Look at a plant part—a leaf, a flower, a vine—and find the beauty in its basic form. Reflect on it, multiply it in your mind until it becomes stylized, and that’s the raw material for a stencil. Stenciling is a wonderfully versatile art form that seems especially suited to the sinuous, varied shapes to be found in the plant world.
Do you want herbs on your kitchen wall? or perhaps a bower of leaves framing a doorway or window? or a leafy border on the tile over a counter? Do you have a pot that you’d like to embellish a bit to echo the plant it contains? or a patio wall that needs some interest? Stencils can be simple or complex, small or large, and nearly any surface, from Christmas cards to masonry walls, can be stenciled in a rainbow of colors or in monotones from soft to stark.
In stenciling, motifs are cut out of a sheet of impervious material called a plate, which is then affixed to the surface to be ornamented. When paint or ink is applied, the stencil masks the background, and only the motif is transferred to the surface. Stencils make it possible to repeat a pattern easily: motifs can be replicated side by side, or they can be rotated, reversed, inverted, or scattered for an endless variety of effects.
Stenciling may seem like a modern idea, but, in fact, it goes far back in history. The earliest historical accounts of the Fiji Islands describe primitive women decorating their bark cloth with wide geometric borders stenciled through openings cut in dried banana leaves using various mineral and vegetable dyes.
I look through books of historical decorative arts for inspiration when I’m trying to decide which stylistic approach to use for a particular stencil. The designs shown here show the influence of medieval illuminated manuscripts, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, and Early American stencil art, among others. Then I choose the plants, based primarily on which shapes I think best lend themselves to stenciling.
When I first tried stenciling, I found myself looking at plants in a new way. I wanted the stylized leaves or flowers to be easily recognizable. Some plants are too delicate to lend themselves to stenciling, and some aren’t very distinctive once they’re reduced to simple outlines. The trilobed leaves and globular flower heads of red clover are a good example of an easy plant to work with.
You’ll find the clover pattern and two other patterns on pages 86 and 87, but I also encourage you to create your own stencil patterns from the plant forms you see in your garden. If you can reproduce a leaf form, you can probably arrange it into a pleasing pattern as well. To judge the effect, try out your stencils on scrap paper or poster board before you tackle a wall or piece of furniture.
The following are step-by-step instructions for stenciling, including a few tips I’ve learned along the way.
• A pattern
• White paper
• 3-mil Mylar or stencil paper
• Marking pens
• X-Acto or stencil knife and plenty of new blades or a sharpening stone
• Stencil paint or latex wall paint
• Stencil brush or artist’s paintbrush with bristles cut off flat
1. Choose one of the patterns on pages 86 and 87, draw your own, or find a design in a book that you’d like to duplicate. A copy machine is handy for enlarging or reducing a pattern to fit the area you want to stencil. Draw or trace it onto regular paper. The basil pattern is the easiest of the three shown here.
2. Determine whether the stencil plate will be stable when the design has been cut away. You will want to add unobtrusive “ties” (small connecting bridges) to the pattern to ensure that all parts of the stencil plate will be held in place. (Our patterns include ties.) If designing your own plant motif, you may find that a tie works best where a division occurs naturally, such as in the veining on a leaf or between petals.
3. On a surface that you can cut on, lay a sheet of 3-mil Mylar over the design, and secure with tape. Craft stores offer several kinds of coated paper designed for use in stencils, but I found that Mylar, available in most art supply stores, not only is more durable, cheaper, and easier to use, but also produces the cleanest edge. It’s available in 2-by-3-foot sheets, and it will not curl up when painted as some of the other materials do. Because it’s translucent, a pattern beneath it shows clearly.
Cut the Mylar with an X-Acto or stencil knife, changing blades or sharpening as needed (Mylar cuts easily but tends to dull the blade).
If the design is especially detailed, if it involves multiple colors in close proximity, or if you think the plate would be too floppy to work with easily, make two or more stencils that you can then overlay. For example, put a vine on one stencil and its berries and leaves on another.
To ensure that you don’t make a mistake while cutting, you can color in the sections of Mylar to be cut away with a marking pen, using different colors for the different plates. This will also show whether your ties are in appropriate places.
4. Position the stencil on the surface to be painted and secure it with tape. In a multiplate design such as the sage, light pencil marks around the corners of the plate will help you align the second plate, which should be cut to exactly the same size; a light pencil mark along the bottom of the stencil plate will help you position the stencil to continue the design, as I did with both the basil and clover patterns.
5. Paint the surface with a stencil brush, which is flat on the end and is useful for broader, coarser work or to get an attractive stippled effect. For more delicate work, a common bristle brush such as artists use for oil painting, with the bristles cut off short and flat, works fine. I find that dabbing the paint onto the outside edge, then brushing into the open area, creates a feathery look and a cleaner edge and is conducive to mixing colors. You can mix colors in as you paint over the stencil, or revisit the surface after it’s dry to add accents or shading.
Water-based stencil paints are available, but I use latex wall paint because it is easy to wash. Acrylic craft paints are also a possibility. If you’re stenciling an outside wall or something that will be used outside, such as a pot, use exterior latex.
When using designs that have two or more stencils, such as the sage wall design or the clover pattern, let the first stencil’s paint dry thoroughly before overlaying the second stencil.
Stenciled designs are by nature rather hard-edged and stylized. To give a softer, more weathered appearance, I like to wash the entire stenciled surface with white or light-colored latex paint thinned to a watery consistency.
Dorrice Pyle is an interior designer in Berkeley, California. She has studied at the Ray College of Design and the Art Institute of Chicago.