History of Stencils
Stenciling has re-emerged as a favored decorative technique and interior designers, architects, artisans and professional decorative painters are choosing stenciled finishes as a beautiful, versatile and unique option for decorative design on walls, floors, ceilings, furniture, textiles and cabinetry.
The word stencil comes from the French word 'pochoir'. Stencil technique used in visual art is still referred to as 'pochoir. A stencil is a template which is used repeatedly to paint or draw patterns, shapes, letters or symbols. Stencils are formed by removing sections from the template material in the form of a letter or a design. This creates essentially a 'negative image'. The template can then be used to create impressions of the stenciled image by applying pigment on the surface of the template and through the removed sections, leaving a reproduction of the stencil on the underlying surface. Sections of the remaining template which are isolated inside removed parts of the image are called 'islands'. All islands must be connected to other parts of the template with 'bridges' which are additional strips or sections of narrow template material which are not removed.
Stencils: An Ancient TraditionStenciling has a long and rich history. The art of stenciling has existed since the Upper Paleolithic era, approximately 40,000-10,000 years ago, with the earliest known example of "stencil" use dated to 32,000 years ago. Painted wall art reached high artistry during this period and some of the best known uses of stencils are found in cave paintings in Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain. A common motif in cave paintings was hand tracings. Hands were placed on rock walls and the artist would spray pigment from his mouth around the outline of his hand. Primitive blowpipes made from hollowed-out reeds and bones may also have been used to dispense pigments.
Early South Sea islanders also used stencils. In Fiji, banana and bamboo leaves were used as stencil material. Perforated patterns were cut into the leaves and a vegetable dye was pressed through the holes onto 'tapa', or bark cloth. Stenciled geometric borders were a favored design for clothing and textiles.
In Indonesia stenciling was used in combination with 'batik'. Batik is a form of pattern design which uses wax to shield parts of the cloth from the dyeing process.
In Ancient Egypt stencils were used for the decoration of tombs. Artists stenciled hieroglyphs, figures and animals onto tomb walls. The resulting images were then incised around the outer edges of the design by sculptors to make a low relief, which would then be plastered and painted. Strong vibrant colors such as red oxide and yellow ochre were characteristically used in tomb decoration.
Ancient Greeks and Romans found that the simple geometric, linear, and silhouetted forms they favored were ideal for stenciling. The Greeks outlined their mosaic designs with stencils; the Pompeiians used stencils to decorate their astonishing interior wall surfaces; the Romans used stencils to create lettered signboards offering directions to the Colisseum for the general public. Both Greeks and Romans used stencils as a decorative tool for painting murals. Elsewhere in Europe, it is known that Theodoric (475-526 A.D.), the king of the Ostrogoths, used a stencil made from gold ingot to sign his name to official documents.
The Asian Tradition of Fine Stencil Making
The ancient Chinese had also developed their own stencil technique using mulberry fibers to a make a type of 'paper' for stencil templates. Many thin layers of fibers were placed on top of each other, then pressed together and varnished for stability. The early Chinese used stencils mainly for the decoration of cloth. With the invention of paper in 105 A.D., the Chinese turned to this new medium and developed cut paper stencils. Now, 50-60 thin layers of paper could be cut at one time. The beginning of limited mass production of stenciled images began during the Six Dynasties period (500-600 A.D.) when the Chinese marketed images of the Buddha. They also used paper stencils to design embroidery patterns. The template was laid upon cloth and marked and the sewer then had a pattern to follow for the design. Because cuts on paper could be made finer and more delicate than on mulberry bark cloth, complicated patterns using paper stencils could now be developed for the intricate cloth decoration and porcelain design that was favored by the fashionable and affluent.
In Japan stenciling had been an art form for over 1,000 years. Traditionally, the stencil-making process involved curing sheets of mulberry bark in persimmon juice. The cured sheets were stacked and cut with a sharp curved blade. An artisan could cut several sheets at a time, ensuring identical patterns on all of them. With the advent of paper, the Japanese turned also to paper-cut stencils and developed their own system of stencil cutting using "washi" paper.
The Japanese had also developed and perfected a dye-resist technique for patterning and coloring cloth using stencils and rice paste. 'Katagami' is the Japanese art of making paper stencils for kimono printing. Multiple layers of thin washi paper were bonded together with a glue extracted from the persimmon, which make a strong, flexible brown-colored paper. The paper was cut with a variety of knives and punches. The resulting designs were intricate and very fragile. For kimono printing the stencils were stabilized by attaching them to a fine silk net. In the past, human hair had been used instead of silk but silk proved to be finer and less likely to warp. A stencil was generally not used for more than one kimono, although multiple stencils could be cut at a time.
