Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Thoughts on Stencil Design

Recently, I was commissioned to stencil a room in a historic home with what I call a "full wall stencil." While my first love is hand-painting, stenciling can be just as fun in its application, and as rewarding in the finished project. It tends to move along at a quicker pace, so you get to the "ooo!" and "aah!" part faster.

The challenge in this particular room was all of the openings. Windows, fireplaces, doors all have to be addressed when putting together a stencil design that will fill the walls. In reflecting on this process, I have put together some design tips for your own stenciling projects.


This frieze is one my daughter and I designed together for
 her bedroom. Swags are one of my favorite motifs to use
along ceilings. 
The first area I address is the border that runs along the top of the wall. This can also be referred to as the "frieze." For me, the frieze sets the tone for the rest of the stencil designs. The size of the stencil has to be proportional to the room. Some designs are simply too large for a small room or one with low ceilings. On the flip side, if a stencil is too small for a room, the design gets lost in wall space. So once I have established the frieze, I move on to the stencil design which borders the baseboard. I call this my "anchoring" stencil. This motif can be heavier in a design sense, allowing the use of larger blocks of color. This is not essential, as a more delicate design can be used effectively also.

This design was for a retail space. It is
my interpretation of an historic
stencil design.
With those two elements in hand, I go next to the vertical borders. These divide the wall into mock panels. I tend to use a thinner design here so as not to compete with the frieze and anchor stencils. The key with these three borders is that they should compliment, not compete. This can be achieved through the use of repeated or similar design elements and a consistent color palette. The vertical border is also used as a wrap-around border for windows and doors.

Wall Stencils

Once the borders are set, I move on to the stencils which fill in the walls. Here there is a wonderful variety of motifs to use. Again, I keep my colors the same and limit them to about one or two per stencil. I usually repeat different designs as fillers or sometimes use just one. I like to offset them in a repeating pattern .

Comments on Color

This color combination is based on an
historic example. Stenciling was often
applied on top of color. As a side note,
the use of a small amount of black or dark
brown is a striking way to make the
designs stand out. 
I use what I like, or in the case of clients, what they like. For a full wall stencil I usually choose three main colors with one or two accent colors. Again, it is a personal choice. In some casing I have stuck to only two or three colors with pleasing results.

Stenciling in the Past

From an historical perspective, stenciling has long been used in the place of expensive wallpapers. Most of the period stenciling was done by itinerant artists  moving from town to town. They sometimes advertised in the paper when they would be available in a town. There are some great examples of original wall stenciling that have survived. And there are some wonderful books which have been published on the subject.

My Stenciling

I hand-cut my own stencils for every project. For those looking to do this on their own, there are pre-cut stencils in a wide variety of historic patterns. I custom design stencils based on historic examples for clients and for those looking to stencil on their own. Email me with any questions.

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