Transforming Photos to Stencil with Photoshop

Stencils can be fun to make in Photoshop. The key to stencil Photoshop is to keep the image contrast as solid as possible so that the cutout will work. But, first things first.

Step 1: Initial Setup

For this, you are going to want a photo of something with a distinct shape that can become a silhouette. Once you have this, duplicate the background by going to "Layer", "Duplicate Layer". Now, click on the little ying-yang looking icon at the bottom of the layer window. Tell it to create a layer of "Solid Color" and choose a color that will stand out from the rest of the image. Move this layer between the other two layers. 

Step 2: Cutting out the Shape

Now, go to the "Filter" drop-down and select "Extract". With this tool, you will outline the area that you want to keep and Photoshop will eliminate the rest. Grab the paint brush tool from the left hand side of the "Extract" window. Choose a width that will allow you to overlap the edge of your stencil. Paint the outline as best you can, including an additional outline around any unwanted areas contained in your shape. Zoom in if you need to. When the outline is complete, select the paint bucket tool in the window. Click on the object you are going to keep to fill it in. Hit preview if you want to take a look, then hit OK.

Step 3: Getting the Image Bi-Chromatic

In the end, you want your stencil to be strictly black and white. Desaturate the image by going to "Image", "Adjustments", and selecting "Desaturate". Now, go to "Image", "Adjustments", and adjust the "Threshold". Think about what will work best as a stencil and set the slider accordingly. To smooth out the image, apply a Gaussian blur. This can be found in "Filter" and "Blur". You only need enough to soften the coarse edges, so a radius of about 1 will do. Now ,go to "Image", "Adjustments", and find the "Curves". To make the blacks truly black, click on the lower quarter of the graph and pull the point down. To make the whites truly white, click on the upper quarter of the graph and pull the point up.

Step 4: Solidifying the Cutout

At this point, you can select your color layer and change the color to either white or black. It should be the same as whichever color of the stencil you decide will be the cutout. For now, we will assume that your cutout is black and the negative space through which you will later paint is white. Grab your paint brush tool and select the color black. You need to make sure that there are no black areas enclosed in the white areas because they will have nothing to hold on to once you cut out the shape. Paint reasonable connections to any of these islands.  Or, you may prefer to erase them by painting them white.

Now you have successfully made a functioning cutout. Make sure it is sturdy before painting with it.

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