When the Japanese expanded and developed the use of silk threads as 'bridges" the most delicate of patterns could be realized. The threads allowed isolated parts of the stencil to stay attached to the main template and when pigment was applied over the stencil, the silk 'lines' left after removing the stencil had all but disappeared. The finest of details and most intricate of patterns were achieved during this period of stencil design. The silkscreening process has its origins in katagami, with its fine network of silk threads.
For printing, the Japanese used a dye-resist method using a rice and flour paste pressed through a stencil. This process was called 'katazome' and consisted of applying the paste through a stencil using a brush or tool such as a palette knife. Pigment was added by hand painting, immersion or both. Where the paste mixture covered and permeated the cloth, dye applied later would not penetrate. By re-aligning a stencil multiple times and re-applying rice paste each time the stencil was moved, large areas of fabric could be patterned. It was a painstaking and time-consuming process, but the beauty and singularity of kimono design using katagami and katazome is evident still today.
Katazome provided a more economical way for overall patterns similar to expensive woven brocades to be achieved on cotton or linen. Both katazome and katagami developed into art forms of their own. Besides cloth design for apparel, during the Kamokura period stenciled designs were used on the leather armor of Samurai and on the leather harnesses and trappings of their horses.
Stencil Art During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
From China and Japan the art and knowledge of stenciling spread along the trade routes to the Middle East, eventually reaching Turkey by the 8th century. By the Middle Ages the art of stenciling had reached Europe where conquests, crusades and pilgrimages dispersed this knowledge from the east to Germany, Italy, France, Spain and England.
In Italy, France, and Spain stencils were used in combination with wood block printing to illuminate manuscripts, print religious tracts and images, and to decorate religious paintings, murals and other monastic art. In Germany, Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404) had extended the grant of indulgences to locations other than just Rome, such as Munich and Cologne. The increase of pilgrims grew as there were now more sites available to them to make their pilgrimages. The distances were shorter and thus less costly. Gaining remission for their sins was the object of a pilgrimage and as the number of travelers increased, so did the demand for religious tracts and pictures. Mass production of these 'art' pieces were offered at shrines where thousands of people gathered. Stencils were used to apply colors onto wood block printed images. The Germans even developed a saying at the time: "Alle zwolf Apostle auf einen streich machen' (to paint all the apostles at one stroke).
In France, stencils were used to make playing cards. Though other countries had developed their own sets of card 'suits', the suits developed in France in the Middle Ages are the ones we know and use today. The cards appeared in the 1480's and were simple, one-color shapes designated each suit. There was no other decoration at that time on the cards and the simple shapes lent themselves easily to stenciling for limited mass production.
Stenciling in the 17th and 18th Centuries
With the advent of the printing press in 1439 in Germany, stencils became marketed for the first time on a large scale. Pattern books circulated throughout Europe. By the 17th-century stencil patterns were used on veneers for furniture design as well as for textile decoration. At this time, cloth had traditionally been used to cover the interior walls of affluent homes in France. In Rouen, French stencil makers had developed a system of stenciling patterns on heavy sheets of paper which came only in lengths of 1-1.25 metres (3-4 feet) by 46 centimeters (18 inches) width. These segments of paper were called 'dominoes' and were the forerunner of wallpaper. The dominoes were stenciled first and then adhered to the wall. Hand-stenciled 'wallpapers' began to appear in the finest houses in France and then the rest of Europe. Stencils were also used for 'flocking' walls. A stencil was cut and placed on the wall and a glue was applied through the stencil. Wool flock or particles were adhered to the wall. The effect was similar to embroidery or applique and provided texture and warmth to cold flat walls.
Early American Stencil Art in the 18th and 19th-Centuries
By the 18th century the art of stenciling had reached the New World. Stenciled floors predated stenciled walls in early American homes, however. This fashion of painting floors was adopted immediately by the most affluent and from there the technique spread into the surrounding rural homes of countryside hamlets. A 1739 booklet from England exhibited geometric and floral floor stencil patterns popular at that time in Europe. Floor stenciling was done to simulate carpet on bare floors, or to imitate more costly inlaid woods. A varnish was used to seal the painted floor and over time the varnish mellowed to a rich gold and brown patina. This caused the colors underneath (usually black, red, green, and white) to appear as fine inlaid or variegated woods set characteristically in a background of yellow ochre, grey, Indian red, and green. The combination most often used was lamp black over pumpkin pine, either natural or painted yellow ochre.
