or foamcore for their stencils. Others use paper or plastic. There's no right answer, as each medium has advantages and disadvantages. My personal favorite is laminated paper. You can get your paper guides laminated at Kinko's, or if you're really into it Staples or OfficeMax will sell you your very own laminating machine for around $80. This can pay for itself over time, so it's worth considering if you really dig laminated sheets. The big disadvantages to laminate are cost (cardboard is free) and size, since most laminating machines are limited to letter (8.5 x 11") paper. It is possible to join multiple sheets, but this takes some finesse with tape. There are some real advantages to laminate, though. I prefer laminated paper as a plate material because it is relatively waterproof, meaning it will stand up to multiple sprays, it cuts cleanly, meaning no little "hairs" or paper fiber to wick paint into places you don't want it, and best of all it cuts easily with an X-acto knife. This means that you're not pushing the knife along with all your might, allowing you to cut more precisely. It's also pretty tough and will not tear, allowing you to cut fine details. The downside is that it is floppy and can blow around in the wind created by the spray can, so you need to hold it down carefully. For single-use stencils, thick paper works just as well.

One thing to consider is that thinner materials make for easier stencils to spray. This is because you don't have to spray from a perfect 90-degree angle to the work, which you have to do with thicker materials, otherwise the surface of the material will block the paint at the edges. This results in "fuzzy" edges.

Another option is a material called frisket film. Frisket film is a material widely used for stenciling by airbrush artists, especially in the automotive industry. It is a plastic film that is a bit stretchy and is adhesive on one side. It cuts very easily with an X-Acto and can be bent around curves. If you're working on a very smooth surface (i.e. finished metal, fiberglass or plastic) frisket film is second to none. It can work well on wood and painted walls, too. It won't really stick to anything rough, like brick or stone. The major problem with frisket film is that it is very flexible and tends to stick to itself (imagine a stencil made from scotch tape). This makes is virtually worthless for more intricate stencils. It's also very, very difficult to get multiple uses out of it. The adhesive will work more then once, but peeling anything but the simplest design off without stretching it or sticking it to itself is quite a challenge. Frisket film can be purchased at art supply stores and some automotive places.

If you're using cardboard, foamcore, etc you'll need to glue your paper guide down so it doesn't move while you cut. I suggest Spraymount for this, which is a spray-on adhesive that you can buy in art supply stores. Any spray glue will work, though. Just make sure you don't use anything that will harden beneath the paper and make it hard to cut, or will remain gooey and stick to the blade, like rubber cement.

Step 5: Cut It Out

This is the most tedious part of the task, and some find it the hardest. If you're cutting laminate I suggest using an X-Acto #11 knife. If you're working with cardboard or foamcore you'll need something bigger. One very common mistake that stencil artists make is using dull blades. I don't know how it gets into people's heads that an X-Acto blade will last forever, but they sure don't. My rule of thumb is that I change the blade for each new plate I cut, or whenever the tip breaks, whichever happens first. If it starts to feel dull, change it-- a dull blade will lead to mistakes every time because you need to push it through the work, meaning you'll eventually slip and cut something you didn't mean to. I typically go through about three to five blades per stencil plate. It seems wasteful, but the right tools make all the difference. Also be sure you have a cutting matte, which you can buy at an art supply store. The "self-healing" mattes will stand up to years of cutting and give you a nice, even surface to cut on.

If you mess up, you can lay electrical tape over the cut and trim away the excess with your knife. If you wind up with a part of the stencil that feels too delicate or flimsy, you can reinforce it with wire. I like the kind that florists use to tie plants to those little poles. Just lay the wire across and secure each end with a bit of electrical tape. You can also use wire to reinforce "peninsulas" by creating an little arc, like a bridge, from the protruding piece of material to somewhere more stable. If the wire is a centimeter or so off the surface plane of the stencil it won't show up when you paint it.

When cutting I always try to cut the most detailed areas first, for two reasons. With laminated sheets, the more material you remove, the flimsier they get. So this means that the first cuts you make will be the easiest, as the material is the stiffest. Secondly it's best to handle the hardest parts when your blade is sharpest. When cutting curves, you may find it easier to move the whole stencil plate as you move the knife. This can reduce the tendency to bend the blade tip, which will break the delicate bit of metal that forms the point. Don't even try to cut curves with an X-Acto missing it's tip, it makes it far harder to control. 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.

As an alternative to this whole process you could go use a laser cutter. Laser cutters will let you create patterns with unbelievable accuracy and detail. But they're definitely not punk rock.

