When To Use a Halftone CMYK Stencil versus a Traditional Stencil

Halftone stencils are fun to make and paint, and they are surprisingly versatile for reproducing images that traditional stencils often can’t reproduce. Elsewhere we show how to make and use a CMYK halftone stencil.

This article is all about knowing when to use a halftone stencil versus a traditional stencil. As you’ll see, sometimes you have a choice between the two and just need to weigh the trade-offs; and other times it’s more clear-cut.

Get more color for your effort

With this image, the five-color separation is dull because the Stencilizer is averaging colors to get down to the appropriate ones for presentation in the image. You could separate into 20 or more color layers to get the same effect with a traditional stencil, but four (CMYK) layers is so much easier.

Since the CMYK colors are bright right out of the can, your eye has more stimulation from those bright colors, and it triggers perception of a brighter, more colorful image.

Get more out of the darkest and lightest layers

It’s a similar story for this happy clown photo. In this case, some details are left out of the five-color separation because the dark areas are binary: either in or out of the shadow of the darkest layer. But with CMYK you can achieve gradients that let detail into your darkest and lightest layers.

What you sacrifice is the impact of a stark, abrupt contrast and the ‘graphic’ nature of a bold division between layers. Portraits often benefit from this bold, graphic effect. In this case, it’s up to you what’s more important: capturing the color in the highs and lows, or having a bold, crisp graphic look. For me it’s a toss-up for this particular image.

Really bad photos (screencaps, vidcaps, photos taken by non-digital-natives)

It’s hard to take a good photo of a black dog, particularly (it seems) if you’re over the age of 50. (That’s me, and I know my cohort.) We talked previously about the black dog photo as an anti-pattern for stenciling. But those photos from people who grew up taking pictures with a Kodak Instamatic 110 can be saved (sometimes) for stencils by using the CMYK process, because it’s essentially the same resolution with which we were printing pictures in newspaper inserts, yearbooks, student newspapers, etc back in the day.

Video captures are typically low quality because they contain movement, or are poorly lighted. They are often poorly cropped, with too little detail or too much extraneous detail. These photos will work better with CMYK separation because they will be more easily identifiable, and the images will ‘parse’ better.

I gave this one a tie, because there are parts of the 5-color separation I like. But if I just want to make sure people recognize this vidcap from the opening sequence of ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’, then I’m going to go with the CMYK separation.

Fog, other gradients are possible with a halftone approach

One of the no-no’s from traditional stencil-making is avoiding gradients as much as possible. Indistinct things are problematic for traditional graphic stencils because either 1) you use up too many layers representing a gradient or 2) you end up with a gradient that is just two color blocks separated by a line.

With halftoning, you can get a lot of that gradient back, and even represent things like fog and snow and less distinct objects, provided there are enough cues for the viewer’s visual cortex to lock on to. In this example, we see boats, and if we assume the boats are in the water then we interpret the darker areas under the boats as reflections on the water. We can even see the color of the hulls in the reflections.

By comparison, the 5-color separation uses up four of its ‘colors’ just showing the gradation of color in the water, and so there isn’t even a color left to represent the green of the second boat. And the gradient still doesn’t look great in the 5-color version. For me, the CMYK halftone gives me more of what I want from this image.

Atmospheric or photograhic effects with halftone compared to traditional stencils

In this example, a photo is taken directly into the sun. Taking a picture of an indistinct object without crisp edges is a no-no with traditional stencil interpretation, so it’s not a big surprise that this works much better with CMYK halftone. In the 5-color separation, we get an idea that there is a tree in the foreground, but the background is just a mystery.

With the CMYK halftone version, we get a very nice atmospheric effect of the tree breaking the horizon, and lots of space behind the tree. We can also see details in the darkest layer that help improve the perception of depth.

The only downside to going CMYK with this stencil is just that the silhouette of the tree isn’t super clear like I want it to be. In this case it’s possible to use a hybrid of the two types of stencils when you want to get the best qualities of both. For example, you can use the darkest two layers of the 5-color separation of the tree at sunset to overlaid upon the CMYK print, to get this version where the tree and rocks have more solidity. That gets you a darker, more consistent silhouette.

tree at sunset with horizon hybrid cmyk plus traditional stencils
CMYK overlaid with traditional stencil

Food looks better as a color halftone

For some reason, most things we eat have continuous color, and we like it that way. Take this picture of a hamburger, for example.

The detail and color differentiation in the lettuce and tomato make it look more juicy. The cheese stands out from the bun, which has additional texture now. And finally the burger itself looks organic instead of some kind of grey mystery meat.

Check out some other tricks for using halftone and traditional stencils together in an upcoming post.

When a traditional stencil is better than a CMYK halftone stencil

It goes without saying that traditional stencils are super popular, and usually straightforward to cut and use. There are times when a traditional stencil is very clearly what you want.

The image is already vector art

You can see that the 5-color separation is just one tone shy of being a perfect reproduction of the original. Why would you use magenta and yellow to recreate orange and flesh tones if you have those colors available already? Here I would definitely use a traditional stencil.

When you want to be very specific about color (logos)

Clearly, you can’t get away without using spot colors to display the Visa logo.

Most portraits

Our brains are naturally good at recognizing human faces. So the shadows and highlights of the face are really crisp in a 3-color separated image. Also, details arising from light and shadow are typically more important than color in most portraits. If you’re having trouble getting a decent three-color stencil out of a portrait, then you should probably try to find a different source image.

The graphic punch that only comes with a ‘real’ stencil

And that’s what it really comes down to, right? An iconic image deserves an iconic treatment, not something that looks like an advertisement in a local paper.

Get the VW Beetle stencil.