Stenciled floorcloths were also a popular decorative choice of the time. During the Clipper Ship era (1810-1870), the canvas from ripped sails began to be used as floorcloths. As floorcloths were transportable, they provided an economical and ideal medium on which to stencil pattern. In addition to walls and floors, Americans stenciled bedspreads, tablecloths, furniture and household articles such as boxes, trunks, and trays. The material used to cut stencils from included oiled heavy paper, tin, stiffened linen, and sometimes leather.
As interiors of American homes evolved from rough-hewn timber to plaster walls a need arose to decorate these plain surfaces. Settlers who had the means started to stencil directly on the walls instead of using more expensive dominos imported from Europe. At that time stencil patterns were inspired by printed wallpapers which had by then become popular in Europe and supplanted stenciled walls to some degree. American stencil patterns were larger and much simpler than their printed counterparts and direct stenciling on surfaces was a more economical option than the costly printed wallpapers and hand painted furniture imported from Europe.
The earliest recorded date of a stencil used in America was 1778 in a home in New England. Many stencil artisans at that time originated from England and the German Palatinate and they brought their own cultural sensibilities to the designs they painted. They were professional journeymen/itinerants who traveled from town to town, singly or in pairs, to seek work in exchange for room and board or a small wage. The artisan carried with him a supply of stencils cut from thick paper, dry pigments, a short brush or two, a few measuring tools, a builder's cord, and a piece of chalk. The patron would supply sour milk as the medium in which to mix the pigments. These journeymen shared their designs as different stencil styles painted in the same house have been found in individual houses in New England. Colors used in early American stenciling were strong as homes were often quite dark.
Probably the best known and best documented stencil artist of the 18th and early 19th-century was Moses Eaton. Moses Eaton moved from Needham, Massachusetts to Hancock, New Hampshire in 1792. In 1796 his son, Moses, Jr., was born. Moses, Jr., who would later become a stencil artist as well, most likely apprenticing to his father before going out on his own. Stencil patterns dating from 1800-1840 were found along with some of Eaton's tools in the attic of his house after he had died. Both artisans contributed to the 'folk art' style that was developing in America.
Moses Eaton used current printed wallpaper designs of the day as a guide for placement of motifs and patterns but before long his stenciling artistry had developed its own unique characteristics. Though simpler and less intricate than printed wallpaper, American stencil patterns became an art form in their own right. Motifs were popular; the swag and pendant known as the Liberty Bell was a particularly patriotic emblem of post-revolutionary America; flower baskets represented friendship; the oak leaf, strength and loyalty; the willow, everlasting life; and the pineapple, hospitality. Hearts symbolized love and happiness and often formed part of the decor of a homestead for a new bride. Color was vibrant and eclectic; red and green were common stencil colors and were used over walls colored in raspberry pink, salmon, dove grey, bright yellow, and yellow ochre. Stenciling, though less expensive than printed wallpaper, was considered to be more personal and stylish. Many homes in New England still have extant examples of early American stencil art. There are 68 known stencil patterns attributed to Moses Eaton which are still used today in American homes.
During the Federal period (1783-1820), stencils achieved great popularity. At that time it was considered fashionable to define the outline or edges of patterns or shapes, whether it be a piece of furniture or an architectural element. Braid, tape, and other edgings on clothing, borders on floors, carpets, fabric, and window hangings, edge motifs on silver or border patterns on china were used to emphasize the outlines of the piece. Stencils were also used to outline architectural features and elements, such as mantels, doors, walls, and chair rails with decorative stylized borders.
Furniture makers in America had also made use of stencils. Few early Americans could afford gilded, carved, and brass-mounted furniture imported from Europe. Cabinet makers discovered a method that simulated European designs; they rubbed multi-colored bronze powders through a stencil onto a tacky varnished surface. They were able to shade the powders around the edges of the stencil and thus to achieve depth and tone, add dimension, and soften the image of the design. This was a practical application of stencils which produced many elegant designs.
Also in the 1800's a new vogue for stenciling reached academies and boarding schools where young girls were taught the art of 'theorem' painting. Theorem painting was usually a still life using multiple overlays of stencils and hand painting techniques. A stencil of a still life (usually fruit or flowers) was placed on fabric (usually velvet). The motif was painted and another overlay (perhaps leaves) was placed next to or overlapping the already painted motif and colored as well. With careful shading and placement of overlays a realistic "painting" could be achieved. The finished work was matted and framed and hung on the wall in the parlor. On the whole, the designs were simple and stylized, and multiple overlays were always used. The advantage to this process was that there were no 'bridges' or gaps betweent the overlays.
