The popularity of stencils in the face & body art world has grown immensely in the past decade, as is evident by the sheer number of options available out there! In the past, body artists mainly used stencils for airbrush (because they are essential to controlling your paint), or as a “cheat” for those who weren’t able to paint basic shapes freehand. Today, however, stencils are considered an essential tool, valued by even the best and most talented professional artists. As professional artists, given endless time and an inanimate canvas, many of us are quite capable of painting intricate repetitive designs. However, the reality of our jobs is such that time is a huge factor. Stencils allow us to create intricate textures and impressive designs in a timeframe that matches the length of patience our models have to sit still!
Most artists who are just getting into stencils will tell you that they are way harder to use than they originally thought. It’s that classic conundrum of professionals making something look SO easy! Stencils are supposed to make designs perfect, uniform, and fast, right? Well, if you don’t choose the right combination of tools and techniques for your design, and don’t practice enough to get a feel for those tools’ limits, it can result in disaster. Stencils take skill and practice, just like anything else.
Before we talk about the 3 main challenges of stenciling, let’s take a quick look at the types of makeup and tools available, because understanding these options will help you choose the right tools for the job.
Types of Makeup
Generally there are 3 types of makeup that face & body artists use with stencils. Pressed powders, water based makeup and airbrush. For the sake of this post we’ll just talk about powders and water based makeup because they are what most face painters start with, and come with the biggest challenges as far as getting a crisp image.
As you can see, they both have their pros and cons. I personally use both types of makeup for my stenciling, and which one I use depends on the design. Hopefully by the end of this post you’ll get a better idea of which makeup works best for what you’re doing.
Once you choose the makeup you want to use, you need to choose a way to apply it. Here are a few of my favorite tools for stenciling.
Foam Blenders – Use these when you’re applying powder.
Small Pore Sponge – Use these when you’re applying water based makeup and covering larger areas with your stencil. (Larger pore sponges can work well on sturdy stencils too)
Finger Daubers – Use these when you’re applying water based makeup and want more precise control, for example, you only want to use a small portion of the stencil. They can also work for powder based makeup. Press/dab if the stencil is very delicate; twist/scrub if it is more durable.
Mini Kabuki Brush – Use these for water based makeup, especially on very intricate/delicate stencils. It can be pounced or swirled. Use these if you don’t want to accumulate a lot of dirty sponges/daubers as they can be rinsed between colors more easily.
There are three big hurdles we fight when painting with stencils. Prickly bits, water, and contrast/coverage.
I tend to categorize my stencils into two camps: delicate and sturdy. Delicate stencils can be gorgeous but finicky and easily broken. I don’t banish them from my kit…I simply have to treat them more carefully. Sturdy stencils can be used and abused, and still work just as well years down the road. Does your stencil have super intricate details, or large shapes? Does it have any pointy, delicate pieces that can easily bend or lift away from the surface? I like to call these “prickly bits.” Prickly bits are those small, pointy shapes that protrude into an open space in your stencil. Having tiny details and prickly bits in your stencil can make things more challenging. Sponges tend to catch on prickly bits, bending up your stencil, and so do wipes when you’re trying to clean them off.
If you’re not sure whether your stencil has “prickly bits,” gently curve/bend it while looking down the edge. If it has delicate areas, you’ll see them stick out around the bend.
Tiny, intricate details are also very easily lost if you don’t have the right tool to paint with, or just the right amount of water. Here are a few tips for conquering those prickly bits:
- Use a mini kabuki brush instead of a sponge. Stencils must be flat and tight against the skin where you’re painting in order to create a crisp design, and sponges can easily catch on those prickly bits, bending and pulling up your stencil and messing up your design. A mini kabuki brush can be brushed/swirled over the stencil or pounced over the design without catching. They are also easy to clean, and help keep your fingers clean!
- When applying your makeup in a brushing action (as opposed to stippling), be sure to brush from the outside of the stencil inward, or in the direction of the prickly bits rather than against them, to avoid catching them whenever possible or forcing paint underneath them.
- When cleaning stencils with delicate, prickly bits, dunk them in your rinse water first. This loosens the paint, and then you can lie it flat on a towel and press to dry and remove paint.
Most professional artists use water based makeups, so it’s a bit ironic that water is one of the biggest enemies of a clean, crisp stencil design. Too much water, and your design will bleed under the stencil, leaving more of a blob. Too little, and you won’t see the entire shape/texture. This is one of those factors of stenciling that simply takes practice to master. Once you get the feel of how much water is just right, you’ll start seeing better results. In general, it’s best to use as little water as possible for a clean, crisp stencil design. Here are a few tips to help control your water levels:
- If you want more precise control, use small daubers instead of a large sponge. Our finger daubers and mini daubers do a great job of applying paint in precise areas, while giving you just enough sponge to do the job. The more sponge you have, the more likely you are to soak up too much water. Daubers tend to be thinner and make it easier to control the water.
- If you’re covering a larger area, use a sponge with small pores like our foam wedge sponges or mini petal sponges. Larger pores are more likely to soak up more water than you need.
- Glycerine based paint (such as Paradise) tends to be more forgiving than wax based paint when it comes to stencils. Load your sponge or kabuki with as little water as possible, so that it is more tacky than wet.
Contrast & Coverage
Achieving a good contrast is essential for the viewer to be able to see your design. A perfect stencil transfer doesn’t do much good if it blends in with the background it is on. When creating a dark stencil design over a light background, this is less of an issue. But painting light colors over a dark background can get problematic. There are ways around this issue though!
- Powdered makeups tend to be a little more translucent, so they work best when you apply a dark powder over a light background.
- Powdered makeups work best when they have a base to stick too. See the examples above for the difference when applied over bare skin vs makeup, primer or glycerine. Notice the change in contrast.
- Be careful not to let powder “fall out” mess up your design! After loading a lollipop blender, give it a little tap over the makeup cake to knock off loose powder.
- Water based makeups are good to achieve opaque coverage directly on bare skin.
- When painting a light stencil pattern over a dark background, the background color can bleed through. To combat this, lay the stencil on, use a clean brush or makeup wipe to remove the background paint inside the stencil pattern, then apply your light color makeup and remove the stencil. This will keep your light color bright because you’ll only have skin behind it, vs the darker makeup background.
While unfortunately there is no one “trick” to achieving perfect, crisp stencil design transfers, there are methods to help guide you down the right path as far as how to achieve that crisp, clean look. Which method to use is determined by many factors that vary depending on the design. I hope that this post has given you a better understanding of what methods and tools work best for the task at hand! Got more questions I haven’t answered? Have a great tip to share for achieving great stencil results? Post your thoughts in the comments!