Make stencils with DALL-E

Let’s just jump in and say that the slickest-looking artwork is going to come from MidJourney, about which we’ve written pretty extensively:

But MidJourney doesn’t do everything (yet!). So we’ll get right to the two things that DALL-E has on MidJourney that are super-useful: outpainting and inpainting.

Outpainting in DALL-E

Outpainting is when you want to make a picture continue beyond its border. Suppose you have a great portrait photo but it crops the person’s head at the top. Now you want the stencil to appear as if the person is ‘floating’ on the surface, and with the top of the person’s head cropped off, it definitely has the feeling of a letterbox, or photo.

DALL-E doesn’t make this part too easy, but if you take a photo editor and place the photo on a white or transparent background at the size you want it to be, then DALL-E can take it from there. I use Inkscape to place the image on a 1024×1024 canvas, export it, and then ask DALL-E to fill in the missing part.

DALL-E: supply the image on desired background, with prompt that indicates what should be pictured

With DALL-E, you supply the image positioned within a canvas (transparent background shown here), and also tell DALL-E what you want to appear in the image. Typically, for outpainting, you just want to describe the image as you see it, plus anything additional you want to appear in the image. Since we just want the AI to restore the top of her head, we can just give it the tip that she has curly brown hair.

You see that DALL-E gives us four choices for how to enlarge the photo. I liked the last one best.

So I upload to Bay Stencil, crop the photo a little to remove the DALL-E watermark and to center it properly, and check the box to remove the background.

Thanks to Michael Mims for this severely cropped photo to start with. :-) (He has lots of other great photos too.)

Inpainting with DALL-E

The second ace DALL-E holds is inpainting. You can think of inpainting as when you erase part of a picture and ask DALL-E to replace what you erased with something you describe.

I chose a photo with a relatively neutral expression because I want to use it as the basis for a graffiti cartoon, where the speaker goes through different moods. So I can use the same photo for all the moods, but with slightly different expressions, similar to the style of This Modern World.

Then, in DALL-E, I erase just enough of the lower half of her face to allow the expression conveyed by the mouth and nose to alter, while the expression in her eyes remains the same.

editing the mouth expression

What I typically got back was often unusable, but after about ten tries with different prompts, I was able to get a few expressions that could make a pretty decent ‘wall comic’.

And so, with these very similar inputs, we were able to get back consistent results from Bay Stencil, using the first preset (four greys) as a standard for all of them.

Thanks to Radek Homola for this lovely photo of a woman that we started with.

Successive iterations to home in on the right image

Another thing that DALL-E is good at is allowing you to (as you saw in the last example) to get rid of just the part of the image that you don’t like. So, like we changed the expression of the woman in the picture, we can also ‘fine tune’ images that are almost what we want, but not quite. If you keep erasing the things you don’t like, you’ll eventually have an image that you like, right?

The erase tool in DALL-E is pretty primitive, but I’ve found that when I want more precision to perfect an ‘almost right’ image, I can send it to my iPad, and erase the parts I don’t like with my Apple pencil, then resubmit to DALL-E.

Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get back a gem on your first try. You can try the same prompt dozens of times, and get hundreds of variations.

Matching styles

So, is DALL-E good for nothing besides inpainting and outpainting? Well, it’s definitely good to take a break from MidJourney for a while to achieve some different effects. So whether you do Stable Diffusion or Google’s Imagen or one of the others, it’s always good to have at least a few cards in your hand when you play AI poker.

There are a few prompts that come in handy when using DALL-E, and we’ll show some examples here. In the end, for those of us without art school backgrounds, these prompts unlock some ‘magic’ areas that are especially good for stencils.

Pop Art

Pop Art uses pop culture, mass media, comic books, advertising and incorporates those things into ‘fine art’. Rauschenberg, Warhol, Claes Oldenburg were masters. Typically, there are simple, bold colorings and representations that look great as a stencil.


A lithograph is almost a stencil, since it means printing in discrete color layers, one after another. But using ‘lithograph’ as a prompt instead of ‘stencil’ gets you many more hits from the AI (because there are so many more images tagged with ‘lithograph’ than there are tagged with ‘stencil’). So, while you may not get such good results from ‘spaceman stencil’, you’ll get great results with ‘spaceman lithograph’.

Lithography art often has a restricted color palette (because of the need to print each color layer independently), so these images stencilize really well.


Get the ‘Man Shouting into Mobile Phone‘ SVGs for free on Bay Stencil.


Aquatint uses a metal printing plate, and incorporates etching as well as color in the printing process. Because the color must be applied to the plate, again the color separations tend to be simple and bold.

Get the Sacagawea stencil SVGs.

Matchbox print

Matchbox prints are the small printed labels or designs found on matchbox covers. Because a matchbox is small, this prompt, helps us to zero in on designs that are simple, bold and with must a few colors.

Get the Tom Petty SVG.

More DALL-E resources

Check out the DALL-E Prompt Book (somewhat dated now, but still the best resource that shows how DALL-E prompts are unique).