For many, the humble stencil has been a part of a personal history from when we used them as children to trace out basic shapes of houses, cars, and cats using cheap, plastic stencils. And for most, stencils have remained firmly in the realm of playgrounds and classrooms, as we abandoned our stencilling ways and learnt illustrative and design crafts.

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Yet today, the stencil is big news. From the subversive art of the likes of Banksy and Blek le Rat, to a resurgence in its use as a graphic element in print and motion, the stencil is back and dirtying up creative work.

The stencil has a rich place in design history. Basically a template that is used to draw or paint identical symbols and shapes, its use as a technique in art is referred to as pochoir. Stencil usage can be found in silk-screen printing, as well as mimeography. Yet the advent of cheap printing and DTP saw a fall-off in popularity in the stencil, as its main draw – the uniform application of shapes – could be done more effectively digitally.

It was street art and graffiti that rescued the stencil, where stencil art using spray paint is a quick and dirty way to tag a building – and it has proven especially attractive to political artists.

This masterclass by Ian Keltie uses Photoshop’s Threshold control to create the main assassin image, as well as various scratch and grunge layers to scruff up the image.

The trick here is to use the Threshold adjustment control to create contrasting images, then layer on real-world dirt elements that you have scanned in.

For stencilling purists, the Threshold feature is a great way to create a real-life stencil – and instead of layering on digital elements, it’s possible to print out contrasting elements onto card and using them as a template for spraycan stencil art.

One consideration from a creative perspective is to choose your subject with care – provocative is the order of the day.


Adobe Photoshop
Adobe Illustrator

Time to complete

1.5 hours

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