We can find the results of stencil use in thousands of places across the world. From anarchist graffiti to Paleolithic cave paintings, from masterpieces of silk printing to mass-printed products – stenciling has thousands of uses. But for all its uses, people still wonder, what is a stencil, and where did the iconic “broken” font come from? Why are those strange script fonts used so often for stencils?
To answer these questions properly, we must look into the history of stencils and script fonts and how their interplay created one of the most iconic and easily recognizable fonts in the world.
Construction of a Stencil
We have designed modern stencils to be durable and reusable. Whether for designs or text, stencils are usually made of a thin sheet of metal, wood, or plastic. Sections through which the paint must pass are cut out. If more complex shapes are to be made, certain sections must remain uncut to block the paint. These sections are called islands, and the portions of the stencil holding these islands in place are called bridges. Effectively managing the shape of the bridges and islands allows artists to develop new fonts, and they must consider the aesthetics of these fonts to make a good stencil.
But to understand why stencils have developed in this manner, we must look into how stencils, as we know them, developed. For that, we must look far back into the past, to the very beginning of humanity.
History of Stenciling
Stenciling is, quite possibly, one of the oldest visual art forms ever. The first pieces of stencil art found were approximately dated to the Paleolithic period. These pieces were known as hand stencils and were made by pressing a hand onto the wall of a cave, then blowing pigment at it using a tube. The resulting “negative images” of the hands can be found in caves across the world, but the oldest ones in the world are in Sulawesi, a small Indonesian island. Scientists dated the stalactites that had grown over the handprints, confirming that the oldest is at least 40,000 years old.
Stenciling is an ancient art form and has lived on through the centuries in myriad shapes and forms. Hundreds of different techniques have been developed in different countries across the globe. In Japan, stenciling art reached new heights when they developed the art form known as Katazome. The Japanese dyed pieces of cloth by applying a thick paste through a stencil. These cloths produced a pleasing visual effect when layered. Kimonos dyed in this manner are still considered to be great art pieces and can be found in museums in Japan.
This technique spread far and fast as it was relatively easy to dye cloth like this, and it soon turned into an art form.
In Europe, stencils evolved into a different direction i.e. mass printing. It was in Europe that stencils began to evolve into something closer to their modern day use.
Back then however, using stencils was still a highly complex art. Users needed training in cutting stencils, maintaining them, handling dyes, working with cloth and so much more. Despite making art easier, it was by no means completely accessible. This problem was partially solved by industrialization, transforming stencil use from a niche but popular art form to a method for mass printing.
Stencils soon became popular as a method of book illustration in Europe. In the 1920s, many French artists used stencils to create art for books, and they called the complex, layered stenciling process the “pochoir” process. Stenciling was also a popular method of producing playing cards, having first been used for that purpose since the 1400s. But while stenciling worked great for printing images, printing text was a significantly more complex matter. Fonts back then were mostly complex ones, and hard to stencil. Many letters had enclosed forms, leading to a situation called The Problem of “O”. Since the letter O was completely enclosed, all bridges needed to be removed, leaving nothing more than a large splotch of ink or paint. Leaving bridges created a strange-looking letter and was disliked for aesthetic reasons.
Currently, we use stencils for a wide variety of purposes, not including art or printing.
Stencils are heavily used in the military, often to mark out specific items or temporary structures. Past militaries have also used stencils to paint slogans or logos on their aircraft.
Many Do It Yourself (DIY) enthusiasts enjoy using stencils for home decoration. Decorators can find prefabricated stencils in hardware or arts and crafts stores, and they are usually applied using roller brushes.
Another aspect of home decor is the application of wall stencils. These stencils tend to replace wallpaper. People use them to create repeating patterns on walls or ceilings, giving their houses a modern touch.
One of the major stenciling methods currently in use, silkscreen printing, is widely used across many industries and uses a variety of techniques developed over centuries. It is relatively complex, but the results speak for themselves. Workers use several wire meshes to apply paint to a piece of cloth or paper. Each wire mesh is covered with an impenetrable stencil, with different meshes having different stencils. This allows the combination of multiple stencils to create multicolored prints.
Screen printing is extremely versatile, far exceeding other stencil-based art forms. Screen printing can work on a huge number of materials, and many industries such as balloons, clothing, decals, medical devices, printed electronics, product labels, textile fabric, and pinball machines use it. This is because it doesn’t have to be printed under pressure, nor are flat surfaces necessary to use it.
Stencils, and by extension fonts, are heavily used in street art. Often made of cardboard or paper, graffiti artists use these stencils to quickly reproduce complex artworks, often using spray paint or roll-on paint to create images on public walls.
For a long time, cities considered graffiti to be vandalism, but it has recently been accepted as a valid form of art. First seen in the 1960s, this form of street art can now be found across the world. Due to the ease of use of stencils and spray paint, many young artists have gotten their start in this field. Quite a few of them have gone on to build careers despite their humble beginnings. The most famous of these street artists is, of course, Banksy, and his trademark stenciled rat can be found in many of the places he has visited.
Why Script Lettering is the Best for Stencils
Finally, we turn to the fonts used in stenciling. As seen in the past few paragraphs, stencils have several major drawbacks, most of which require considerable technology or skill to overcome.
But now, in the industrial age, we can easily produce stencils for any font, script, or cursive. Why, then, is the iconic font still in use? Put simply; it’s because script letters are immediately identifiable and easy to read. Stencils with script fonts don’t need massive industrial support to make, they don’t require specialized tools to use, and they are not prohibitively expensive.
As minor a change as shifting to a cursive font necessitates large changes in how people use a stencil. Cursive fonts have lower tolerances for bad spacing and are harder to read. As mentioned above in the letter “O” problem, enclosed spaces in letters are hard to deal with. Silkscreen printing solved that problem by using extremely thin strands of silk to replace the bridge, but that is a high-skill technique, not usable by the common printer. Cursive fonts magnify this problem tremendously, since most letters are closed forms, requiring stencil makers to change fonts for easy readability.
As noted above, enclosed figures are hard to turn into stencils. However, attempting to use thin bridges to improve readability is also not a good idea, as seen in ancient art. Artists who used paper stencils often found their stencils ruined with only a few uses, making stencil printing less effective in the long run. Modern stencils must stand up to the rigors of daily use, and the letters should not break easily. To that end, artists should use thick bridges.
Techniques of silkscreen printing can also be used to design reusable stencils. This does solve the previous problem of thick bridges, but it creates another one – it is not easy to use. Unclogging delicate wire mesh is difficult and can often result in a ruined stencil due to minor mistakes.
Due to all these factors, it is clear that script fonts are perfect for stenciling, allowing all users to create crisp and clear images or patterns. The history of stencil printing is long and complicated, but the art has been refined over centuries. As the printing techniques developed, fonts developed alongside. Now, finally, the perfect combination of script fonts and detailed stencils has been developed. Used across the world, it is an excellent choice, no matter your requirements.