Making Stencils and How Photoshop Can Help

This article discusses how to use photoshop to prepare an image for use as stencil.

When I make stencils I start with either a photograph or a drawing of mine for reference. Obviously, if you use a drawing than you can make it suitable for a stencil from the beginning, but since many people like to work from photos I will share my process for turning a photo into an image that can be stenciled.

First I open the image in photoshop and crop it until I have the composition I want.

Next, I want to reduce it to black and white like the stencil will be, so I go to image > adjustments > Threshold and then use the slider bar until I find a balance of black and white that I like. At this stage this is essentially what the finished product will look like.

If details get lost then I select that area using the marquee tool and adjust the threshold separately.

If the threshold adjustments are not precise enough, I often use the brush and eraser tools to hand draw parts that the computer can’t do correctly.

Once the image is adjusted properly, then next step is to add bridges to allow it to function as a stencil. Some people simply tape the pieces together later, but I like to make sure that each piece of the stencil is connected from the very beginning so that nothing falls apart either during or between uses. The idea here is that nothing that will appear in the positive space of your image can encircle the negative space fully, or the negative space will simply fall out and you will be left with a hole.

When the image is set up with the proper balance of black and white, and all the bridges are included to connect the material, it is time to transfer it onto the media from which you will cut your stencil. I like to work big, so I use a projector to enlarge and trace the image from my computer onto a larger piece, but using a grid or working free-hand would work also.

The next decision you have to make is what you will make your stencil out of. You can use just about anything, but take into consideration how you will apply your paint when you pick the material for your stencil. My favorites are acetate (sometimes I use regular overhead transparencies) and chipboard (I prefer 2 ply – 1 falls apart on big pieces, and 3 is too hard to cut). However I have also had success with scrap cardboard and regular poster board.

Once your image is transferred onto the piece, use an x-acto blade to cut away all the parts that will be painted. Change blades frequently because a dull blade may tear off smaller details and at the very least will slow you down and require much more effort. Make sure to go slowly and make sure that you cut the inside of the shapes, if you get confused then shade these areas so you know which side of the lines to cut.

After the entire stencil is cut, paint or ink can be applied. There are a number of ways to do this and each is effective for different applications. Spray paint is the best for street art, for instance, because of its speed and convenience. A paint roller or a brayer with ink can also be used to apply your medium very efficiently. Paint can also be brushed on (a large, flat brush is best) and, of course, any dry medium works as well although they are much slower than paint and ink. I use spray paint for most of my stencils, but when I use stencils in conjunction with printmaking and silk screens (which are technically stencils) then I simply roll ink onto the paper with a medium hardness brayer.

Now you know how to prepare images for a stencil, transfer them to the proper material and then cut and use the stencil. These are just the basics though – the key is experimentation. Try using multiple layers to incorporate different colors, or using different materials and mediums. For example, In my recent work I have been using dots of black to make an optical gray instead of making a second stencil for a layer of gray paint. To do this I tape shade cloth from the hardware store over the cuts I have made that I want to be a lighter shade. The most important thing is to play around, experiment and have fun!


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