DIY: How To Design Herb Stencils

| August/September 1994

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.

Creating Stencils

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.

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