Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

on September 20th, 2009

Having developed a recent fascination with stencils as a form of expression – fed by the works of Banksy and Blek and building on my enchanting experience with Jean-Luc Duez and his “Amour” stencils all over Paris – I thought I’d see if I can achieve the stencil effect in my weapon of choice, Illustrator.

banksy thumb Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustratorduez thumb Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustratorblek thumb Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

Obviously, Photoshop would be a much better option for this, but hey, I’m a vector kind of girl.

So let’s go, see what we can do with this little project.

What you need

- A reference image (unless you want to draw it from scratch, but let’s keep things simple); I used this one, courtesy of Shutterstock:

 Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

- A background image – keeping in mind we won’t cut out this stencil to spray paint in the subway; I used this and this, from Shutterstock.
- A basic understanding of Illustrator and the pen tool
- A bit of patience and some drawing skills

Creating the stencil

- Start by placing the reference image (the girl) in a new Illustrator document. If you want to make it easier for you to draw you can take it to Black & White in Photoshop first, and increase the contrast. You should have something like this:

prepared image Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

Using the pen tool, start creating paths following the darker areas of the image. As I said, this tutorial assumes you are familiar with the Pen tool (but if you’re not, scroll to the bottom of this article for a couple of links to excellent Pen tutorials).

You should end up with something like this:

stencil midway Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

The spray can effect

Probably the more difficult part of this tutorial and the part I was trying to get right: simulating the spray paint effect in Illustrator – on a small scale of course, suitable for a stencil.

First, select all your paths and go to the Pathfinder window; click on the circled symbol and then on the Expand button; you should now have just one shape.

pathfinder thumb Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

Creating the granularity

With the resulting shape selected, go to Effect – Photoshop Effects – Film Grain; change the Grain to 3, leave the other settings as they are by default.

film grain settings Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

The outcome should look something like this:

film grain Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

Applying a blur

Closer, but not quite there; stencil images have a soft quality about them, as the spray paint disperses in fine particles a bit outside the drawing line. Let’s apply a Gaussian blur to mimic this effect.
First, select your stencil and copy it. Then select again and go to Effect – Photoshop Effects – Gaussian Blur; select a blur size of 1 pixel. Click ok.

gaussian blur Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

Paste the previous image on top (CTR+F or Apple+F if you’re on a Mac). This will ensure you retain the granularity, as well as the softness. We’re almost done. You should be looking at something that looks like this:

blurred stencil Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

Last thing to do is apply your stencil to a wall – a virtual one in our case. Open your wall photograph in Photoshop or Illustrator and paste your stencil on top of it. Make sure to set the layer transparency to Multiply. You’re done!

Final images

ignorance Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator
ignorance africa Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator

More reading

  1. Illustrator’s Pen – A Comprehensive Guide from VectorTuts
  2. Practice Templates for using the Pen
  3. Stock images from Shutterstock

5 Responses to “Tutorial: creating a stencil in Adobe Illustrator”

  1. Thanks for this step by step tutorial. I hope I get it right and produce a great stencil image just like yours.

  2. Thanks for this! I love Illustrator tutorials and stencils are great fun to make.

  3. Online RSA says:

    Thanks, I love this style, looks great, and the tutorial should be easy to follow! Going to have a go at making this effect with a photograph of my baby girl.

  4. Kyle Steed says:

    Thanks for the quick tutorial. I enjoy the whole “stencil/graffiti” look.
    .-= Kyle Steed´s last blog ..Redesigning Myself Part 3 =-.

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