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How-Tuesday: Stenciled Handwriting Art

by Julie Schneider

Dec 14, 2010

Preserve the raw design of your toddler's first scrawl with Australian artist Emma Corcoran's step-by-step directions.

With just a steady hand and a few basic supplies, you can whip up a personalized holiday gift that pays tribute to the handwriting of a favorite friend or family member. Write a love letter to your crush, make a memento for a mom, or create a family keepsake for your grandparents. In this week's How-Tuesday project, Australian artist Maree, a.k.a. Blue Day Designs, shares her detailed stencil-making expertise.

I'm Maree and I love making children’s portraits and stenciled artworks. Getting out into the shed with a can of spray paint is my favourite pastime. (Geeky, but true.) I was inspired to make this project after my aunt showed me a postcard written by my grandfather when he was 5 years old (in 1906!). I loved the old-fashioned writing and thought it would look great as a stenciled artwork. It was great fun to enlarge his writing and then cut it out of paper – it looked really beautiful even as a paper stencil.

This tutorial focuses on making a stenciled artwork featuring children’s handwriting. The handwriting can be yours, your child's, your grandparents – anyone’s. This is a unique way to preserve a child’s writing, whilst creating an edgy artwork at the same time. A stenciled artwork featuring a child’s handwriting creates the perfect personalized gift.

Here are some more ideas for making this project your own: •    Use a sample of your partner’s 1st Grade writing to make a surprise gift •    Do "his" and "hers" handwriting artworks for newly married friends •    Recreate your child's first handwritten message to Grandma •    ...The possibilities are endless!

Materials Needed:

  • An image manipulation program such as Photoshop or GIMP. (Go here to download Gimp for free.)
  • Sample of some handwriting
  • Scanner and printer
  • Cardboard
  • Cutting knife or scalpel
  • Self-healing cutting mat
  • Can of adhesive spray
  • Spray paint
  • Canvas
  • Safety mask


1. Get a copy of some handwriting. I’m going to use this sample of my grandfather’s writing as a child, taken from the bottom of a postcard. You only need to use a few sentences or a phrase, and it doesn't matter if the handwriting is messy. (It looks better that way!)

2. Scan your handwriting and open it in your image program.

First, crop any edges so that you just have your writing. I've cut out the picture from the postcard so I just have writing. In Photoshop go to Image>Crop.

You might then have to clean up the image, getting rid of any marks or writing you don't want. In Photoshop, select the Pencil Tool, then use the Color Selector to choose a white color.

Then just start erasing unwanted marks or writing. Below, you can see I’ve started to erase some printed text on the post card, and some of the pinkish background.

Now I want to make the writing a little bit darker, and completely get rid of the slight pinkish tone in the background.  In Photoshop, go to Enhance>Adjust Color>Replace Color. The Replace Color box will come up. It looks like this:

Using the little eye droppers you select the color you want to change. I clicked on the pinkish background. Then, go to the "lightness" setting and push it all the way up to the right. This will lighten the pink. Then press OK. To darken the writing, bring up the Replace Color box again and this time use the eye-dropper to select some of the colors of the writing.  Move the "lightness" setting down towards the left, and you'll see all the writing gradually get darker.

You should end up with something like this.

   3. Depending on how you want to lay out your final stencil, you may have to move words around, or put them into different lines.  I want to move my top line a little to the left. In Photoshop do this by selecting the Selection Brush Tool. Use this tool to highlight the text you want to move. I’ve highlighted the top line of text by drawing around it with the Selection Brush Tool.

Then, select the Move Tool.

And use this tool to move the text to where you’d like it. I’m moving it slightly to the left.

My design now looks like this.

 4. You need all the white parts of the design to be connected so that when you cut your stencil out it all hangs together. This means you now have to get rid of any "white islands" (isolated sections of white). Here are some white islands in my handwriting sample; the "white islands" are the white circles in the middle of the O and bottom of the Y.

In your design, look for white islands and connect them up to another bit of white by drawing a white line through some black to connect the white sections up. (To draw the white lines in Photoshop select the Pencil Tool, then use the Color Selector to choose a white color and you can start drawing). With the Y I looked for the place where the black was the thinnest and just drew a little white line in. With the O there was no thin place, so I just drew a line where the O connected at the top.

The white lines you draw should be at least .25" (.5cm) wide. If they are too thin they might break when you cut them out.

5. Now all you have to do is decide what size you'd like your stenciled artwork to be. To make cutting out the stencil easier, it is best if the letters are at least 4" (10cm) high. Use Photoshop or GIMP to resize your design to whatever size you’d like it to be. (In Photoshop go to Image>Resize>Image Size then select your dimensions). 6. Print your design. Depending on what size your stencil design is, you might need to go to a professional printer to get it printed out. Ask for it to be printed on ordinary 80gsm thickness paper (printer paper, not card stock). 7. Buy some cardstock (around 250gsm) at a size a bit bigger than your stencil design. (You can buy two bits and tape them together if your design is very big).

Step 8. Trace your stencil design onto the cardstock. It will probably be too hard to do this on a table, because the cardstock is normally too thick to see through. So, you can tape your stencil design to a window, then tape the cardboard in front of it.

Using a sharp pencil, trace your design onto the cardstock.

9. Once you've traced all the letters it's time to cut out your stencil. This is probably the most time-consuming part of the process. Put the cardstock onto the self-healing mat and start cutting around your design with a cutting knife.

You should end up with something like this.

10. Choose your canvas. You can spray onto flat canvas, which you buy off the roll and then have to get framed or stretched. Another option is to buy a canvas board, which is like a tile. You stencil onto this hard surface, then buy a stretched canvas the same size as the canvas board and glue the board onto the front of it — and, have a stretched canvas artwork!

11. Choose your spray paint. You can use specialized street art spray-paint, like Montana Gold, but ordinary spray-paint from a hardware store will be okay too. For this artwork I'm using Montana Gold in turquoise.

12. Set-up your spraying area. Find a work-bench or flat surface to work on and work in a warm, well-ventilated room or shed.

13.  Put your cardboard stencil cut-out onto some old newspapers or cardboard. Turn it over, and spray adhesive spray onto the back of it. You just want a fine, even coat — not great globs of spray. Do this with your safety mask on because the adhesive spray produces a fine mist of glue, which your little lungs will not thank you for!

14. Now, put the stencil design, right side up (glue side down) on your canvas, and start pressing it down with your fingers.

It will probably take about 15 minutes to get that sucker really pressed down. You need to run your fingers along every part of the design.

15. Tape paper or newspaper over any parts of the canvas that are exposed, which you do not want spray paint getting onto. 16. Shake your paint-can for about 10 minutes.

17. Start spraying! You just need a good coat of paint over all of your letters. As you're spraying, look at your stencil from a few different angles, so you can see if all the white parts are covered.

18. When you've finished spraying wait about two minutes, then carefully lift up your stencil. And, there you go! You have a unique, stenciled artwork which is ready to be stretched or framed. You are a legend. (Yes, really, you are!)  

 If you make this project, please share a photo with us in the How-Tuesday Flickr group!

Stencil Tutorials | More How-Tuesday Posts

Julie Schneider

When Julie Schneider isn’t writing and editing, she’s carrying on her family’s pun tradition, making custom GIFs, or scheming in her cozy art studio. Keep up with her latest projects on Instagram.