CMYK Halftone Stencil Tutorial

To follow this tutorial, you’ll need

  • an image that you want to stencil
  • a craft or laser cutter
  • card stock
  • paint (spray paint, or acrylic with dabber brush)
feel free to sit back and watch the video how to do it

What is a CMYK halftone?

CMYK halftone is a printing technique used to reproduce continuous tone images using four colors: Cyan (blue-green), Magenta (hot pink), Yellow, and Black. Photographs or complex color graphics are broken down into halftone dots of varying sizes and densities, which are then printed using the four ink colors.

When we make halftone stencils, instead of using dots, we use lines that have varying width. We call this a linear halftone. The reason we use lines is that lines are easier to cut than dots. For a person or for a craft or laser cutter.


Step 1: Choose your image

It’s not hard to choose an image that will look good as a half-tone stencil, because the halftone technique is very forgiving. Still, some images are really ideal for traditional color separation, so it helps to know the difference.

Crop your image to get just the bits you want. No need to show the whole night sky when all you want is the flying saucer.

beatles in the era of yellow submarine
beatles in the era of yellow submarine

Step 2: Get the halftone vectors

Upload your image to Bay Stencil (you can do it from the Upload panel on this page). You can crop the image as you’re uploading it, and you can also choose whether you want our AI to remove the background for you.

upload panel of bay stencil
upload panel of bay stencil allows you to crop image and remove background

After a minute or two, you’ll get an email back with 9 options for a traditional stencil of your image. Who knows, you may even want one of these. But for your CMYK halftone SVG download, you’re just going to find the little itty-bitty link in this email that says ‘get the halftones’.

tiny link that says 'get the halftones'
tiny link that says ‘get the halftones’

Step 3: Cut the stencils

Cutting halftone stencils differs a little from cutting traditional stencils. Traditional stencils have big and small shapes, and the islands are connected by bridges of varying lengths. But with halftone stencils, the bridges are never any wider than the halftone lines. What’s more, the lines for each layer all go in the same direction. So your cutter is going to cut longer, but the output should be more predictable in general.

I like to cut these halftone stencils on a Cricut or on a laser cutter. Here’s what it looks like to load up all four SVGs into Cricut Design Space.

And there are two things you need to remember to do in Design Space:

  • once you have all four SVGs loaded, click ‘Attach’ on each one, so that the registration marks stay with the line patterns (registration is important with halftones)
  • if you resize the stencils, make sure you resize them all by the same amount (by selecting them all together before you resize)

When I resized my four Beatles SVGs and clicked ‘Make It’, Design Space knew to separate them onto four oversize mats, and turn each of the stencils on its side.

cutting cmyk beatles stencils on laser cutter
cutting halftone stencils on a laser cutter

Step 4: Paint

To paint, you want to have cyan (blue-green), magenta (hot pink), yellow (bright yellow) and black paint. Even though it’s called ‘CMYK’, I usually find that the best order to paint with spray on white paper is ‘Y-M-C-K’ (yellow, then magenta, then cyan, then black). Be prepared to mix it up if you’re getting (for example) too yellow-y a look, or if the cyan is overprinting all the yellow.

One other technique I use is this: when an upper layer is killing a lower layer, I just go easier on the upper layer. When Ringo’s face turned out to be as yellow as his shirt, I just held back on the yellow over the face, and let it rip over the shirt, so that more magenta would show through under the yellow. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but sometimes you want to bend the stencil in the direction of a better color match.

On your Cricut or craft cutter

You might look at these intricate, lacy filigree stencils and believe that you can’t cut them on a Cricut. But you can! It turns out that cutting is not the hardest part–the Cricut and its close competitors have no trouble cutting these patterns, given enough time. The trickier part is getting the stencil off the mat without tearing it.

Carefully remove your stencil from the mat

When removing your halftone stencil from your cutting mat, look at the direction that the lines are going, and peel your stencil off in the same direction as the lines. If you peel perpendicular to the lines, you’ll put too much stress on the little bridges, and it may tear.

I use a plastic spatula to remove the remaining cut-outs from the mat after I pull the stencil off. Works like a charm!

Try card stock first, then try mylar

If you can’t get the card stock to come off cleanly, then try a thicker card stock, or try using 5 mil mylar.

Use a less sticky mat

I have old and new Cricut mats lying around. For these halftone stencils I usually use one that is not brand new; so just a little bit less sticky. Because the cuts can sometimes take 15 minutes or more, I don’t want the stencil to come loose during the cut (and lose the time starting over), but I also don’t want it to be so sticky that the stencil tears when I go to take it off the mat.

Don’t try to size it down

By all means, size your halftone stencil up; but don’t try to size it down. The reason is the bridges and gaps between the lines were sized to give the best result for a 12 inch wide (i.e., Cricut-sized) medium, so that you get as much detail as possible while still keeping the cutting time down and the stencil stable and easy to handle.

More Halftone Ideas

Having fun with halftone stencils? Did you know that you can use other color separations other than CMYK for more diverse effects?

Halftone portraits that pop! Use a grayscale halftone layer together with some color layers from a traditional color separated stencil, and you’ll be amazed at the results.

Check out these tips to know when to use a halftone stencil and when to use a traditional stencil.