The old folk art of stenciling can be an easy and inexpensive way to create hand-painted Christmas cards, wrapping, and gifts. Stencil painting is given its name because the paint is applied only within a pattern (or “stencil”) cut from a lightweight plastic sheet. In most craft stores you’ll find precut stencils of holly, candles, stockings, teddy bears, and all kinds of Christmas motifs. If you have an idea for your own designs, you can also buy inexpensive clear plastic to cut into your own stencil.
Paints for stenciling are available in both acrylics and oils, and both can be used to stencil just about everything you can imagine. Christmas cards and gift tags, wrapping paper, stationery and note cards can all be done on paper. A plain lunch sack makes a cute gift bag when it’s stenciled and tied with a ribbon. Fabric items such as aprons, dish towels, pillowcases, even sweatshirts and tote bags can be painted for fun gift giving. Think also about stenciling wooden baskets, stools, or decorative plaques.
• 1. A stencil pattern. Check your craft store for precut stencils, preprinted patterns that you cut yourself, or clear sheets of plastic suitable for making your own stencil patterns. Cut stencil patterns with a craft knife or small sharp scissors.
• 2. Brushes. Special stiff, flat-tipped brushes are needed for stenciling. For most projects you’ll want a small brush and a medium-sized brush.
• 3. Paints. Acrylic paints of the ideal liquid consistency for stenciling are available in many colors. These are easy to use and wash up with water or rubbing alcohol. Oil paints for stenciling are found in a handy stick form, but they must be cleaned up with paint thinner or turpentine and are a little more expensive.
• 4. Other supplies. Have old newspapers to put under the work area, paper towels for cleanup, cotton balls to clean the stencils themselves, paper cups for rinsing brushes, masking tape to hold down the stencil, and rubbing alcohol or paint thinner to clean paint from the brushes. You’ll also need something to hold the dabs of paint while you’re working.
• 5. Optional supplies. If you plan to stencil a lot on fabric you might get a can of spray fixative, a lightweight adhesive that you spray onto the back of the stencil to hold it snugly in place while you paint. Consider getting a masonite board to paint on. The board makes an ideal smooth, flat surface, but any smooth table works well, too.
• 6. Something to paint. A roll of heavy brown paper is ideal for making cards with a country look, gift tags, and clever wrapping paper. To make stationery or holiday cards, check with photocopy shops, bookstores, office supply, and card stores for paper in many colors and weights.
• Prepare what you’re going to paint. You might want to press the crease on cards to give them a crisp look. Use a regular dry flatiron. Some fabric items might need pressing or even prewashing before you start.
• Use old newspaper to protect your work area. Tape your stencil in place over the project. But use tape carefully if you are working on paper because you may ruin the paper when you remove the tape. Pour a small dab of liquid paint, or rub the oil paint stick to make a dab on the paper plate or whatever you’re using to hold paint. Dip the stencil brush lightly into the paint. Keep the brush as dry as possible with just a little paint on the tip.
• Move around the inner edges of the stencil with a straight up and down tapping motion. Use lots of quick, light taps to apply the paint. Start around the edges of the stencil while there is the most paint in the brush and work your way to the center to give a delicate shaded effect. Take care to make sure you have covered every little bit of the edge of the stencil so it will have a distinct, solid edge when the pattern is removed.
• Don’t be tempted to swish your brush around or use lots of paint, or it may seep under the edge of the stencil and ruin the design. If you want an area darker, just keep tapping.
• Clean your brush between colors, but dry it thoroughly. A wet brush will leak paint and make a mess of your project. Also keep your fingers clean. Stencils need to be cleaned after each use. Use a cotton ball and alcohol or turpentine, as appropriate, to gently rub the paint from your stencil.
• Acrylic paints dry quickly, but be careful with your project until it is really dry. Oil paints take several hours to dry. Most of the paints can be used on fabric. Read the label of the paint to make sure it is recommended for fabric and is washable.
• A small container of stencil paint goes a long way, and of course the stencils and brushes can be used again and again, which makes stenciling an ideal project to share with a friend. It’s also a fun art skill that you can use long past the holiday season.