How To Make Stencils

I get this question a few times a week, and I always feel bad at my replies. It’s a loaded question and I never have time to put together a good answer. Even if I do find the time, I often lack depth and real insight. To that end I would like to talk about making stencils, different methods, and how I do it.

First off, it’s important to realize that there is no wrong way to do this, only ways that might be wrong for you in particular. There are so many ways that things occur naturally to us to do them. If you try something that doesn’t seem right, don’t feel like you can’t manipulate that process to make it work for you, or even scrap it all together.

I’m going to talk about how I make my stencils, but it is a process that might be unnecessarily complicated or overkill for someone who is just coming into stenciling, so let me talk about some common ways of doing this first.

Go to Kinko’s

Seriously guys, you gotta check out this place Kinko’s. It’s a one stop shop for all your stencil needs. If you want one copy of a stencil or 100, these guys will run to help you like a raceway pit crew.

You can get your image printed in any size, on any thickness of paper, in color or no, they will laminate it, and it’s all about the price of a coffee. These guys will help you experiment and find the right materials for your project. You should consider letting them do the heavy lifting for you.

A pro-tip on choosing paper. You need to cut this, which can be hard on your wrist and your blades. Don’t pick the biggest thickest piece of paper they have by default, instead look for something that is just good enough.

Every part of this is an exercise in ‘less is more’. From glue to paint to how heavy your paper is, you want ‘just enough’. If you use too much paint, it will flow under your stencil. If you use too much glue, it will leave residue or pull up paint. If you use too strong a tape, it will damage your canvas. If you use too heavy a paper, you will not get the clean lines you want, and your stencil might fall off as it is too heavy for the glue to hold up.

When I started out I would buy packs of scrap-booking paper from the craft store, and those worked great. Nowadays I buy paper in bulk from a framing shop that will cut it to whatever size I want.

Cutting Stencils

Most of these methods require you to cut out your stencil with an exacto-knife or other by-hand cutting tool. This process takes time and can be tedious. I try to get Zen about it, become the knife or some such, but usually I just end up watching Frasier reruns. Here are some general tips about cutting.

Make sure you have a self healing mat. You can find them in fabric stores and the like in multiple sizes. This mat will allow you a surface to cut on that is smooth, and shouldn’t catch the edges of your stencil as you manipulate it. A decent one will last you years, even with frequent cutting.

There’s only so much detail you can cut. Even if you’re handy with the steel you can’t knock out 0.5 mm thick lines, and if you could the paint wouldn’t go through them. On the other hand, if you remove too much material when you cut your stencil will be brittle and flimsy, and more prone to overspray. This isn’t necessarily bad, but be aware of it.

Don’t skimp on razors. Change out the blade on your cutting tool whenever the tip breaks off. Razors are expensive to buy in small packs, but actually very cheap to buy in bulk. Look for hobby blades on ebay, you should be able to find 100 packs for about $15. One very common mistake that stencil artists make is using dull blades. My rule of thumb is that I change the blade for each new layer I cut, or whenever the tip breaks, whichever happens first. If it starts to feel dull, change it. A dull blade will lead to mistakes every time because you need to push it through the work, meaning you’ll eventually slip and cut something you didn’t mean to. I typically go through about three to five blades per stencil plate. It seems wasteful, but the right tools make all the difference.

When making long cuts, hold hold your knife at a lower angle and your hand further away from your blade. When cutting sharp corners, start at the corner and cut away from it.

Put your wrist on a book, don’t rest your hand on the stencil. You are likely to catch the edge of your stencil with your hand and bend it while cutting on another part. I find that having a book raising my hand off the paper helps my wrist stamina, and that it is much more effective to press down to cut a stencil than it is to try and pull along the edge while holding everything in place with my other hand. Aside from all this, keeping oils from your hands off your stencils, and therefor off your artwork, is important.

When cutting I always try to cut the most detailed areas first, for two reasons. The more material you remove, the flimsier your stencil gets. This means that the first cuts you make will be the easiest, as the material is at it’s stiffest. Secondly it’s best to handle the hardest parts when your blade is sharpest, and before the claw sets in.

Take lots of breaks and be patient. You seriously need to do this. No part of the process of painting a painting from stencils can be rushed. You will only make mistakes and they will haunt you. Make sure to get up and walk around every hour and get your blood moving. It’s easy to put your hands in stress positions for extended periods of time without really realizing it and end up with ‘the claw’.

Printing Stencils at Home

When I first started doing this I made my stencils in a different manner than I do now.

