Have you ever looked at a stencil and wondered why they have such a specific style? Take this piece by iconic stencil artist Shepard Fairey:

Multi layered stencil artwork by Shepard Fairey

In this article, learn about how stencils get designed and why they have that iconic look.

From Image to Stencil

Stencil art takes advantage of the light and shadows of an image. Artists who specialize in stencils take a lot of time to move around shapes and colors, and have an eye for this type of design. Luckily, Stencil Stop will do all of that work for you.

Images contain thousands of different colors. Stencil art simplifies images to create a graphic, stylistic result. Instead of having 1,500 colors, we’re so savvy we can simplify an image to be two colors. When we say that you can upload any image or file to us, we really mean it.

Taking Prison Mike from the Office from image to stencil to painting

This design starts as an image with thousands of colors and pixels, and our designers are able to turn it into a stencil. They do this by noting where all the most important shadows and dark areas are, and that becomes the stencil. While the stencil itself may not resemble the original image, the final painting will.

Layered Stencils

Layered stencils work the same way that single-layer mylar stencils do. With more layers comes the ability to add more colors into the design. With more colors comes more detail, and the design will become closer to that of the original image (if an image was submitted).

Frank Ocean's album cover

This image shows how detailed an image can become when more layers are added. Check out our Layered Stencils Guide for more information.

Stencil Anatomy: Holes, Islands, and Bridges

Stencils are essentially plastic sheets with “holes” in them. The holes are what make the final artwork happen. For example, if you were trying to paint California using stencils, this is what the stencil would look like:

What is a hole in a stencil?

The most significant constraint in stencil design is the inability to have floating “islands” of plastic. Islands are portions of s stencil design that have to be altered in order to be connected to the stencil. All pieces of the stencil must be connected in order to remain a single piece. We call these connectors “bridges.”

Here is an example of bridges that had to be added to a logo design we made for Victoria’s Homemade Cake in South Florida:

Homemade Cake Logo Into a Stencil Design - Bridges and Connectors Make Stencils Look Weird

We added bridges in the outer ring of the design in order to connect the inner circle to the rest of the stencil. We also filled in some of the letters. If there are letters in your design, depending on the size of the letters and font choice there may need to be bridges added or areas removed.

Stencil Bridge vs. No Bridge Diagram - Why Stencil Lettering Looks So Weird

Size is another factor when adding bridges to a stencil design. The above design is rather small with a 1 inch diameter. That is the smallest stencil we can make. Although our laser cutters are very precise, we stop at this size in order to preserve detail and usability.

Bridges remain small no matter how intricate a design is or how big the stencil is. The bridges we add range from 0.05” at the smallest and around 0.25” at the largest. Larger bridges, however, help preserve the longevity of the stencil, keep pieces from tearing off, and help provide structure to the design.

When designing your stencil, we also take into account the structural integrity of the plastic itself. It won’t be easy to use a stencil if there are large pieces of plastic only attached by one bridge. Therefore, we may add more than one bridge to connect an island.

A Spiderman stencil diagram that shows the necessary bridges for a complete stencil design

Spiderman has a few cleverly placed bridges, which are circled in red. If the design did not have the bridges, pieces of the plastic would be aimlessly flopping around or could be completely unattached from the stencil. We strive to make bridges as small and discreet to preserve the submitted design as much as possible.

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