Stenciling in the Late 19th and Early 20th-Centuries
By the late 19th century the Industrial Revolution had enabled mass production of wallpapers and other household items. Wallpapers were now available to the less affluent and began to soar in popularity. Even though Rudyard Kipling in 1899 had described a 'cozy study' as one 'decorated with a dado, a stencil, and cretonne hangings', stencils began to fall out of favor. Louis Comfort Tiffany and the Arts and Crafts movement kept stenciling alive but the availability of wallpapers and printed decorations of all sorts had started to relegate the art of stenciling to a non-relevant status.
Early film makers were still using stencils to color film frames. The hand colored painting of frames was a widely practiced art when color film production was in its early stages. In 1906, the Pathe company in France had developed a mechanical method to color frames using stencils which spread throughout the industry.
A small surge of interest in stenciling occurred in the beginning of the 20th century, when stencils were used for typefaces and other coloring techniques. Stencil-like letters were used to express a utilitarian aesthetic or a vernacular sensibility. Simple, spare, geometric, and stylized forms were the style choices for advertising, art books, typefaces, and posters. French publishers, influenced by Japanese printed textiles, used stencils to provide color separations for book illustrations. The process was similar to the hand coloring used 100 years before for theorem painting, but it differed in its painstaking efforts to reproduce exactly the nuanced tones of a color in a painting or image. Art book reproductions of Fauvist painters such as Derain required cutting separate stencils for every tint. Some of the best examples of fine printing using stencils are the reproductions of Pablo Picasso's Ballet RuPablo which were done in 1920.
During the Art Deco era of the 1920's and 1930's the use of stencils reached its last great height until today's upsurge of interest in stencil design. The french type foundry firm Deberny et Peignot offered their famous display typeface named "bifur" in 1929, followed by "Acier Noir" in 1936. Both typefaces expressed the spirit and style of the era. That same year Harper's Bazaar used stencils for the typeface in its logo.
As printing technologies advanced, however, the art and craft of stenciling became almost obsolete. By the late 1970's stencils were slowly coming back into fashion. In reaction to technological improvements which had supplied customers with a dizzying array of decorative options for the home, the desire for more personal, custom-made, and hand-painted patterns and designs began to resurge, and stencils today are as popular as they were in the 18th-century.
The Art of Stenciling Today: Rediscovered and Revolutionized
Stencils today comprise a wealth of historic precedent and stencil design choices are limitless. Stencils are now most commonly made from mylar, a flexible, strong, washable, transparent film which can be used mutiple times. Whether a designer is looking for the designs of a stylistic period or a patterns specific to a certain culture, whether custom-made or commercial, a stencil is available or can be custom-cut to specification. Stencil design today ranges from stylistic periods such as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Roccoco, the Neoclassical, the Victorian, the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras to American styles such as the Arts and Crafts movement and American folk art design. Patterns specific to a certain culture are also highly popular at the turn of the 21st century. From Chinese textiles and pottery designs, Japanese kimono and paintings, Persian floral motifs, Indian paisleys, Mughal designs, and Indonesian geometrics to Turkish and Arabic tessellated tile patterns, stencil design has reached a new height of artistry and innovation.
Stencils are used to decorate walls, ceilings and ceiling rosettes, floors such as concrete, stone and vinyl, carpets such as sisal, seagrass, canvas, and low-pile fibers, architectural elements such as doors, frames, moldings, staircase treads and risers, columns, pilasters, and mantelpieces. On soft furnishings, stencils are used on window fabric treatments, tablecloths, bedspreads, pillows, and lampshades. Stencils can be used to decorate furniture in the form of motifs, garlands, swags, wreaths, and panels, and to adorn household items such as trunks, trays and boxes.
The development of new 'finishes' for surfaces combined with the art of stenciling has given fresh and innovative choices to architects and designers. New innovations in surface treatment include textured finishes such as suede, stone, sand, reptile hide, stucco, leather, and slubbed silk; sheened finishes such as metallic and pearlescent glazes, paints and plasters; matte finishes such as lime paint washes and milk paint; and raised finishes using plasters and stuccos. Whether using a stencil over a surface already prepared with one of these finishes with an analagous or complimentary medium, or using these mediums themselves with which to stencil on a simple glazed wall, new and exquisite surface design is accessible, affordable, and is still, as it was 32,000 years ago, unique. The beauty and individuality of a custom made stencil is a vibrant and fresh option for fine interior decoration and as in the fine homes in centuries past, stenciling still offers the quality of fine hand-painting in the artistry of a skilled artisan.