Step 6: Paint It

Painting your stencils in the comfort of your home or studio is the final step for some artists, and just a test-run for others. The first thing you need to do is choose a paint and a medium to paint on. What you paint on is up to you, but like any other paint aerosol paints stick best to primed, flat surfaces. Some people really like gesso-coated canvas, of the sort an oil painter would use. I'm partial to wooden boards. As for the paint you have quite a few options. The most common hardware-store paint in the U.S. is Krylon. It works, to be sure, but is relatively watery (it has a very thin consistency), which can be problematic. It also suffers from an unusual problem in which certain colors will crack as they dry when laid on top of certain other colors. I've never been able to figure out exactly what combinations are incompatible, so I suggest that if you're doing a multi-layer piece you should test your colors for this phenomena. Discount store paint brands tend to suffer from low concentrations of pigment, meaning you need to use a lot of paint, which can lead to drips. If you're very serious about your stencils, hardware store paint is not your only option. You might consider brands such as Belton Molotow or Montana Cans, both European brands specifically designed for art purposes. They are available in art supply stores of via mail order, so Google around. Though costly the paint is so much thicker that you use much less, making them probably much more economical then hardware store paint in the long run.

If you are stenciling inside you have a completely different option for paint: an airbrush. While you might not think to use an airbrush for stenciling, the control is superb, allowing for extremely detailed work. The other important advantage to an airbrush is that you can use any manner of paint you want (as long as it can be thinned to the consistency of milk), allowing you to mix your own colors to get exactly the hue you want. Finally, airbrushes use air as a propellant in lieu of chemicals, which makes the paint far, far safer and less noxious to work with. If you use a non-toxic paint you have a completely environmentally sound and healthy way to stencil. This can be important if you're working in an inclosed space. Airbrushes will also allow you to aerosolize a fabric dye, so you can make nice t-shirts of your stencil designs.

When painting a stencil, you apply the paint as you would with anything else. The goal is to get even paint coverage, so you're applying the same amount of paint to every bit of the piece. This helps avoid drips. You want to paint with short, even strokes, about 18" from the piece. Don't follow a zip-zag path or try to "trace" the pattern of the stencil, instead apply short strokes in one direction. This is so you never turn back on yourself and hit the same spot twice, because when you turn back on your path with the can or airbrush, you apply twice the paint in that one spot whrre you doubled-back. Be sure to keep the spray at as close to a 90-degree angle to the work as possible. This helps hold then stencil down (preventing overspray). You also want to keep the can as upright as possible, which keeps a nice, consistent flow of paint. About 45 degrees is good enough. You may want to incline your work surface if you're working inside so that you're not forced to hold the can horizontally.

When painting, you want to keep the stencils in contact with the surface, or as close as possible, and anchored firmly in place. Some people like using a removable spray adhesive for this, such as 3M Photomount, but I find masking tape along the outer edge to be equally effective and much less messy. When working inside, I keep a jar of pennies around. By placing little stacks of pennies on the stencils sheet I can anchor it down very effectively. Working outside little loops of masking tape can be a big help if the stencil is too big to secure with one hand. If you're inside and have the luxury of doing so, be sure to let your stencil dry fully before lifting the stencil, otherwise you risk smearing paint at the edge. Try your best to pull the plate straight up instead of dragging it across the surface to avoid this. You should give your piece at least 90 seconds of drying time before applying the next color. If you're inside and have the luxury of time, give it a full 10 minutes.

Step 7: Stay Safe

Not to sound like your mom, but a word about safety: ALWAYS wear a respirator when working inside with spraypaint. Not one of those little paper masks, but a real-deal respirator. Old-school graffiti writers can tell you horror stories about what long-term exposure to spraypaint does to you. It is unbelievably toxic stuff. Respirators can be purchased in better hardware stores for about $30. Be sure to get the kind with replaceable filters and change them regularly. Don't forget the latex medical gloves keep the paint off your hands. You can get these at many hardware store, as well as art and medical supply shops. For removing paint from skin, nothing beats mechanic's hand cleaner (such as GoJo, the orange kind with the pumice).

I hope you found this tutorial helpful. Have fun and keep pushing the stencil medium forward.



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    97 Discussions

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

    2 replies

    that was my first thought too but its a different house




    2 replies

    Dude you need to calm down. You dont need to yell.

    It's just the way they choose to communicate, and what they said is very useful... why on earth would you attribute any meaning at all to how people choose to key in text??!! Least of all via online?

    amazing advice! Thanks so much for taking the time to put this info out there

    Wow! Thanks!

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

    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.)

    cool explanations, I found it very helpful

    Great tutorial! Really well written. Thank you so much!

    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.

    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.

    Do you have a recommendation for what kind of airbrush to use? Brand and / or model?

    1 reply

    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.