How to Make a Semiphotorealistic Three-Shade Print

comments (8) June 14th, 2013     

Pin It

leethal Lee Meredith, contributor
Love it! 58 users recommend
Its a wacky, semiphotorealistic portrait of Christopher Walken!
Any object with well-defined lines like this camera will make a great stencil!
This three-shade process is so magical because once you put the three stencils together, your image will appear!
Its a wacky, semiphotorealistic portrait of Christopher Walken!

It's a wacky, semiphotorealistic portrait of Christopher Walken!

Photo: Lee Meredith
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8   All

I am no stranger to the struggle of crafting gifts for guys, having grown up with three brothers, plus my dad and now my fiance, and it has not really gotten any easier with age and experience. I've been gifting handmade for the holidays since I could hold a pair of scissors, and I've come up with some pretty silly guy gifts over the years (a painted rock paperweight comes to mind), so when I started to get into printmaking, I was excited to make some gifts that I thought the guys in my life might really appreciate.

Freezer-paper stenciling was the method of printing that got me hooked-so simple, low cost, and with so much possibility! This unisex gift concept is completely customizable to any recipient's interests, since you can choose just about any image to turn into a stencil and then print it onto just about any fabric object! Basic stenciling how-to's can easily be found around the crafty Web, so I wanted to share with you this crazy three-shade technique I came up with, for something different. I'll make notes throughout for what you'd do differently if you want to do just a normal one-color print.

You'll need:

  • Some kind of photo-editing computer program (and a printer)
  • Freezer paper (which has wax on one side only, found in most grocery stores)
  • Pencil
  • X-Acto knife (with a fresh blade for easiest carving)
  • Something colored to print on (shirt, bag, scrap of fabric, etc.)
  • Iron
  • Black and white screen-printing ink (or another kind of fabric paint)
  • Paintbrush or foam brush

Note about fabric color: This technique prints the image in black, white, and gray, so it must be printed on a fabric that is not black or white. If you want to do a normal one-color print, you can do black print on white fabric, or white print on black fabric. If you really want to print on a black or white fabric with the three-color method, you could do the print in color-for example, on black fabric, use blue, light blue, and white.

First, find your image. The easiest kinds of images to stencil are ones with well-defined lines, which are usually objects-musical instruments, cameras, video game gear, robots, etc. I am doing a face for this tutorial to demonstrate a more difficult image, in case that's what you want to do, but if you're new to this, I'd recommend not choosing a face!

For a print for my guy, I chose a photo of Christopher Walken, one of his favorite icons, so I found a photo online with a good, straight-on shape, with some shadow but not too much. Mine happened to be black and white already, but you can choose a color image, then just make it black and white in your photo-editing program.

  I made sure to find an image in which his hair wasn't going to be too complicated to carve into a stencil.

Now you need to adjust the image to be stencil-friendly. First crop it to just the area you want to use. Then adjust the contrast so that there is a large amount of pure black and a large amount of pure white, with some gray. I use the levels option in my program, but you can use brightness/contrast or whatever option(s) work for you.

Note: If you want to make a one-color stencil, adjust until you only have pure black and pure white, with no gray at all.

  The levels option will give you the most control-just move those arrows in until the image looks how you want it.

Print the image the size you want your stencil. Don't worry if it's blurry; you'll smooth out the lines when tracing and carving. Now you'll need to figure out the order of your color layers. Whichever shade (black, white, or gray) covers the most area in the image, with the least amount of small shapes that aren't connected to the rest, should be your first shade. Whichever shade has the most small, stand-alone shapes should be your third shade.

  With this image, white was the first shade, then gray, then black, since all those small shapes in the eyes, nose, and mouth are black.

Cut the freezer paper into three pieces as big as or bigger than the stencil area. Tape one piece, wax side down, to the image paper on one side only. Trace your first shade-it's helpful to write the shade and number above the image so you don't forget later. For the first color, you just need to trace the outline of the major shape; there's no need to worry about all the #2 and #3 shade spots within that shape because you'll be printing them on top. Because of the gray shades, it may be hard to see the line definition, which is why you put tape on only one side-lift the freezer paper to check on the lines, and the tape will hold it in place.

  Keep an eraser nearby because you'll probably need it at some point!

Note: If you are doing a one-color stencil, of course you don't have to worry about all that shade order stuff, but you also don't even need to trace-you can just carve directly over the image, since it'll be easy to see the defined lines with no gray.

Repeat the tracing for the second shade, keeping in mind the order. So, you need to be sure any area that is the first shade is kept out of the stencil, while shapes in the third shade can be left in. If this is hard to understand, just think about the layers-in my stencil, first white will go down, then gray, then black. So you can't print gray over area that should be white, but you can print gray over black spots because the black goes down last.

Another thing about freezer-paper printing in general, regardless of shades: While in normal stenciling you can't have any "islands" (spots in the stencil that aren't connected to the rest of the stencil), with freezer paper you actually can have islands. The stencil will be ironed in place, so you can iron the islands on, too. But, especially with the three-shade technique, it is good to avoid them when possible to prevent losing pieces and just to make it easier. When tracing the stencils, I shade in the small islands to remember that they are a part of the stencil, so when I'm carving I'm sure to keep the pieces safe.

  Those two spots in the eye area are islands-they will be ironed on as part of the stencil.

Now trace the third shade, which should mostly be small shapes. In my stencil, I chose to include the black background as part of the print, but you can choose to stencil the outline of the face (or object) with no background.

  Since I'm printing the black background, the entire face section of the stencil is an "island" because it's not attached to the rest of the stencil.