If you have a printer that has the ability to print your image on photo paper, you can consider this to be good stencil materiel. While photo paper doesn’t hold up great to repetitive use, you can still get at least one good layer out of it.

Remember to reverse the image. It usually doesn’t matter as stencils can usually be flipped over, but keep this in mind with multi-layer stencils. Often you have to consider registration marks, or guidelines, which are cuts you make across all your stencils in order to line them up. Accidentally flipping one stencil but not another can cause you issues. Some simply can’t be flipped and still work with the design you want.

If you need to print your design onto regular white printer paper, we can work with that. I have a middle of the road laminator, which you can find for around $40. Laminated paper is my personal preference if I am hand cutting. It will stand up to multiple sprays, it cuts cleanly, meaning no little “hairs” or paper fibers, and best of all it cuts smoothly and easily. If you are planning on a single use stencil, plain paper works just as well.

If all this seems like a lot of work, you can try just gluing your printed image to a heartier piece of paper. This works decently to fortify your stencil, though I have found this method leaves an imperfect edge. I always get little paper slivers that look like hairs, and they sometimes transfer to the surface.

The downsides to making stencils in this manner are your restrictions on size. You are limited by the output of your printer. You can however piece stencils together to make bigger ones. Here’s a site that will help you break your image up into a poster that you can print in pieces. I will try and update this article with a video about piecing together stencils.

Transparent Materials

I know a lot of people who create their stencils out of see-through materials, such as mylar, acetate, transparency paper, or even freezer paper. This is a very effective way to go about your stencil making.

Simply glue down the image you wish to transfer with some spray adhesive, then tape your mylar on top of it with painters tape trace the image with a permanent marker. Use a ruler for the straight lines. Permanent marker wipes off of Mylar very easily with a Q-Tip and rubbing alcohol. Some people put a clear hard plastic between the two. I can’t actually say how well this works as I’ve never made my stencils this way, but I would love to hear in the comments if you have an opinion. I have heard of people having trouble using the classic exacto to cut plastic and instead using an electric cutting tool. I don’t have one but it might be worth looking into if you are going to use mylar or some other thin plastic.

If you want to use this method to transfer to paper you will need a drawing lightbox or tracing table, which is a very affordable tool for artists that projects a light behind your given image allowing you to trace it. A lightbox is cheap to build if you are a little bit crafty, and I’ve even seen people just use a monitor. You might feel like this would be an ineffective way of doing your layers and design work when you could just go to the computer, Photoshop, and print everything, but it isn’t always. It’s very often a lot easier to visualize your stencil and layers if you do them in this manner. I do my stencils like this when I’m working on a portrait, because I like the look of my own organic layers a lot better than the ‘threshold’ setting in Photoshop or Gimp.

Sticky Stencils

I know a couple people who make their stencils from tape, vinyl, frisket film, or other sticker materiel. Making your stencils in this manner gives you a unique perk, as you can build your islands (The spaces that don’t into the first layer of your stencil painting are known as islands) right into your designs, and not have to paint them back in later layers.

For example, If I were painting a letter ‘A’ using the traditional method of layering, I would start by painting the whole thing as solid. I would then come back with another stencil and fill in the little triangle in the middle with the background color. If I were using sticker materiel, I would be able to do it all in one go, saving me time and effort.

A drawback to making your stencils from a sticky materiel is that they are almost never reusable.

If you have access to a vinyl cutter, or feel like making the investment, it is a versatile tool that you can use to make detailed and precise stencils. Once you cut your stencil out, you use transfer tape to move it to the surface you want to work on. A vinyl cutter can also be used for projects other than stenciling, like making decals.

While I have never used tape to make stencils, I know some people who do. They cover the surface in scotch or painters tape, and the cut away the excess right from there. Here is a video from Slew with him doing this. If you are doing a large area such as a wall, you can make cool patterns with painters tape.

Frisket film is a material widely used for stenciling by airbrush artists, especially in the automotive industry. It is a plastic film that is a bit stretchy and is adhesive on one side. It cuts very easily with an exacto and can be bent around curves. If you’re working on a very smooth surface (i.e. finished metal, fiberglass or plastic) frisket film is second to none. It can work well on wood and painted walls, too. It won’t really stick to anything rough, like brick, stone, or canvas. The major problem with frisket film is that it is very flexible and tends to stick to itself , and is virtually worthless for more intricate stencils. It’s also difficult to get multiple uses out of it. The adhesive will work more then once, but peeling anything but the simplest design off without stretching it or sticking it to itself is a challenge.

