History of Stenciling

For many of today's home decorators and decorative painters, stenciling now presents a brand new option for creating and applying color, pattern, and ornamentation to interior surfaces. A host of decorating TV shows, magazines, and books has pushed the increased awareness of the stencil's potential forward.

Historic stencil patterns

With the recent advent of new techniques, especially our new ESE (Extraordinary Effects Program)  and materials and the huge increase in the availability of sophisticated designs it is easy to assume that stencils have only recently been recognized as an elegant and artistic method for decoration.

Stenciling's Unique History

In fact, stenciling has a long and rich history, and has been used extensively throughout the world and throughout the centuries for both purely artistic and purely decorative pursuits.
Prehistoric Man, as early as 9,000 BC, was the first to incorporate the stencil printing technique into their surroundings; by placing his hand against the cave wall and blowing pulverized pigment around it. Examples of this early application can be found in Paleolithic caves in France and Spain.
In the ancient world, stencils were used to decorate the Egyptian tombs, to outline designs of Greek Mosaics, on the highly decorated walls of Pompeii, and to letter the painted wooden boards publicizing attractions to the games of the Coliseum in classical Rome.
Fiji islanders used one of the earliest stenciling materials, leaves, and cut perforations in them through which they applied vegetable dyes for the decoration of bark cloth.
Around 105 AD, the Chinese invented a far better stencil material, paper, and quickly recognized the commercial possibilities of the stencil printing technique. Stencils were used extensively in the mass production of images of Buddha during the period of the six dynasties of China (221AD-618AD).
During the Six Dynasties, intricate and colorful patterns stenciled on the fashionable materials worn by the wealthy had become all the rage in the East. It was the Japanese, however, who refined the stencil technique further by perfecting a method for holding the delicate parts of the stencil together by means of a network of human hair, later replaced by threads of silk.
In the Middle Ages, the trade routes carried the stenciling technique to Europe. Stenciling was used in conjunction with wood block printing and brush painting to create religious pictures and illuminated manuscripts, which were sold to religious pilgrims and shrines.
19th century stencil
15th century stenciling on plaster walls
In France, stencils reached their peak of popularity between 1700 and 1800, and were used in the mass production of items such as playing cards, fabric, and wallpaper.
European immigrants brought the stenciling technique to the New World, where different styles and techniques were further developed. In the early colonies, itinerant artists traveled from town to town, stenciling walls and floors in exchange for food, lodging, or a bit of money. Using heavy oiled paper, they mixed ground mineral colors, charcoal, and brick with sour milk to make paint and applied brightly colored designs such as flowers, fruit, mermaids, unicorns, and other folk motifs from Europe. Patriotic designs such as stars, eagles, and flags were also popular.
Hitchcock, a Connecticut chair designer, used metallic powders to decorate his black, slat-back chairs with gold-stenciled flowers and fruit. This style of chair is still popular today.
In the early 1800's, the technique of Theorem Painting became popular among genteel women of all ages. In Theorem Painting a composition is created by using a series of overlays to create a picture in which all of the stenciled elements lay side-by-side, creating the look of hand-painting. Theorem, or bridgeless stencils are used extensively today to create trompe l'oeil effects and stenciled mural elements. As in the 1800's, these types of stencils allow non-professional artists to achieve pleasing artistic results and great satisfaction with their efforts.
Olana mansion stencil decoration
Stencils adorn the majestic home of Frederic Church at Olana
In the early part of the 20th century, a multitude of stencil designs were available to craftsman and decorators, ranging in styles from Renaissance, Victorian, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Arts and Crafts, and these were used extensively in public buildings, churches, mansions, and modest homes. With the new availability of mass-produced wallpapers, and changing tastes and styles, stenciling fell out of the public decorating consciousness until the late 1970's and early 1980's when it was "rediscovered" as an easy and effective means for applying design and decoration to sterile walls and surfaces. This rediscovery was due in large part to a renewed interest in American decorative arts around the time of the Bicentennial and by the release of the book, "The Art of Stenciling", by Adele Bishop and Cile Lord.
Since that time, the advent of the computer and laser-cutting technology has allowed stencil designers create stencil designs of great detail and scope, satisfying the needs of any imaginable decorative style and taste.

The Future of Stenciling

As the art form continues to evolve, stencil designers such as Royal Design Studio's founder Melanie Royals, have led the way to developing new techniques, applications, and artistic possibilities for stencil decoration: free-form stenciling, embossed surfaces, incorporating decorative and textured finishes. Today's professionally-minded Decorators are presented with an never-ending variety of choices for creating unique and artistic environments by using a design tool that has been incorporated into the fabric of decorative arts for thousands of years: the ever-evolving stencil. 
gilded stenciled walls
Gilded wall and ceiling stenciling by Joseph Shoskovitch

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.