By Bill Primavera
The Home Guru
The art of wall stenciling has been practiced for many centuries in both the Eastern and the Western hemispheres, but here in America, it flourished as wall decoration in the 18th and 19th centuries as people of all social status sought to decorate their homes with pattern and color in a way that was less expensive than imported wallpapers from England, France or the Far East.
By definition, a stencil is simply a template that is used to paint identical shapes or symbols every time it is used. The stencil, used repeatedly, creates an overall pattern on the wall either horizontally, vertically or both.
While stencils can be used to decorate everything from fabrics to cakes, this exploration relates to decorating walls. That application would demand a certain agility and endurance because normally it requires working with your arms raised above your head, since most stencils are used as borders to transition walls to the ceiling. It can be very satisfying repetitive work when starting out, but I know from experience that it can be very tedious after the first few hours of stippling paint to the wall surface. Still, the medium and new designs always interest me.
For a while, perhaps in the sleeker 1960s, stencils seemed to fade from view, but not for my dad, who introduced me to the art when I was 5. He had just repainted our dining room a pale pink and in each corner he painted in dark rose “element of flourish,” he called it, a visual motif from a cutout pattern. I was fascinated that he could make something so beautiful out of a cutout.
He was a flooring expert and also cut a stencil of a teapot in black linoleum (I’m sure it was filled with asbestos at an unknowing time) and inlaid it into our white linoleum kitchen floor.
Now with renewed interest in crafts and home beautification, stenciling seems to be making a comeback. For traditionalists, we turn to classicism for patterns based on the egg and dart design or draped swags, as well as sunbursts, abstract flowers and weeping willow trees, but there are very contemporary patterns available as well in craft stores and online sites such as www.cuttingedgestencils.com, www.walltowallstencils.com and www.istencils.com (now everything has an “i” in front of it, doesn’t it?).
I‘ve never done it myself but you can also stencil your walls with famous sayings, quotes, words or scriptures, along ceilings or around windows or doors. These stencils can be obtained at www.walltowallstencils.com. I note that many businesses are now doing that.
Besides employing stenciling as a border just below the ceiling, the ceiling itself can be used as a “fifth wall” for stencil decoration, as can the floor below. In fact, many of our early homes in America had stenciled rug patterns on them, when rugs were considered too expensive a luxury.
Under my center hall wall to wall carpeting is a stenciled border on a painted floor that I’m anxious to uncover after 25 years of being hidden.
Currently, my favorite catalogue of designs is from Royal, at: http://www.royaldesignstudio.com. I haven’t done them in a long time, but many years ago when I was really into the craft, I liked to make my own stencils using the thick paper of file folders. It seems to have just the right consistency. I would copy classic 18th century designs from books showing interiors of stenciled rooms. After cutting the design with an Xacto blade, I oiled the paper so that it didn’t absorb the paint. And while painting, I would clean the stencil repeatedly to remove any excess paint.
Here are the tools that are needed to set up your own stenciling practice:
An Xacto knife; if not a paper folder, use a stiff plastic sheet or an X-ray that’s been hanging around since your last chest examination – seriously; a cutting board; and a stenciling brush that has a specific shape, rounded, with stiff bristles, that works well with a dappling technique that lets the paint be “pounced” or “tapped” onto the wall. And, of course, the paint, which can be either acrylic or oil. I have sometimes also used regular latex right out of the can.
Don’t put excessive paint on the brush. It’s a good thing to tap it first into a paper towel to remove excess paint.
To keep the stencil from moving under one hand while painting with the other, it works to use painter’s tape to keep the stencil in place.
And the most important guideline is to practice patience. In one stenciling technique known as “theorem,” a number of layers of paint are applied to achieve depth; that might involve going over the entire room as many as four or five times!
But when you think about it, other than the stencil templates themselves, the art form is always original because no one else would use exactly the same color or combinations of color in executing the final design, nor does anyone else have exactly the same configuration of a room that you would have. So, while you may be a “copycat” by employing the stenciling technique, you are always an original.
Bill Primavera is a Realtor in Westchester County, NY, who writes in local newspapers as "The Home Guru." For questions or comments about the housing market or any subject associated with the home, he can be reached directly at bill@PrimaveraHomes.com or by phone at 914-522-2076.