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Stencils Make Their Mark : It's easy and fun to dabble in stenciling on walls or fabric. You can create looks from romantic to contemporary to traditional--and all heavy on the charm.


Stenciling leaves its mark on a room like a whisper, making a quiet suggestion rather than a loud announcement yet often managing to be one of the most interesting things a room has to say.

The tiny dabs of paint that characterize stenciling can be applied in ways that are appropriate to an array of design styles--from the most streamlined to the most intricate.

"Stenciling is a wonderful way to complement a certain look, and it is easy to do," said Marilyn Harmon, a stenciling instructor. "It gives you a wonderful sense of accomplishment and is easily adaptable. Many people start by painting a border near the ceiling, go on to their cabinets and then start painting furniture or curtains to match. The basic technique is the same, so it's a matter of practicing and determining what looks best.

"The charm of stenciling lies in its personalization," Harmon said. "You can create looks that are very romantic, contemporary or traditional."

Harmon, who teaches stenciling at Piecemakers Country Store in Costa Mesa, and her partner, Brenda Stanfield, have been giving classes for about 10 years. There has been an increased interest in the craft over the past decade, they say.

"Just 12 years ago, the number of pre-cut stencils were very small," Harmon said. "Today, there are literally thousands of patterns to choose from, and stencilers also have the option of cutting their own stencils."

In its simplest form, stenciling is the art of applying paint through a cut-out pattern to areas ranging from walls to furniture to fabric.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, stenciling achieved great popularity in Europe. In fact, the origins of the word can be traced back to either the French estenceler, meaning to sparkle, or Latin scintilla, meaning to spark. The French were fond of adding sparkling decorations to their homes during this period and adorned wallpaper, books and fabrics. Immigrants brought the craft to the United States.

Today, it is used by do-it-yourselfers and professionals to add interest to walls, furnishings and even clothing.

When interior designer Elaine Hankin of Huntington Beach wanted to create a cozy, Pennsylvania Dutch-style look for a client's home, she turned to stenciling.

"My client has a very contemporary condominium in Irvine with a very high ceiling," Hankin said. "We wanted to bring the ceiling down while adding some warmth. With stark white walls, what do you do? That's why we thought of stenciling."

Borrowing from the Pennsylvania Dutch theme, Hankin had an artist stencil hex patterns across the walls of the family room and kitchen.

"I really like the look of faux finishes whether it's stenciling, marbleizing or sponging," Hankin said. "I use stenciling all the time. It's extremely versatile, so if I'm decorating the bedroom, I can pick up a pattern from a quilt or draperies. I can also match the colors much better than if I tried wallpaper or another treatment."

Hankin also likes stenciling to add subtle touches to an area, such as ivy trailing around a doorway. For a more bold look, she once used dolphins and fish.

"We used a fish motif because this particular client really enjoyed fishing. It was a fun and relatively inexpensive way to personalize his home and add a sense of fun," she said. "The stenciling I've had done always looks great, and you really get a lot of bang for your buck."

When determining an area to stencil, Harmon recommends looking at the size of the room.

"A stencil with a large pattern will overpower a small room," she said. "Likewise, a small pattern can sometimes get lost in a large room. Stenciling should be a part of the whole look you are trying to achieve."

The stenciling process itself is relatively simple. Once a pattern and colors have been selected, the stenciler should first try out the arrangement on a piece of paper that is, preferably, the color of the wall.

"You can practice blending or combining different colors to see the effect," Stanfield said. "Beginners have a tendency to apply paint that's too dark or thick. By looking at different patterns and colors on paper, you can tape them to the surface and see how it will look. That way, if it's not what you had in mind, you can easily change the pattern or colors."

Harmon and Stanfield recommend starting your pattern in a corner that's least likely to be seen, usually near the doorway. And start with a clean surface.

Assess whether the ceiling or walls are even. This isn't as important if the pattern is a flowing, winding one (such as ivy or a grapevine), but could cause difficulty if it has straight lines.

The stencil can be affixed to the wall with masking tape and easily removed as the stenciler works around the room.

There are two types of paint used for stenciling: oil-based and acrylic. Oil-based paints are usually sold as crayons or in small pots. The acrylics tend to be sold in larger jars.

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