Other Random Ways

If you have access to an overhead projector you can use that to transfer your image to the surface you are working on. This is especially helpful if you are working on a large vertical surface like a wall. You can use a projector along with the tape method, tracing your image onto the tape and them cutting away the excess.

If you have a printer that uses toner, you can use acetone to transfer the image from the paper to whatever surface you are working with. Print the image reversed, then use cotton balls and the acetone to rub the toner out of the paper. This is actually a classic way of making stencils, and a lot of people I know use this method. It works very well.

Hectograph and thermal paper can be a good for making stencils, this is the preferred method for tattoo artists. Tracing a design with this materiel behind it will leave an imprint of it on your stencil materiel which you can then cut out.

You can cut robust stencils from the thin clear cutting boards you get from the dollar store. Trace your image through the board with a permanent marker, cut, and you are good to go.

Cutting Machines

While it’s not quite as punk rock, if you are serious about making stencils and want the ability to reproduce your artwork, a cutting machine is the way to go. You can use a machine to cut vinyl or paper stencils for you. I have gone to mostly using a cutting machine to produce my stencils, but it is a non-traditional setup that I will go into in more depth in my next blog entry.

I think it’s really important to mention that a cutting machine doesn’t rid you of work, it just moves it to another medium. I spend more time doing a design on my computer and breaking it into layers than I would if I just hand cut a stencil. The main advantage of doing things this way is that once it’s done you can cut as many as you need. I can reproduce my artwork or redo layers I mess up on without worrying too much about preserving the stencil. I get to use all my stencils only once, and every painting can have its own fresh set. My registration marks always line up.

I’m not going to give recommendations on different kinds of cutting machines, as I only have experience with a few, but I would like to recommend the software Sure-Cuts-a-Lot. It is built specifically for building stencil sets and works better than any program I have ever used. It paste’s in place across multiple layers and exports to many cutters and even to other proprietary cutting programs. Their Facebook page is very active if you have questions about whether it will work with your setup.

In Conclusion

I’ve mentioned a lot of ways people make stencils, but I’ve been careful not to say any of them is the right way. There is only the right way for you in particular. Over the years I have done this I have thought I had everything figured out many times, but being creative doesn’t stop at the edges of the canvas. Being fluid with your process and learning other ways of going about it only helps you create more concise and diverse artwork. Don’t ever stop learning.

I can’t believe how well this is going..

I really can’t.

I don’t know why I decided to start a blog two months before the Christmas holiday. Even if you are an artist who doesn’t often work, odds are you are busy this time of year. If not with commission work, then at least with making gifts for loved ones.

When I decided to get out of the studio for a while and focus on promotion, I expected a slow buildup, something like when I first started painting. I grew as an artist over many years, and it took a long time before people thought of me as ‘that artist guy I know’. I thought building up knowledge of myself to the world would be a slow burn, but it is a bright fire.

Where to even start..

I picked up two older model Go-pros on Ebay for about $50 each, a couple cheap tripods from Amazon, and went to work making instructional videos.

I’ve never done any filming or editing, but I know I’ll spend hours watching people create on YouTube and dream of doing it myself. When I watch the actual work that goes into something I have a much deeper appreciation for it. I see the story of it, and getting people to see that should be one of your main goals if you want to sell your artwork. Using Youtube to as a medium to tell that story seems obvious. It’s yet another window in my storefront.

I took video of my next project, and quickly found that filming everything I do as I am painting is really hard! It was hard to know where to start. I set one camera up stationary at my painting table and had the other move around with me. It takes a lot of steps to paint with stencils, the preparation takes almost all of the work so there is a ton to show. The actual painting part is over pretty quickly so I needed to think about how I could make my videos interesting but also informative. My main goals in this are to entertain, inform, and to show the immense amount of work that goes into a piece so I don’t feel so bad about my prices.

I would say it took twice as long to paint that piece as it would have normally, but at the end I had hours of footage. I spent the next day learning about video editing, eventually settling on Lightworks. The free version only requires you register and is a very powerful editor. There are a lot of good videos to learn the basics and it only took a day before I edited my first video! I was super proud of it at the time, but in retrospect it wasn’t very good. A lot like my first painting. With a lot of good feedback and watching others make similar videos, every subsequent one has improved and I now have a format I am happy with. I have been able to upload a video with every painting I think will be of interest to people and like my paintings, I see how they get better the more I practice.

I sold 3 copies of my last painting and another that was similar by releasing the painting on the appropriate Reddit along with the video in the comments. I had one customer say to me that he would have never bought the piece if it hadn’t been for the video, which was quite a validation. The video drove people to my website where they actually bought paintings! They were also finding my social media from there. I was overcome with work from just one post. None of that has ever been the case for me.

