The Magic of Handmade Art Stencils (And a Demo)

I began using art stencils fairly recently, and while I’m not sure what took me so long, I can tell you that I wish I had started sooner! I discovered that I can use a makeup sponge to dab leftover paint through a stencil on a blank art journal page, and have the beginnings of a colorful background. This felt like a huge step out of my comfort zone at first, but you might be ready to take your stencil art to the next level by creating your own custom stencils. Let Margaret Peot show you how.

Margaret is the author of Stencil Craft: Techniques for Fashion, Art, and Home, and it’s my pleasure to share with you the following excerpt from her book. Enjoy! ~Cherie

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The Magic of Art Stencils by Margaret Peot

There are two reasons to use cut art stencils, and sometimes they overlap. The main reason to use cut stencils is that you want to print one image more than once–several T-shirts with the same design, an edition of art prints or perhaps signage for a party. The second reason is that you want the particular look that a stencil gives: bold and crisp. In order to function and to be effective, the stencil has to be hyper-designed; highlights and shadows become abstract shapes, lines have changeable weight. Delicate marks are not as easy to get with a stencil. A stencil generally makes marks with a strong appearance and precise edges.

The magic of art stencils is that they can be used and re-used for a multitude of projects. The same stencil can be used to print a T-shirt, a greeting card, placemats, a tote, or can even be worked into a stencil collage.

Stencil Art: Print a One-Color Self Portrait

Making the stencils for this portrait brought to mind the paint-by-number experiences from my childhood. The shadows and lights were separated out in a surprisingly abstract manner, and yet it usually all came together in a satisfying way. You could make a stencil portrait in as many colors as a paint-by-number set, adding details and intricacy with each layer of color.

Editioning and paper placement: If you’re printing multiples for a series, tape the top of the stencil to your work surface and tape a ruler or straight edge down so you have something to butt your printing paper against. This will ensure that your paper placement is the same every time.

Materials: black acrylic paint • computer • frosted or matte Mylar or clear acetate • masking tape • medium-weight printmaking or drawing paper • pencil • photo of yourself • printer • Sharpie marker (fine point) • stencil brush • stencil burner • tracing paper

Make your own stencil (free) | Margaret Peot,
Custom stencils, Step 1

1. Choose a dramatically lit picture of yourself and print it out as big as you can. It doesn’t have to be high quality. Here I drew the back of my head in with a Sharpie directly onto the photograph as it was too low contrast to be seen when tracing in the next step.


Make your own stencil (free) | Margaret Peot,
How to make stencils, Step 2

2. Tape a piece of tracing paper over the photograph and start planning your stencil with a pencil. Draw around all the very lightest places and the dark places. There will be spots in the photo that are neither one nor the other–a medium tone–but you will have to decide whether or not they are black or white. Once you have decided what is black and what is white, commit to the lines by drawing over them with a Sharpie. You might want to color in some of the tracing to make sure it works.


Make your own stencil (free) | Margaret Peot,
Stencil art project, Step 3

3. With a fine-point Sharpie, trace the drawing onto a piece of stencil material, in this case matte Mylar. Since there are so many tiny details in this design, a stencil burner works great to cut it out.


Make your own stencil (free) | Margaret Peot,
Make your own stencil, Step 4

4. Using a stencil brush and black acrylic, paint through the stencil onto the paper below.


Make your own stencil (free) | Margaret Peot,
How to make your own stencil, Step 5

5. Lift the stencil when the paint is not super wet yet not totally dry. If you wait until it is completely dry, the stencil can stick slightly and pull off some of the paper when you peel it off. ~Margaret

Click here to continue reading when you get your copy of Stencil Craft!


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4 thoughts on “The Magic of Handmade Art Stencils (And a Demo)

  1. I am very interested in making my own stencils. I’ve already purchased 2 stencil burners and neither one has worked well enough to make smooth cuts. One in particular leaves little swollen up bits of melted mylar throughout as I cut. I placed my pattern under a piece of glass and taped the mylar on top of the glass. It doesn’t work very well and it’s very stressful to try and cut them, most are not usable…..what am I doing wrong? The 2nd one I bought was the most expensive one that Michaels had; it was Aileens stencil cutter and not a smooth cut was made, plus the smoke and fumes were bad and not something I care to breathe in again. Since then I’ve been cutting stencils out of manila folders with an exacto knife and/or scissors which are ok for big chunky details but for anything finer one really needs a good stencil burner. Can you recommend a better one for my 3rd try? Which one do you use?

    1. Hi again! Margaret has kindly provided the following answer for you. 🙂

      “Hi Petunia Blue,

      Stencil burners provide a lesson in patience for sure. But once you get the hang of using one, they are so useful! And the kind that I am accustomed to using was hard to find UNTIL I found the link below! I like the kind that is little—has a manageably small handle, and—most importantly–a bent tip. I am attaching photos of the two that I have ( and a close-up at When they are new the whole tip assembly is copper-y. It IS copper, but these have gotten all oxidized and burnt looking through use.

      The tips are replaceable, which is good, because when you use them a lot, the rather delicate tip can break off, and it is that delicate tip that makes the nice cuts, because you are not melting so much plastic as you are “cutting.” In the photo I have included, you can see that the tip is broken off on the one on the left and needs to be replaced. The one on the right, despite looking totally grungy and corroded is actually good to go.

      Tips for cutting successfully with a stencil burner:

      GO SLOW. You will have to go slower than you think to get a nice cut.

      DON’T STOP. When you are cutting, cut in a slow, smooth motion and don’t stop if you are cutting a long edge or curve. Stopping (and rushing) can make those rough edges of plastic.

      WORK IN A VENTILATED SPACE. Work in an airy space, by a window with a fan while using the stencil burner. If you find yourself cutting a lot of stencils, you might invest in a respirator for the fumes.

      Also, those little beads of plastic can be broken off, and if they can’t, you can use your X-acto to nip off the bigger ones. But you will still not have used your X-acto for cutting the whole darn thing, and that will save your hands.

      You can buy the kind I like from PJs, and she has stencil plastic as well. (

      Good luck!




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