See A. Bishop and C. Lord, The Art of Decorative Stenciling (rev. ed. 1985); L. LeGrice, The Art of Stenciling (1987).
A stencil is a template used to draw or paint identical letters, symbols, shapes, or patterns every time it is used. Stencil technique in visual art is also referred to as pochoir. Stencils are formed by removing sections from template material in the form of text or an image. This creates what is essentially a physical negative. The template can then be used to create impressions of the stenciled image, by applying pigment on the surface of the template and through the removed sections, leaving a reproduction of the stencil on the underlying surface. Aerosol or painting stencils must remain contiguous after the image is removed, in order for the template to remain functional. Sections of the remaining template which are isolated inside removed parts of the image are called islands. All islands must be connected to other parts of the template with bridges, or additional sections of narrow template material which are not removed.
A related technique (which has found applicability in some surrealist compositions) is aerography, in which spray-painting is done around a three-dimensional object. This technique is comparable to the paintings in caves dating over +10,000BC, where hands were used to create hand print outlines amongst other artwork, such as paintings of animals. The artist would spray pigment around his hand with his mouth. A hollow bone or reed may have also been employed to direct the stream of pigment.
Silk-screen printing also uses a stencil process, as does mimeography. The masters from which mimeographed pages are printed are often called "stencils." Stencils can be made with one or many colour layers using different techniques, with most stencils designed to be applied as solid colours.
During silk-screening and mimeography the images for stenciling are broken down into color layers. Multiple layers of stencils are used on the same surface to produce multi-colored images.
Stencils may have been used to colour cloth for a very long time; the technique probably reached its peak of sophistication in Katazome and other techniques used on silks for clothes during the Edo period in Japan. In Europe, from about 1450 they were very commonly used to colour old master prints printed in black and white, usually woodcuts. This was especially the case with playing-cards, which continued to be coloured by stencil long after most other subjects for prints were left in black and white. Stenciling back in the 2600 BC's was different. They used color from plants and flowers such as indigo (which extracts blue). Stencils were used for mass publications, as the type didn't have to be hand-written. The first book to be printed using stencils was the bible.
Stencils were popular as a method of book illustration, and for that purpose the technique was at its hight of popularity in France during the 1920s. When stencils are used in this way they are often called "pochoir". Pochoir was frequently used to create prints of intense color, and is most often associated with Art Nouveau and Art Deco design.
Stencils are frequently used by official organizations, including the military, utility companies and governments, to quickly and clearly label objects, vehicles and locations. Stencils for official application can be customized, or purchased as individual letters, numbers and symbols. This allows the user to arrange words, phrases and other labels from one set of templates, unique to the item being labeled. When objects are labeled using a single template alphabet, it makes it easier to identify their affiliation or source.
A common tradition for stencils is in home decorating and arts & crafts. Home decor stencils are an important part of the DIY (Do It Yourself) industry. There are prefabricated stencil templates available for home decoration projects from hardware stores, arts & crafts stores and through the internet. Stencils are usually applied in the home with a paint or roller brush along wall borders and as trim. They can also be applied with a painted sponge for a textured effect.
Stencil templates can be purchased or constructed individually. Typically they are constructed of flexible plastics, including acetate, mylar and vinyl. Stencils can be used as children's toys.
A stencil technique is employed in screenprinting which uses a tightly woven mesh screen coated in a thin layer of emulsion to reproduce the original image. As the stencil is attached to the screen, a contiguous template is not necessary. A stencil used in airbrushing called a frisket is pressed directly on the artwork. It can be used control or contain overspray, create sharp or complex shapes, but is not designed to be used more than once.