That’s really only the beginning of the story. The other points in my plan are working out just as well. I’m gaining 5-6 followers a day on Instagram and interacting with a lot of other artists there. I’ve made a plans for some art shows that I am really excited about, 3 months in my local library for one! I have a new logo and new business cards. And most importantly, I have work!

My wife worries over me that I am working too hard, but I try and convince her that I’m seriously loving every second of it. I wish I could work more and sleep even less. Keep an eye out for more once Christmas calms down. I have so much more to share!

Creating an Online Store Using SquareUp

Why Bother?

anxiety-charlie-brownThe first thing to do in this journey was to put together a store. You need a store because it is not always obvious when you post a piece on social media that it is available for purchase. You can even write a ‘Message me for inquiries’ or something of the sort, but most people won’t. If they can’t see the price easily, they are not likely to come asking. You need to create a place to send your followers who want your artwork! It needs to be something they can find quickly and make a purchase from easily.

Creating a store is not a guarantee that you will sell something, but it’s certainly an obvious first step. Eventually I will link this site in my Instagram, on my Facebook fan page, on my Youtube videos, on Pintrest, and to this very blog.

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WHY SQUARE?

I have been using Etsy for years but it has completely dropped off. Etsy pushes new stores to the front of their search results, and so the longer you rely on them, the less sales you will see. It’s good that they help new stores get seen, but its at your expense the longer you use them.

I went to square to set up my first online store as it is free, fair to the vendor, and a good place to start. Since I am barely selling anything right now, I was looking for something without a monthly charge like Weebly, Wix, or Go Daddy.

Square has a transaction charge like Etsy, but no listing charge. Square only charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction, verses Etsy which charges a 3.5% transaction fee, a $0.20 listing fee every 4 months, and a 3%+ processing fee. If you are already using the service, and you aren’t selling a lot, there no reason you can’t use both. I still have my Etsy page, but I have turned off the automatic renewal of my items. I’m not sure if I will revive that or not.

Square allows me to take all my artwork on the go and sell it without having to update the site, as they gave me a chip reader that syncs with their free app. I can take everything to a festival or market, charge people’s cards from my phone, and my website updates. I also appreciate that money from sales made goes into my bank account within a day.

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SO WHAT’S THE CATCH?

There are only a few templates to choose from, and you can only ship within the United States.

I find that if you are trying to sell more than 20 or 30 items it can start to look cluttered, as there is no way to filter items besides adding sections to your main page.

The biggest drawback for me was that the site does not accept HD photos, so showing off my paintings was going to be a challenge. My artwork is my real storefront, and if people can’t get a good look at it what’s the point? I overcame this obstacle by uploading my HD images to Imgur and then linking them in the descriptions.

Image-sizes-1024x312As far as resizing images goes, here is a guide to the sizes of images used in each template. I am using the Atlas theme. I want to note that the site will accept images in the general ballpark of these guidelines. I just use faststone capture to quickly resize or grab images.

Overall Squares limitations aren’t that restrictive, and I haven’t seen anything better that is also freely available.

THE BASICS

I used the set up guide over at square, and found it to be easy enough to follow. but I’ll mention a few important standouts.

Make sure and put a lot of thought into the name of your store. It should be consistent with the name of your business and/or your social media presence. If you have yet to pick a store name, do a google search to make sure someone else isn’t using it. You don’t want to make competition for yourself.

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Square lets you attach a custom domain if you want to. A domain name is the address your site uses and a custom one let’s you stand apart and look professional. Since this was my first step, I wanted to see what names were available before I got into pushing my brand. I wouldn’t want to get all through the processes of building pages and social media presences only to discover nothing remotely matching my brand was available.

You can search for domain name from google domains here. Google will list the yearly price and alternate domains that are also available. As long as a domain is not popular, most of them run about 12$ a year. I had to settle for a .net address as SubtleShades.com was a premium domain.

Eventually, if this all works out like I hope and I see some success, I would like to park my domain on this WordPress site and link back to the store from here. That way I don’t have to worry about making Square my actual website, just my store. WordPress hosting can be expensive but I will get there.

You can give your site a custom header, logo, and a couple footers, so make sure and take advantage of that with something grabs your customer’s attention right off the bat. I use this image of my spray cans. 2018-11-07_010249It pops, and it has the name of the business along with my name. If you don’t have Photoshop check out picfont or canva for online image editing.

