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Magic - Stenciling brushes up furnishings with flair and perks up home decor

By Theresa Meyers

It's more than just paint. Stenciling cat act like a magic wand, bringing a whole new look to tired furniture, plain walls and worn floors. It's great for two reasons: You can do a lot with very little and you don't have to be an artist to get results. If you're imagining rows of stiff flowers or pineapples in a repetitive border, think again.

Stenciling has taken on a funk, new appeal with a technique know as "free-form", which involves overlapping and three-dimensional effects for images that imitate nature, according to Sandra Buckingham, an author and stencil artist.

"The stencil takes care of the artistic part and lets you be as free as you want to be," she explains. "You can use fairly simple stencils but use them in a way so that they don't look typical. In particular, layering can produce a painting that looks like it's done free hand." If you can't draw, don't worry. Buckingham says most stencilers feel the same. Using no more than a leafy branch stencil, paint and a few techniques, you can create an entire topiary tree in the lifeless corner of a room simply by rotating, flipping and overlapping the same image and applying different layers and colors of paint.

Starting Small

Buckingham, who wrote the book Stenciling on a Grand Scale, recommends beginners start small. Pieces of furniture with flat sides such as night stands, chests of drawers, tables or headboards can alive with flowers, vines, illusional terra cotta or mosaic tiles.

"Folding screens are an excellent project for getting into stenciling that's more mural-like. That way you're not having to fill up a 15-foot wall that's 8 feet tall. Start off with just a sky and a fence. You can add tulips later," Buckingham said. "Each individual step in stenciling is quite simple; what makes the final project seem grand is putting the techniques together."

To get started on your own project you'll need a few supplies along with some basic techniques. Select a simple stencil that you can use in multiple ways such as a branch of leaves or a flower.

Decide what colors you will want for the finished project. Remember that background leaves and flowers should be subtle and those you want to place emphasis on should be brighter. While solid stencil paints are available, Buckingham prefers to use latex wall paint in small tester-sized cans because they are fast-drying, inexpensive, odorless and available in hundreds of colors. She suggests using a foam roller for everything but small projects. Shading and extremely fine detail can be produced with a brush.

Sticky situations

Attach your stencil to the surface of the project using a stencil adhesive spray or low-tack tape. Don't be tempted to use masking tape. It's too sticky and may peel away paint or leave a residue that's difficult to remove. If you'll be using a stencil that has multiple overlays, or separate pieces for different parts of an image, be sure the marks which indicate proper placement are lined up.

In Arizona's dry climate you'll want to mix an extender or glaze with your paint before you begin. Not only will it slow drying times so you can blend colors in a stencil, it also makes the paint more transparent for special effects.

Extenders will prevent the bristles on a stencil brush from becoming caked and stiff with dried paint. You can also prime your brush by dabbing it first into glaze and then the paint or tap the brush on a damp sponge to keep it moist, Buckingham says.

It's important to keep only a light coat of paint on your brush when working with a stencil," states Billie Treasure Edwards, a Valley artist from Carefree, Arizona who specializes in painted furniture.

Edwards emphasizes that the less paint you use, the better. Use a paper towel to help you wipe of excess paint from your brush or roller.

"You can easily take inexpensive pieces of furniture and turn them into great conversation starters with a little imagination and some paint," Edwards says. In general, she uses stencils mostly for precise work and makes them for herself rather than purchasing them.

When painting with a brush, hold it vertically and either bounce the brush up and down or rub it in small circles. The key is to add color slowly and build it up in layers.

"The finished print almost always looks darker once the stencil is removed, so before you add too much paint, lift a corner of the stencil from time to time and check on your progress," Buckingham suggests.

To add shading or contrast, blend colors while the paint is wet or use a stronger colors on the edges.

Realistic images

What gives free-form stenciling its more realistic look is the absence of bridges, or white lines and spaces, in the stencil. Images overlap and touch. By using a light hand you can make petals or leaves appear translucent and create the illusion of natural light coming from behind the image.

Stenciled images gain three-dimensional flavor with appropriate shading and shadows. Buckingham adds darker color to the outside and bottom edges of a stencil vase for shading, then paints darker ridges and crevices and highlights at the lip and bottom of the vase.

"You can shadow vines and branches easily by shifting the stencil slightly in the direction you want the shadow to be cast," Buckingham said.

She uses glaze barely tinted with raw umber for "shadow glaze". Once you've shifted the stencil, paint in the exposed gap lightly with the shadow glaze and taper it off where there is overlap on your original image. If you do get some on your original image, don't worry. The color in the glaze should be transparent enough that it won't make an obvious difference.