Time to carve! On a cutting board or newpaper, use a sharp blade to carve out all three stencils. Go slowly and carefully, but if you do accidentally cut a slit in the stencil, ironing it down will fix the problem. When you're done, you'll have three separate stencils that probably look nothing like your object on their own. This three-shade process is so magical because once you put the three stencils together, your image will appear!

  When I have small island pieces like those eye pieces, I stick a tab of two-sided tape to the stencil they belong to and stick them on to keep track of them.

Get your fabric out on the ironing board-I used a piece of recycled T-shirt fabric for this print, so I can either sew it onto something or frame it for an art gift. Of course, you can print directly onto a shirt, a bag, a hoodie, or anything else your recipient might like.

  Set your iron on the highest setting for the fabric you're using.

Iron the shade #1 freezer-paper stencil (wax side down) onto the fabric, being careful not to snag any stencil edges with the iron.

  Go over the stencil edges the most, until they are securely stuck to the fabric.

Fill in the stencil with the first shade. At the stencil edges, dab the paintbrush up and down, never painting toward the edge-even though it's ironed down, paint can still get under the stencil if you're not careful.

  On larger areas of knit fabric, the fabric can stretch when painting as you see here-it's not a big deal, so don't worry.

Some tutorials I've read say to wait until the paint is dry to peel off the stencil, but I never do, and my prints are always fine. I usually wait about five minutes, then peel away! Just peel very carefully, of course, so as not to smudge or smear any wet paint.

  Let the paint dry completely before moving on.

If you really want to speed up the drying process, you can use a hair dryer, but the paint must be totally dry before printing the next layer. Repeat the ironing and painting, making sure you line up the second layer perfectly with the first.

For gray paint: In this print, I mixed approximately one part black with two parts white, and the gray still turned out darker than I'd like. So I'd recommend mixing one part black with three parts white (or 25% black, 75% white).

  When stenciling with small island pieces, first iron down the big stencil, then add and iron the islands one at a time.

After peeling and letting dry, repeat the process with the third shade. Line it up carefully, iron it on, and paint.

  When there are lots of small shapes, just dab up and down on all those spots; don't brush side to side at all.

After that layer is completely dry, you can heat-set the print according to your fabric paint's directions, and you're done!

  It's a wacky, semiphotorealistic portrait of Christopher Walken!

Here is an example of an image a bit easier to make into a stencil. See how most of the shapes are well defined with straight lines:

  This is the image postediting, with pure black, pure white, and some in-between gray.

For that image, my order was different: first was gray, second was black, and third was white.

  Any object with well-defined lines like this camera will make a great stencil!

So that's my crazy three-shade printing invention. I'll show you some examples of regular one-color freezer-paper stencil prints, which take a lot less time and still turn out totally great looking (and would be a good first-time way to try out stenciling if you're new to it).

  I did this print based on a photograph, on a shirt for my DJ brother.

Here is an example of an image that had a ton of island shapes-to carve out all those islands and place them correctly when ironing would have been way too tricky! So I added "bridges" to most of the island shapes, meaning narrow pieces in the stencil connecting the island to the rest of the stencil.

  A sports-related print might be perfect for a guy on your gift list!

And then here's an example of a one-color face print-just play with the image contrast until you have a pure black and white picture that looks how you want it.

  You can leave out a ton of detail for a super-minimal print that still looks like the person.

And this last example is a bit more feminine because, of course, this project can be used for the ladies on your list, too!

  This stencil was made from a free-hand drawing, which is another option for crafty artists.

If you are thinking, "This seems like it could be a fun project to do with my kids, if it wasn't for that darn X-Acto knife," you're in luck! I did a tutorial on my own blog a while back on kid-friendly freezer-paper stenciling, using scissors instead of a knife. You can also use shaped paper punches! Stenciling rocks!

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8   All
Did you make this?
After you make this project, show off your work to other members!
Post your project in the gallery

posted in: fabric, paint, stencil, gifts for men, print, guy gift, boyfriend, husband, printmaking

Comments (8)

tommoody33 writes: This is incredibly generous of you to share this information and your talent. you using Freezer-paper stenciling was the method of printing is great.
Posted: 4:43 am on June 26th
Keren_D writes: Hi Lee,

This is a great tutorial. I've seen a lot of craft/sewing tutorials and this one is fascinating, well-explained, and well-photographed. Excellent!

BTW, do you have a blog?

Keren (
Posted: 1:23 am on December 17th
Jetmuis writes: wooow what a great tute you have made!!!!
awesome too your designs , well done.
love this!!!! thank you too for the sharing, your very gifted and rocking;-D!!!!!!
Posted: 4:54 am on December 12th
christineblint writes: Far away and far out idea and execution. My congrats to you and your creativity--you are a professional.
Posted: 1:33 pm on December 13th
OTorres writes: Lee, this is just so cool, thanks
Posted: 10:46 am on December 13th
crafty1900 writes: this is great! very thorough.
Posted: 7:16 pm on December 10th
ohbrooke writes: Okay, THIS is BRILLIANT. I'm going to do it, and I'll be sure to send pictures. My husband would LOVE this!
Posted: 3:27 pm on December 10th
TipiLady writes: Is it possible to get giddy over crafting? I can hardly keep the smile off my face. Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou! This is going to save a bundle on Christmas presents and a whole lot of other occassions. This is incredibly generous of you to share this information and your talent. I can't wait to try it.
Posted: 1:00 pm on December 10th
You must be logged in to post comments. Click here to login.