What is a Stencil ? The Evolution of the Stenciling Technique

Graffiti & Street Art

January 16, 2017

With graffiti and street art gaining popularity in the past two decades, one often hears about different kinds of techniques and design that the artists develop in order to foster their own creativity and wonders, for instance: what is a stencil ? While in art today, this is considered one of the most used and most effective forms of graffiti, the truth is that the process of making stenciled imagery dates all the way to prehistory. In fact, it was over 35,000 years ago when man blew pigment over his own hand to leave a trace of it on the walls of caves across Europe and Asia. Over the centuries, stencil art went through different forms and purposes, such as the Katazome during the Edo period in Japan or woodcuts in Europe of the Middle Ages. With the rise of urban art as we know it today, however, stencils may have found their true calling, as they turned out to be the perfect fit for the kind of creativity that requires immediacy, simplicity and quick doing. But in order to understand the technique, we go back to our initial question: what is a stencil anyway?

cut paper to get stencil design using printing or by hand
Blek le Rat stencil in Rome. Courtesy blindeyefactory and Wunderkammern

The Definition of Stenciling

After consulting the dictionary, we find out that a stencil is “a device for applying a pattern, design, words, etc., to a surface, consisting of a thin sheet of cardboard, metal, or other material from which figures or letters have been cut out, a coloring substance, ink, etc., being rubbed, brushed, or pressed over the sheet, passing through the perforations and onto a surface.” In other words, it is the creation of a positive image out of a negative structure: when paint is applied through the cut areas to the surface beneath, an image is formed. The stenciling technique is a great way to create reproducible patterns of identical symbols, letters or shapes, for example, in quick and quite precise fashion. The open sections of a stencil are called “islands” and they are the ones “letting the color through” to the surface underneath, while “bridges” are parts of the stencil that separate the islands, keeping the paint away from the surface and maintaining the shape of the stencils.

get the best stencilling designs here
Ernest Pignon Ernest and his stencils and paste-ups. Courtesy the artist

How to Make a Stencil ?

One of the many things that make stencils so popular among graffiti artists is the fact they are relatively easy to make! A DIY stenciled image can be highly personal, and as such it could become an artist’s trademark. Although it might seem like there are ever so many things you can do with stencils, the truth is that they can be very creative: sometimes, multiple layers of paint or aerosol can be applied to the same image in order to create the illusion of depth. Stencils can be as simple or as complex as one wants, depending on how curious and dedicated you are to learning how to make a stencil.

Like the creation of any other artwork, this also requires a little bit of planning, such as deciding on how big your stencil is and how many colors you want to use. The stenciling sheets are usually made of paper, plastic, wood or metal, as well as cardboard or foam board, poster boards or even frisket film, so it is important to determine the material as well before you cut an image out of it. If you’re a rookie, you can base your image on an existing photograph or design and create it digitally or by hand; in this phase of work, it is crucial to define the edges of your future picture as clearly as possible, as well as the dark and light areas that will eventually become your islands and bridges.

Once you have your stencil image, print it out and attach it to your stencil material using tape. You can now start cutting the areas of your image where you want the paint to appear; this is where you can use a sharp utility knife and a ruler for maximum precision. After you’re done, your stencil should be ready and you’d be good to go use it on a surface which will ultimately become the home of your artwork. You can use tape again in order to keep the stencil attached to the painting surface and it is important that the material lies flat, so that the image retains its shape and clear borders. You can apply anything from spray paint/aerosol to roll-on paint. Naturally, if you haven’t thought about your own design yet and you still want to try out the technique, you can always get your hands on pre-made stencils, both downloadable and printable.

make stencil print our of paper by hand or by printing and apply some paint
Strok wall in Paris. Courtesy the artist

Stencilling Through the History of Graffiti - Famous Stencil Artists

If you need inspiration for your design, a way to get some ideas in your head is to consult the relatively short, yet rich history of stencils in graffiti and street art. Starting during the 1960s, artists in the United States and Europe began using the technique as the means of sending a message to a vast urban audience. One of the first to place his work outdoors was John Fekner, whose writing Wheels Over Indian Trails remained on the Pulaski Bridge Queens Midtown Tunnel for eleven whole years, between 1979 and 1990. His first stenciled image saw the light of day in 1968, only a few years after French legend Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s silhouette of a nuclear bomb victim was sprayed in the south of France in 1966. His works subsequently inspired another stencil art pioneer, Blek le Rat, who started off in Paris in 1981 and was highly influenced by the graffiti artists in New York City and its subway culture. Today, we can talk about entire generations of creatives who have picked up on the legacy of these masters, including Above, Vhils, Shepard Fairey and the inevitable Banksy, whose artwork is celebrated, but also imitated, all over the world.

Of course, the art of stencils has also influenced graffiti and street artists in Germany. Among the most notable ones, we have Cologne’s Van Ray, whose trademark signature is a stenciled black duck and whose stencils, among other media, often send strong socio-political messages. Another prominent artist is Kunstrasen, whose name derives from the German term for “astroturf”, or “fake grass” in combination with “kunst”, meaning “art”. Some of his stencils pay homage to painting masters like Lucio Fontana in a humorous, ironic way. Tackling the world of advertising, Hamburg-based mittenimwald often makes provocative Pop art imagery featuring beautiful women and aggressive writing which addresses capitalism and establishment in general. As for the Berlin-based artists, we have Alias, whose stencil works interact with their immediate urban environment, which means we can often find them  on fences, at street corners and on different architectural elements. Famous for his urban installations and paintings made of cardboard, EVOL also uses this material to create stencils, mostly to create his signature “buildings” imagery painted on power boxes across different cities. If you run into human characters engaged in curious activities accompanied by an XOOOOX writing, you should recognize the work of - XOOOOX, blindfolded figures in black, white and red belong to Decycle, while the more apocalyptic imagery of nuclear disasters, for instance, is the work of one Plotbot Ken.

get stencil designs from cut paper of printing
Sten Lex - Paesaggi Industriali. Celaya Brothers Gallery. 2015

A New Visual Language

What began as a simple and rapid form of expression among those who wished to leave a mark on walls turned out to be a widespread and, above all, highly popular medium. Back in the day, the artists used the stencil technique to spray their art the quickest way possible, and the tool was deemed as the one of the outlaws, as street art in general was considered vandalism. It was perhaps after Banksy that it became a proper artistic tool, accepted and even celebrated within circles that exceed urban art. Stencils have now become a method used by many, because of their simplicity and even particular aesthetic. The technique itself is being developed as we speak as well, starting with multilayering, implemented by Banksy and Donk for example. We can find them on the street, of course, but also inside gallery and even museum walls these days, as urban art continues to confirm its position as a legit contemporary arts movement. With such a remarkable growth in popularity in the last couple of decades, we are bound to think that stencils are here to stay, and we sure hope this will also be the case in the future.

  Editors’ Tip: Wall and Piece

Banksy, Britain's now-legendary "guerilla" street artist, has painted the walls, streets, and bridges of towns and cities throughout the world. Not only did he smuggle his pieces into four of  New York City's major art museums, he's also "hung" his work at London's Tate Gallery and adorned Israel's West Bank barrier with satirical images. Banksy's identity remains unknown, but his work is unmistakable—with prints selling for as much as $45,000.

Featured images: Banksy Stencil, via theculturetrip; Alias art in Berlin, via globalsoulsdotnet; Evol art in Germany, via Piet Schreuders flickr; mittenimwald, courtesy the artist; Shepard Fairey mural in Detroit, via huffingtonpost. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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