Trendabilities: Stencils

A Mixed-Media Trend Report by Rebecca E. Parsons

Did Somebody Say Stenciling?

Oh My Goodness, stencils and stenciling make me happy. I was in Michael’s this weekend and discovered the new line of Martha Stewart stencils. I was almost jumping with joy. You may or may not know that I was the editor-in-chief for twelve years of the only publication dedicated to the art of stenciling, The Artistic Stenciler magazine. It ceased publication in 2008 as interest in stenciling waned. So imagine my delight to see that it is not a vanishing art form, it is merely transforming and evolving.

As most arts do over the years, stenciling has seen many transformations. The earliest art form known to man, stenciling appeared on the caves of Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain dating from the Upper Paleolithic era, approximately 10,000–40,000 years ago. The stencil artists would place their hands on the stone cave walls, chew plants and blow the resulting pigments thru a hallowed out reed or bone and stencil their hands. The earliest known example is dated some 32,000 years ago.

Early South Sea islanders also used banana and bamboo leaves to stencil. Leaves were perforated and a vegetable dye was pressed through the holes. In Indonesia stenciling was used in combination with batik. In Ancient Egypt stencils were used for the decoration of tombs. Ancient Greeks outlined their mosaic designs with stencils. Romans in Pompeii used stencils to decorate their interior wall surfaces. The king of the Ostrogoths used a stencil made from gold ingot to sign his name to official documents from 475-526 A.D.

Traveling itinerant artists like Moses Eaton and Rufus Porter in the 18th century performed early American stencil art. It was considered fashionable to have a stenciled piece of furniture or a stenciled wall or architectural feature. Most of these stencils were plain patterns with noticeable bridges (the areas not covered with paint). Stenciling then went out of vogue as it does with some regularity throughout history. You can read a more comprehensive history of stenciling here.

Theorem or Bridgeless Stenciling

During the 1800’s a new fondness for stenciling reached academies and boarding schools. Young girls were introduced to the art of theorem painting. From an article on Ann Bishton Stencils website, “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 between the overlays.”

This type of bridgeless stenciling evolved in the late 20th century when a resurgence of painted wall decoration was discovered by interior designers, architects and homeowners beginning in the 1980’s and continuing for more than a decade. Then the desire for stenciled walls went out of fashion.

Trends in Stenciling for Artists

As the aspiration for stenciled walls began to fade, the love of stenciled patterns began to morph and reemerge among mixed-media artists. The art form that has been reinventing itself for 40,000 years seems once more in fashion. And the possibilities are endless.

Connect and Interact with Me

Do you like to use stencils? Please tell me what is your favorite stencil and how it inspired you to make art. I love to connect and interact with you, so please share your thoughts below!


Rebecca E. Parsons is the creative force behind Cre8tive Compass Magazine, Cre8Tiva’s Blog and Artistically Speaking Talk Show. In her spare time, Rebecca is a digital and photographic mixed-media R-tiste, Retreat Leader, Dreamer, Possibility Coach, Lifelong Communicator & Blissful Wordsmith—just one inspired creative soul on a journey to Cre8Topia. Unconventional and delightfully curious, she is passionate about helping others embrace the artist within and create a life around their passion.


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2 Responses to Trendabilities: Stencils

  1. CarolineA says:

    Thank you for an interesting article, and providing a link for further investigation! it just goes to show that there is really little in the art world that is new, except for how we do things and the materials used. The ideas have always been there. Wouldn’t those far away artists have loved our shiny new toys!!

  2. CarolineA…you are welcome. Oh those artists from long ago would be thrilled with what we have today!!!