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How to dry a seal’s skin, a short history of stencils

It would seem that the painting stencil is a relatively young invention. This cheaper wallpaper alternative that makes it much easier to decorate your home has a much longer history. When did it start? Who made the first stencil? And what was the seal skin needed for? We will answer these questions in today’s post!

The prototype of stenciling can be found already in prehistoric times. The first cave paintings – handprints – by Neanderthals date back to around 35,000 BC. The prehistoric natives most likely put their hands on the cave walls and blew the finely crushed pigment around them. In addition to prints, prehistoric pictures depicted scenes from hunting, rituals and everyday life. In turn, the inhabitants of Fiji made templates from banana leaves and bamboo. They were used to decorate fig tree bark fabrics (called by the inhabitants as tapa, masi or uha). The scheme of work was simple – holes of a specific pattern were cut in the leaves, and through them, a vegetable dye was injected onto the previously prepared fabric.

Stencils were used by the Egyptians from around 2,500 B.C.E. They served as decorations in Egyptian tombs. It took at least three people to work. On the wall, one artist drew the outline of a figure or a hieroglyph, the other cut it so that the third could finish the work by painting it. The Etruscans used stencils in an Egyptian way. The earliest painted Etruscan tombs come from the mid-6th century BC, but the paintings on them show more scenes showing the rich life of the then elite. In addition, there are still known Etruscan vases that have survived to this day, and were painted using stencils! Little is known about ancient Greek stencils. The only known detail is that they are used to outline mosaics. The ancient Romans, on the other hand, eagerly used templates to mark names on signboards. Additionally, the emperors of Rome put their signatures with them, learning to write in this way.

The eponymous seal skin refers to the way patterns are made by the Inuit from Baffin Island. The animal’s skin had to be thoroughly cleaned, removed and tanned with fur and then dried. However, it was such a fragile method that none of the products of that time survived to this day. The leather stencil was very stiff and often bent, so the dye easily spilled beyond the outline. Problems with using them meant that the contemporary “inventors” considered leather too valuable a commodity that should be used in other, more practical ways.

Attempting to recreate how the stencil was made.
Source: Canadian Museum of Civilization, DORSET FINE ARTS

China and Japan have had a huge impact on the development of stencils. The first country was mainly due to the invention of paper, around 105 CE, which resulted in the first attempts to make a paper stencil. As a result, they became extremely popular and quickly became the basic tool for decorating textiles. A new method was also introduced – the use of acid ink, which made it possible to make patterns without the use of a knife. The Japanese went two steps further, combining delicate patterns with human hair or silk, and perfecting the textile decoration technique, later known as Katazome. It consisted in the fact that a paste prepared from rice flour was put on a template and imprinted on the fabric. The pigment was added by manual painting or dipping the material in the dye, and the previously applied paste protected the element against dyeing. In this way, much cheaper, but equally beautifully decorated fabrics were created. The second step they took in developing stencil painting was to combine the stencils with human hair or silk, which gave rise to the technique now known as Silk Screening. In this way, they solved the problem of joining the isolated parts of the design – it was enough to simply glue the hair to the stencil, creating a connection, but thin enough that after tearing off the stencil, it was practically invisible. The invention of paper for Japanese stencil makers had one more important meaning. Earlier stencils were made of thin sheets of mulberry bark hardened in persimmon juice. Then several pieces were stacked and cut with a sharp, curved knife. Thanks to the invention of paper, the production of stencils increased – then the creators could cut about 60 pieces at a time.

Stencils from the Far East found their way to European cities via trade routes as early as the 5th-6th centuries AD. In England, early stencils (also known as Doublets) were mainly used for religious purposes. We find them on screens, murals and robes, and they were made of animal leather, oilcloth or soft metal. The period of the Crusades and Medieval Conquests meant that the stencils were mainly used as a pattern for painting religious pictures or Christograms on altars and liturgical vestments. A breakthrough for the use of stencils in Europe was the invention of the printing press. Then, stencils with stencils began to appear all over the continent. Their versatile possibilities meant that they began to be used in furniture decoration, in embroidery, but also in the production of game cards. It was the latter that inspired French craftsmen, including Jean-Baptiste Papillon, to create the world’s first dominoes wallpaper. The then wallpapers were made in fragments with dimensions of about 100×50 cm, and the stencil was done before hanging on the wall, so the pattern did not always correspond to the original idea. The most popular designs from that period are mainly coats of arms, fleurs-de-lis, monograms, but also the sun, stars and geometric patterns. However, the stencil technique was criticized by contemporary craftsmen – it was considered a lazy craft that undermined the art of painting and limited creativity.

Stencil, Late Medieval, Meaux Abbey
Source: British Museum

The first settlers in North America could not afford imported wallpaper or decorated furniture. As soon as people began to have the time and money to beautify their surroundings, they began to use stencil decorations on the walls and even on the floors. In the 18th and 19th centuries, stencils were also frequently used on other surfaces. These included fabrics, especially bed and table covers, furniture and household items such as tin and wooden trays, chests and trunks.

Source: Brian J. McMorrow, Shelburne Museum

At the end of the 19th century, stencils as an art of decoration were abandoned by the then artists. The Art Deco period (1920s and 1930s) was a time of renewed fashion for these products. Back then, French publishers used them to produce color separations for book illustrations. Craftsmen reproducing the work of fauvist painters such as Derain cut separate stencil for each shade. Picasso’s paintings were also stencil reproductions. The patterns popularized by advertising and books made people want to have such patterns on their walls again. In 1936, even the Harpers Bazaar used a stencil for its logo. It was, however, a short period of their return to favor. It was only in the late 1970s that stencils began to come back into fashion due to the boredom with wallpapers.

Source: Stencil Nakleo

Inspirational patterns from our painting stencil collections …