Urban Art Styles: Stencil
The use of stencils in art is not a new concept, but street artists have developed the art form beyond its basic mechanical impressions into a staple diet of expression that dominates work done on city streets. To further define how this basic technique applies to urban art styles, a brief explanation is required.
The basic stencil is a piece of cardboard, metal, paper, or similar material used as a method of transferring a cut-out image that serves as a negative for the resulting print. An artist applies paint directly to the stencil to form a positive impression behind the stencil, similar to an iron-on transfer, where heat is the applicator.
Better artists use graphic tools to create detailed stencils from photographs, patterns, shapes, or other design elements, sometimes using computer programs like Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator for even more creativity. Since stencils often appear as high-contrast images with few if any colours employed, photo manipulation becomes particularly useful to allow stencil artists to adjust brightness, contrast, and threshold values for a more interesting final print.
Common themes for stencil art incorporate interesting font designs, celebrities and political figures, satire, propaganda, and iconography, presented in such a way to as offer social commentary or pay homage to street art icons who appreciate their talented offspring who speak volumes without saying a word. The challenges of urban living are often communicated through stencil art's pre-occupation with sex, violence, poverty, counter-culture, and innuendo.
Once the stencil has been designed, it simply becomes a matter of taping or holding it in place while spraying, applying, or rolling paint directly over the stencil to create the image underneath. From there, quick touch-ups and additional artistic elements can be added to make a work of art truly unique. Multiple layers can be applied to add color or detail to the primary image in specific areas.
Graphic images created from stencils always have a contemporary feel, due to the monochromatic design that de-emphasizes details. What's left is a core impression that conveys the non-stylistic character that blends in well with the casual nature of the street art scene.
Though the initial application may seem rudimentary, in the hands of accomplished artists like Shepard Fairey, Bansky, Blek le Rat, or Jef Aerosol stencil takes on a life of its own. Banksy, who works almost exclusively in stencil, is regarded as the undisputed master of this urban art style's unique oeuvre. His imagination brings expressiveness and political commentary to his compositions in a way few urban artists can match.
Stencil graffiti has a number of advantages, being relatively cheap, quick, and easy to produce, three adjectives that benefit street artists who often work on the run (sometimes literally). Stencils are easily repeatable, so that a trademark image like Fairey's Obey icon can be applied and adapted in many locations.
You can imagine how useful stencils can become when you consider that most street artists that use them might need or want to work quickly, at night or away from the watchful eyes of public officials who don't appreciate the art form as much as we do.
Nevertheless, stencil graffiti has been one of the most popular urban art styles since its inception in the early 1970's. Its universal appeal is due in large part to its versatility in allowing street artists of all levels to experiment with the endless possibilities of the art form.