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Achieving Clean, Crisp Stencil Designs

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!

Halftone patterns are great for super heroes and that comic book feel! I like to use it as a background to extend a design too, like this Minion.
This design is done entirely with stencils, using the Bam-Pax Hero set.
Stencils can be used in reverse as well. Here, the flame stencil blocks out the flaming foreground to paint the black background.
I use stencils most often to add quick and intricate textures, like cheetah prints and this reptile scale pattern!

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.

Stenciling Tools

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.

Prickly Bits

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.

Prickly bits!
Sturdy Stencil; no prickly bits!

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.
Prickly bits can catch on sponges.
Try a mini kabuki instead!

Water

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.
Give your blender a light tap to remove excess powder and reduce fallout.
  • 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.
Use a wipe to remove the background color.

This enables you to put bright, lighter patterns against darker backgrounds!

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!

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Introducing: “Funny Fingers Hand Art!”

I am SUPER excited to announce my latest book, hot off the press!  “Funny Fingers Hand Art” It’s been 3 years since I’ve published a book…about how long it’s been since my first baby boy started getting mobilized!  I think you can guess what’s been keeping me busy since!

I got the idea for this book and 3 weeks later it was going to print.  I love what my drive to complete a project can do when combined with the amazing ability the internet gives me to publish my own books!  (Well, it would have been done in 2 weeks, but I had to paint at the fair right in the middle of it!)

Unlike my previous two books, “Face Painting: A Step-by-Step Guide” and “32 Classic Carnival Designs,” this book is not designed for the total beginner.  This new book assumes that you have the ability to paint and have some artistic skill as a face painter.  It definitely stretches the imagination!  If you’re a professional face painter, are finding yourself “stuck” in the same old cheek art designs, and are looking for some fresh, fun, new ideas to get your creative juices flowing, this is the book for you! 

The book measures about 6″ wide (including the spiral binding) by 8.5″ tall, making it the perfect size: large enough to see each step, but small enough to tuck into your kit of paints and take with you.  It costs a little more to bind a book with the spiral binding, which is why you won’t find that on the other popular selling books currently out there that focus on princess faces, cat faces, etc.  However, being a professional face painter myself and a professional product designer, I know that when you’re painting, your hands are both full and you don’t want to mess with trying to hold a page open.  The spiral binding allows the book to lay flat on the table for reference, or fold completely back if you just want to reference one page.

So what’s the big deal about painting on hands vs the face?  Kids just LOVE them.  A little creative placement on the hand, combined with a child’s imagination, can bring your designs to life! Kids can open and close their fingers to make an animal’s mouth open and close, to make legs walk, or to wiggle the fire coming out of the space ship.  Parents love to see their child’s own hand transform into a puppet…a fun toy that they can enjoy all day and won’t find broken under their bed two days later!

The beginning of the book opens with a couple pages of tools and tips.  Tips include hand-painting-specific things like how to get a smooth, solid line across a knuckle.  The “Design index” spread functions as a visual table of contents for the designs.  This makes it quick and easy for you to find the page you want, and also can double as a design menu board if you use it at your events for the kids to choose from!

There are 18 designs, each one illustrated with full color photography in six steps, along with a large, full-page photo of the finished design.  Most of the designs also include the “Get Creative!” box at the bottom, which includes more ideas to make your design unique and inject your own style!

You can purchase the book today from my website





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How to Paint an Avatar Face for Halloween

Interested in dressing up like an Avatar character for Halloween but not sure where to start with painting your face?  You’ve come to the right place!  I just did a quick Avatar face painting on myself and photographed the process so you can see how to do it, step-by-step!

Please excuse the sloppiness of my painting…I am nearly blind without my glasses, so it was extremely hard for me to paint my eyes! (hence my blank stare)  But, hopefully this will give you the general idea!  Click on the images to see them blown up.

Step 1:  Obtain a face.  This is usually the easiest part. Tie your hair back if it’s long.
Step 2: Cover your face with a light blue paint.  I used a light blue that I mix myself from my Kryolan Aquacolor blue and white, and applied it with a natural sponge for quick coverage.  Stop at this step if you change your mind and want to be a member of Blue Man Group instead.
Step 3: Using a brush and a darker blue to begin painting stripes.  I started from the center of my face, forehead down to my nose, and added more working out from there.  To get the tapered look, I used a wide, flat #12 brush, starting with the bristles in a horizontal position and slowly rotating the bristles vertical as I brushed down.

Step 4: Continue adding stripes across your forehead and to your cheeks.
Step 5:  Add more stripes across your cheeks and chin, all the time starting from the edges of your face and working inward to get the tapered look.  At this point I took a brush with the lighter blue again and filled in a little more around my eyes.
Step 6:  Paint your lips purple  (or if you have purple lipstick, that would probably stay on better)

Step 7:  Closing one eyelid at a time (unless of course you have x-ray vision), paint the corners of each eyelid white.  You can leave the center empty because you’ll paint pupils there.
Step 8:  Paint yellow circles for the iris in the center of each eyelid.  You’ll get a nice, realistic effect if you also outline them with a little green, and blend to yellow in the center.
Step 9:  Paint black circles on the iris for the pupils.

Step 10:  Put a dot of white off-center, so that it overlaps both the iris and pupil.  (These will make your fake eyes look shiny and wet like real eyes.)  If you can keep your eyelids closed long enough to dry between steps, it’ll help prevent smearing.
Step 11:  Add some small white dots around the nose, across your eyebrows, cheek bones, etc.  (Google Image search a photo of an Avatar character for reference.) I also added some Blue-violet ultra-fine glitter, which looks great.
Step 12:  Accessorize!  Okay, I didn’t buy any accessories…I just photoshopped myself onto an image.  But, if you have long hair, make a bunch of braids, or check out these wigs and ear accessories on Amazon:
Rubie's Costume Co Avatar Costume Accessory, NeytiriRubie?s Costume Co Avatar Neytiri Deluxe Wig, Black, One Size Rubie?s Costume Co Avatar Jake Sully Wig, Black, One SizeAvatar Child's Costume, Neytiri CostumeRubie's Costume Co Avatar Costume Accessory, Jake Sully Ears