Studio Saturday: Layering Stencils

Studio Saturday is taking a short break this week. Please enjoy this post, portions of which were previously published on our sister site, Artist’s Network! ~ Jeannine

I love layering stencils to create mixed-media art—there’s something about the look that always makes me linger over it. When I first saw art journal pages that featured layered stencils, I wondered what alchemy happened to create such beautiful complexity.

Luckily there’s no magic, just a lot of fun and play with stencils and paint. Layering stencils is easy, as long as you leave yourself open to trying new things without worrying that you’ll ruin anything. Because you won’t. It’s not possible.

With the holidays fast approaching, I decided to get a head start on making some cards and tags. If you have a lot of cards and tags to make, an efficient way of doing so is creating on a large sheet of sturdy paper, then cutting it up. I started with a 12″ x 18″ sheet of cold-press watercolor paper. This layering technique can also be used for art journal pages, of course, as well as canvases.

Feeling energetic, I primed three sheets of paper with white gesso. As Dina Wakley often reminds us, gesso is like primer for your paper. Since we’ll be subtracting as well as adding paint to the paper, I highly recommend not skipping this step–it will make the process much easier and produce better results. I used DecoArt Media Gesso in white, which is nice and thick, providing a great base coat for the paint layers.

Next, I chose a palette of tube acrylic paints to work with. I find that wrangling your colors is a good way to not only streamline your process, but also take some of the anxiety out of wondering what colors to add. This palette was simple—pink and green, my favorite holiday colors. I used light and dark values of pink and red (crimson and neon pink), green (light green, sap green, and phthalo green), plus titanium white, ivory black, and DecoArt Media Translucent White.

After the gesso layer dried I scraped on splotches of light pink and green paint with a used gift card. If you allow the paint to dry you can overlap complementary colors without getting mud, and acrylic paint dries pretty quickly.

Then I placed a stencil over some of the paint swatches and removed the paint through the stencil, using a baby wipe.

Swiping paint with a gift card as first step for layering stencils
Swiping paint on paper with a gift card creates a great first layer.

It’s easiest to do this when the paint is still damp, but if your gesso layer is solid, you can also do it when the paint is dry. You may not be able to take as much paint off, but even rubbing off a little bit can result in a really cool effect. Here’s where you’ll be thankful you added the gesso layer. Without it, you’re likely to damage the paper if you start to rub the fibers off.

Removing paint through a stencil with a baby wipe
An easy way to create layers is to remove paint with a baby wipe through a stencil.

I added another stencil layer in a darker pink with a sponge, painting the motif in a few different spots on the paper and making sure to go over the previous layer, building depth. Make sure you go off the paper with the stencil to create an overall design, otherwise it looks like the motifs were squished into the space. I also added some shading. When the first layer dried, I mixed some ivory black with the original color and sponged it on in the lower part of the design.

Layering one stencil design over another to add depth
Layering stencils over other stencil designs also helps to create depth and interest.

As you can see from the palette, I built on the original colors to make sure that the shades worked together.

Paint palette for layering stencils
Build on your paint colors to create consistency.

Time for another stencil layer; this one is simple dots done in a mid-tone green. I also used the stencil to remove some of the paint again, creating more dimension.

Layering stencils with dot designs
Yet another layer–dots made with paint and by removing paint.

Next I used a stencil mask and an even darker shade of green. I didn’t worry too much about how messy the paint looked around the design, since I knew I’d be layering stencils over it.

Creating positive and negative shapes with a mask for layering stencils
Masks allow you to use the negative and positive parts of the image.

I stenciled the mask two more times on the page, added more of the original leaf stencil design in a very dark pink, and used that same stencil and a baby wipe to again remove paint in some areas. Layering stencils is all about the push and pull of color, value and pattern; I worked on this page in one stretch of time, but if you’re not sure about where to go next, come back in about an hour or so and look at the piece with fresh eyes. Or, take a photo, which gives you a more objective view of the piece, and you can often see immediately what it needs. Don’t be afraid to include very dark values—this adds an incredible amount of depth and interest. If you feel you’ve added too much you can always lighten it. The times I’ve pushed myself to add dark values I’ve never regretted it.

Layering stencils and using a variety of paint colors results in depth and dimension
The page is beginning to take shape now, thanks to many layers and a variety of values.

After working with deeper colors I wanted to put a little bit of light back in, so I added an abstract stencil design in a few areas with Translucent White, which gave an almost 3-D effect. As I worked with each layer I tried not to overthink the process, and that freed me up to just go for it. You can always add another layer if you really don’t like something, or use gesso to cover it up.

Adding lighter values to darker areas by layering stencils
Translucent White paint adds lighter values among the deeper shades.

I thought the piece needed some detail, so I doodled in a few areas with a white gel pen.

Adding doodling to stencil designs
Stencil designs provide great opportunities for doodling.

The piece also needed a touch of bling—it’s for the holidays, after all! I used transfer foil in gold to add some high shine. To do this, I first brushed on some heavy matte gel medium with a stiff bristle brush. I was going for a sketchy look to complement the abstract design.

Adding foiling to stenciled sheet
To add foiling to the piece, I brushed on heavy gel medium in spots.

When the gel went from wet to tacky I pressed on some Therm O Web iCraft Deco Foil in gold, burnished it with the end of the paintbrush, then removed the foil.

Burnishing transfer foil
The transfer foil was burnished with the end of the paintbrush.

Here comes the big reveal….ta-da! Is there seriously anything better than metallic foils? The wow factor is off the charts, and it’s incredibly easy to do.

Adding transfer foil to layering stencils technique
The metallic foil offers an incomparable shine.

Here’s the finished full sheet:

Finished sheet showing the technique of layering stencils
Adding touches like doodling and foiling makes layering stencils even more fun.

I cut up this sheet to make holiday cards and tags, adding machine stitching to some to incorporate texture. You can also add stamped images, drawings, or embellishments. Here’s one more card:

Holiday card using layering stencils technique
After cutting up the large paper, I created holiday cards and added stitching.

There’s so much to explore with layering stencils, and the fun is in the process. I’ve gathered a few of my favorite resources below, and I hope you’ll check them out. Also, see how artist Julie Fei-Fan Balzer created her own layered stencil design to create a unique T-shirt!

Art Journaling Live 3 video
The Art Journaling Live 3 video features incredible stencil techniques from top artists.
Stencil Craft by Margaret Peot
Discover fun and innovative ways to use stencils in Stencil Craft by Margaret Peot.
Printmaking Unleashed by Traci Bautista
Stencils are a great tool for printmaking, and Traci Bautista shows how in Printmaking Unleashed.


Blog, Mixed-Media Techniques