Take advantage of the ‘contact’ and ‘about’ sections that are available to you. If you can tell people a story about yourself and get them to relate to you, you can draw them into your artwork and make it more personal to them. I like to tell the story of how I became an artist, because people get the feeling that maybe they could do this too and I like that. It makes it easier to connect to strangers and easier to talk business.

I take a great deal of care in writing my image descriptions, making each one have at least some uniqueness. I try to tell the story of the painting, why I painted it, what makes it special, the inspiration, how I feel about the subject matter. It all helps the potential customer connect with the piece. If it doesn’t speak to them, they aren’t going to buy it.

On shipping, people like free shipping. Figure a conservative amount into the cost of your piece and call it a day. It’s easier for both you and the customer when things cost what they cost.

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CONCLUSIONS

I may not use this site forever, but for now it’s exactly what I need. As a long-term goal, a full WordPress site would be preferable. Honestly even if I was paying for hosting a top-notch wordpress site, I still would integrate Square with it to keep track of my inventory and retain the ability to take payments on the go.

I hope this has helped you on your way towards your own online store. If you are interested in starting your own store but don’t have an account you can follow this referral link. Referring others to Square will earn you up to $1000 in free processing.

If you have any questions click the contact button up there and chat me up on discord. Always happy to talk art, meet new people, and get ideas for new posts here.

Inventing Myself

Lately the phrase ‘If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.’ has been rattling around in my head. I have been at this a long time, almost 15 years now, and I think a little bit of that overnight success would be just fine.

I got to thinking that after doing this so long, maybe it was time to reinvent myself. Its normal for artists and the like to reinvent themselves, right? Giving my brand a shake up should bring me some new attention. I need to remind people I exist, which in turn will get them interested in my work again.

What exactly am I reinventing though? I have slacked off on every part of this profession that isn’t straight making art for almost the entirety of the time I have been at it. I’m really going to have to invent myself before I try and reinvent myself.

Right now, I am largely unknown. In my own small community some people know about me, but outside of that I don’t have much social media interaction. I have about 200 followers on instagram, about 1000 on facebook, and interact with a small community on reddit, r/stencils. A gallery in my town shows my art, and it does get seen by a lot of people. I am grateful for that.

Its my own fault for forgoing self promotion. It’s just plain hard for me to do. Whenever I go to extremes to show people my work, I always feel like I’m a kid running around getting my parents to look at my coloring book. I often find a lot of fault with my artwork that others do not see, which I’m sure you do as well.

Honestly I would just rather paint all the day and night away in my little studio in my backyard. The promotion, distribution, and even the selling of my artwork seems secondary to what I would rather be doing, which is just painting whatever comes to mind. At the end of the day, it’s just a waste not to get some of artwork out into the world. Selfishly, I work super hard at this daily. If I don’t bother with marketing and selling, what am I even doing here besides decorating the heck out of my house.

When I first started out in this as a hobby, the people in my social circle really support me and help drive us toward our goals, even if those goals weren’t yet defined. They bought my crappy art and told me it was good. My friends and family were really great about motivating me to continue in my artistic pursuits.

In those early days I felt a lot of popularity come from my art. Everything I posted was adored by people I was associated with, and like a drug it kept me painting. After 10 years of shoving my art in the same folks faces, it’s just not that special to them anymore, even if the content has greatly improved. Like the difference in how people treat news of your first child against that of your second. That’s a knock on me though, not them.

So how can I get my hands on some of that success? Over the last few months I have been putting together a series of goals, things that I think will help me gain more traction within this very competitive community. I will expound on these goals as I accomplish them and future posts will go into further detail on the specifics of each.

  • Create a professional looking store and website with a custom domain. Focus on driving clicks.
  • Begin writing an art blog.
  • Produce Youtube videos, both for entertainment and instruction. Focus on showing people how easy this art thing is.
  • Grow my social media following. Expand the platforms I use.
  • Live stream painting sessions to twitch or Youtube.
  • Creating a live chat system on Discord.
  • Get endorsements.
  • Paint more!

As I work towards this, these goals might evolve. I hope they do. I’m looking forward to taking myself and what I do a little more seriously. I am a good artist, and so are you, we just need to get that through to the rest of the world.

I was expressing some self doubt to my wife about all this, having spent a good amount of money on video camera and other equipment. She is always supportive, and like always she gave me a good piece of wisdom. She told me that all this did not occur to me for no reason. If I see this as a possible path to success, it probably is. Even if the outcome is less than I hope for, only good things can come from trying. The journey to get there only strengthens me as an artist.

If it only took ten-thousand hours of patience and practice to get me here, whats another ten-thousand. If you love to make art, or anything really, there are a lot worse ways to spend your life.