Layered Stencil Portrait How-to

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I thought I’d put together a quick how-to of my other big project this summer: Spray painted portraits.

I start with a photograph. I want it to have good lighting, natural, solid, but not overwhelming contrast, and some interesting feature. Sometimes the face is interesting enough.

In a photo-editing program called GIMP, I cut out the background and desaturated the image. Then I made four or five versions of the picture with varying brightness and contrast. Then I reduced the number of distinct colors (Image –> Mode –> Indexed) to 4. For my portraits this became the white, light, dark, and black colors. If attempting a different finished look, one might toy around with other approaches. This approach gave the right amount of detail for the look I wanted.

Once I got the look I wanted, I got the layers ready to print. For this I made 4 copies of the image and re-colored them for stenciling. For each layer the featured color was re-colored dark grey and any color darker than that was colored light grey. The colors lighter than the featured color for that layer were removed.(In the video I switched and made the featured color lighter and the others darker). I have also made all the colors the same and removed one shade at a time. The video below shows a quick and sloppy version of the steps above. It was for illustrating the process; I take more care when making a real stencil.

Then, for a multi-piece set (since I was putting 6 pictures on the wall together), I moved the layers into Powerpoint to lay each face on top of the other to resize them to look uniform.

I then added my signature initials, which functioned as a position marker (something that would be the same on each layer to help align them.

I then used the poster printing program Rasterbator to turn the pictures into multi-page pdfs, which were then printed, cut, and carefully taped together to give the right sized image for stenciling.

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Next I traced each image to remove any islands and make it a true stencil. I then taped each onto a posterboard and cut them out with an exacto knife. If I encountered placed that really needed to be islands, then I would cut the shape out of painters’ tape and place that on the canvas (see Olivia’s portrait in the video).

Jake Stencil

Once the real stencils were made I laid the light one first on the canvas, weighted it down so the paint wouldn’t sneak under the edges, and sprayed the first color. Always test your paint to make sure it sprays smooth. I then peeled off the stencil, let the paint dry and then lined up the next color. Same process as the first for the second and third.

And that was it.

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