Make Your Own Stencils!

Last week, we joined the Hyde Collection in celebrating the opening of the new Feibes & Schmitt Gallery during their annual Community Day celebration. If you hadn't heard, the Hyde received an enormous donation of modern art (like, $11M worth) and another $1M to build a new gallery space to house that work. It's a milestone for the Hyde and for the city of Glens Falls.

Photo credit:  Tom Watkins

Photo credit: Tom Watkins

The opening of the new gallery coincided with the Hyde's annual Community Day celebration, in which the museum opens their doors to the public for free. We were invited to take part in the festivities by Jenny Hutchinson, the Education Coordinator at the Hyde. We wanted to put together a fun, engaging activity that kids and adults alike could enjoy. Cue: Stencils! We decided we'd create stencils based on some of our favorite works of art from the Hyde's permanent collection. We chose a sketch by Degas, a Renaissance angel by an unpronounceable Italian (affectionately known as "Angel with Attitude"), and a view of the Hyde House, itself.


We also wanted to use the stencils in a practical way, so we decided to print them on tote bags. That way, when the totes are out in the wild, people will be reminded of the amazing artworks housed at the Hyde. We got such a great response from museum-goers during the event that we thought we'd share a quick tutorial on the stencil-making process. If you're interested in the step-by-step, follow along below!


The first step is to find high quality images of your subject. Luckily, the Hyde is just down the street, so we were able to jog over and snap a few photos. Once you have your image, open it in Photoshop. If you don't have Photoshop, you can download a free image editor, like GIMP. In Photoshop, convert the image to grayscale (Image>Mode>Grayscale) and add a Levels adjustment (Image>Adjustments>Levels) to improve the brightness and contrast. 


In this step, we want to reduce the number of colors in the image so we can convert it into different stencils for each color. For our stencils, we stuck to two colors but you can do as many as you'd like. Go to Image>Adjustments>Posterize to reduce the number of colors. In the dialog box that appears, check "Preview" so you can see the effect.


The Posterize effect will reduce the number of colors in the image, but it won't be perfect. So, we have to repair the image. With the brush tool, fill in any areas that have been degraded by the posterizing effect. This takes a bit of time and practice, but allows you to control exactly what your stencil will look like in the end. You'll repeat this step for each color in your design. Pro tip: Make sure to build bridges to any islands that may occur in the artwork. If you think of the letter "O", the center is an "island", meaning if you cut the outer circle to make a stencil, you'd be left with a big 'ol circle. Therefore, you have to make "bridges" so that the "O" has both inner and outer rings. If this is confusing, don't worry! It will make more sense as you begin to cut out your stencil.


Print out each layer for your design separately. Next, you'll need stencil material. We use mylar for it's durability and transparency, but any clear film will do! Tape your printouts to the back of the mylar and begin to cut out your stencil. You could use scissors, an x-acto knife or an electric stencil cutter—this is our weapon of choice because it speeds up the process a bit (but be careful, it gets very hot!)



Once your stencils are all cut out, prepare your surface for stenciling. Place a scrap piece of cardboard inside the tote bag to prevent any of the paint bleeding through. You should use spray adhesive on the back of the stencil to ensure everything sticks to the fabric evenly. Make sure your surface is clean and dry before applying paint. We used Speedball fabric paint and a short bristle brush to push the paint into the coarse material.



Peel off your stencil and let dry. A hair dryer can help speed up this process! Once your first layer is dry, you can repeat the adhesive and painting process for the remaining layers. When you're all done, let the paint dry and iron the surface to heat set the design. You may want to use an old towel or rag between the bag and the iron. If you used fabric paint, the design will be machine washable!


Thanks for following along! We'd love to see what you create, so please send us pics of your creations! You can email us at

Cara Greenslade