While free-form stenciling encourages the overlap of images that occur in nature, there will be times when you want an image to peek through as if it were half hidden by a leaf, vase or fence post. Buckingham suggests using a mask, or large cutout, of the exact image you're protecting for large images and a product called liquid frisket for small images.

Once dry, fisket protects the image from being overpainted and is easily peeled off. Buckingham says sticky notes also come in handy if you need to create a straight line in a small area.

You can protect your project a number of ways. Edwards, who prefers to give her projects an antique or distressed look, likes the natural, mellow finish hard wax gives to wood.

"I just use a wax paste and buff it out. It gives a more earthen, natural look which deepens if you add additional coats," she explains.

"If you're going for the distressed look you can sand down parts of the project to make it look as if it's been worn away with use. I sometimes spray Easy-Off oven cleaner to get a crackled, textured appearance to a project."

If the surface of your project will be subject to wear and tear, protect it with several coast of acrylic varnish, Buckingham suggests. This applies to floors, doors and most furniture. Buckingham says that she rarely varnishes wall projects since the latex house paints she uses to stencil stand up to daily wear.

While free-form stenciling requires more than just paint, it's a creative, fun and inexpensive improvement that gives even the artistically-challenged a way to create a little makeover magic.

Top Tips To Do It Yourself

  1. Let your imagination go. Before you begin a project, think of how you would like the finished image to appear. Not the creative type? Try searching garden magazines for pictures you like. The pictures can give you not only the shape and color of real plants you can copy but provide you with ideas for blending many different images, such as trellises, birds, flowers, garden gates and more into a scene you'll find appealing. Do you want a vine to curl up a corner of the room? Should the leaves of your tree reach upward or hang down? Refer back to your magazine images for inspiration.

  2. Start small. If you've never stenciled before, start with a small project. Placemats, bits of paper or a small piece of furniture can be a good start. Build from there. If you have a entire wall in mind, break down the scene you wish to create into smaller images that can be added to over time such as a garden fence behind which you can later stencil flowers and trees.

  3. In stenciling, less is more. Pick an acrylic or latex paint instead of oils. To avoid paint bleeding under the stencil, don't overload your roller or brush and keep your touch light. Your first layer should be light and even. Spread a dot of paint out on a piece of wax paper or board to make loading your roller easier. Choose high density foam rollers rather than those with a nap. Paper towels can be used to get extra paint off of brushes.

  4. Think layers. If you want to add more color or add emphasis to an area you want shaded, remember to add to your project gradually, with multiple layers of thin paint. It will give you greater control and enable you to make things appear in shadow or translucent depending on your needs. An acrylic glaze tinted with raw umber works well to create shadows and give objects a three-dimensional look. You can also get multiple images out of a single stencil by flipping, overlapping and rotating it to get different effects.

  5. Use a mask. To get the really great effects that free-form stencil offers, remember to create or save the cut outs of your stencil to use as masks. By covering up a part you've already painted and stenciling in another image over the mask, you'll be able to make it look as if it was behind the first image. Think of liquid frisket as a mask in a bottle. It can be painted on to smaller portions of an image to protect it while you add to your project, then peeled off later.

  6. Overlap for a more three-dimensional image. Turn your stencil in different directions, even reverse or flip it and then paint overlapping stencils. By eliminating the bridges (white lines and spaces) of the stencil, you'll make it your image look less contrived and more realistic.

  7. Remember it's only paint. If you make a mistake you can't live with, don't worry. You can wipe off wet paint with a damp sponge or cloth. For dried projects, you can paint over them.
What You'll Need:
Basic Equipment
Stencil adhesive
Stencil Foam Roller
Stencil Brushes
Liquid Frisket
Paint Extender/Glaze
Cost Range
range from $1.50 - $25.00
$.97 for a 2 oz. bottle of craft acrylic or you can use latex paint from your hardware store.
$1.99 a bottle
range from $1.30 - $5.59
$6.95 for a bottle
$8.59 for a bottle

Best Sources:
Other than the paint, most of this equipment should see you through several projects.
  • Michael's and Old America stores for supplies
  • Hardware, home improvement and paint stores for paint

Additional Help:

  • If you'd like to take a class in stenciling, check out your local craft stores. Many offer classes at a minimal price.
  • Look for books like Buckingham's Stenciling on a Grand Scale from Firefly Books which give tips to take you from beginning to end and hints on achieving special effects with stencil

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