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Airbrush Stencils - They're Powerful Tools

Updated on January 19, 2012

Stencils - give you wings ... or a ball and chain?

A good airbrush artist is usually good with other tools in his kit. Being good with an art or craft knife is very helpful. Of course, pens and pencils are indispensable tools that every artist knows very well. Stencils are tools too. They are the handiest devices, next to the airbrush itself. Or, they can be the greatest obstacle to creativity and excellence. A beginning airbrush artist that thinks he can rely on stencils to do the hard work, might as well put his airbrush on Craigslist. Instead, a new artist should let stencils be an adjunct to his talent. Use them to gain speed, repeatability, and a highly polished look. Don't become trapped by stencils. Use them to gain even higher creativity.

Shape is defined by tones

Stencils define the edges of shapes

There are no lines in the airbrush illustration above. The edge of the sphere is indicated by a contrast in value, not with a line. The only way to get knife-sharp edges with the airbrush is to use a mask or stencil of some kind. Stencils are often cut from card-stock paper with a knife. They can be a single piece. A one-piece stencil, used skillfully, can produce impressive work. But generally, they're reserved for simple shapes. More intricate work can be done with multi-piece stencils. Complex multi-piece stencils are called friskets. I suppose there's no limit to how many pieces a stencil can have. For Tshirt work, it's probably best to keep it under a dozen.

The sphere, cube and cone are very good shapes to learn stencil technique. Let's start with the sphere.

Cardstock is hard to beat

Beginners will find that an Exacto knife, a pack of blades, letter-size cardstock and some spray adhesive will be the fastest way to get started. Cardstock will fit cheap printers and you can print out stencil shapes. Of course, a pencil works too. The sphere stencil requires three or four pieces. The sphere is piece one , the shadow is piece two and the background is the third and major piece. A fourth piece is used as a straight-edge.

Draw or print the shapes below onto cardstock. Before you cut the lines, use the corner of a nickle (or similar object) to emboss a crease into the cardstock. Lightly spray the backside of each stencil piece with adhesive. Reassemble the pieces on your canvas or practice paper. Butcher paper is a good, low cost practice paper. After you have all the pieces in place, use the tip of your knife to lift the round shape back off. It will soon look like a 3D sphere. Use the Essential Stroke to lay on soft, light tones of light grey. Start by encircling the highlight (leave it white) with the lightest tone. Fill the rest of the sphere with the lightest tone. Begin to add deeper tones, start with the darkest regions of the shaded area. Don't lay on too much color at one time. Use successive strokes, taking care not to have blots at the end of your strokes. After the paint dries, cover the sphere up again. Use the crease as a guide to align the stencil pieces back together.

With the pieces back in place, your stencil should look something like the image below.

Repeat the process with the shadow, with one difference. Lift the background stencil #3 away slightly on the right-hand side. Allow the background stencil #3 to to rest in place, without touching the canvas. You might try that nickle again, under stencil #3, to hold it away. This will cause the shadow to have a blurry edge on right-hand side.

Before you put the shadow piece back in place, it should look like the image below.

Now, the good part

Replace the shadow stencil when the canvas is dry. Without knocking the sphere and shadow pieces out of place, remove the background, or stencil #3.

Now, use a sheet of cardstock as a straight-edge to mask off the foreground or the surface the ball rests on. Use the Essential Stroke in light successive layers to lay on a smooth, medium grey . Remember to "lead-in" and "follow-thru". The ready-to-paint stencil should like like the image below.

The unveiling

Remove the straight-edge mask. Remove the cover pieces from the sphere and shadow and your art should look something like this. "Ta Dah" !


Stencil technique will allow you to produce sharp-edge forms that you simply cannot do freehand. It is however, very necessary to learn to freehand with the airbrush, as stencils amplify your freehand ability, they do not not replace it. There are other simple stencils that can have impressive effects. I will present more in future Hubs.


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    • wordpaintrix profile image

      wordpaintrix 6 years ago from Huntington, WV

      Good tip about cardstock. And interestingly written.