Posted by on September 10, 2018

Theorem painting is a method of creating a picture by layering stencils on velvet. A theorem is a theory, logic or formula. The way the artist must analyze the image as to how the separate stencils and colors are combined is the theorem. Oil paints are rubbed through the stencil openings on a special antique-white velvet material.

Vintage theorem painting in velvetA Brief History of Theorem Painting

Stenciling can be traced back to the ancient orient. Beautiful designs were stenciled on the walls of temples in Japan and China. Sometimes pictures were created on fine silk.

Theorem painting became popular in England in the early 1800s. Fashionable young ladies discovered they could quickly and easily make beautiful pictures, and the technique replaced embroidery as the accomplishment of choice.

Early 19th-century art teachers encouraged their students to copy their designs rather than create original patterns. The most common subjects were fruit and flower arrangements. Still-life paintings could be replicated through stencils and the desired effect made with the shading of colors.

How to Make a Theorem Painting

To make an old-fashioned theorem painting, the following tools and materials are needed:

  • 100% cotton antique-white velvet
  • stencil paper (tracing paper)
  • sharp scissors
  • poster board
  • spray adhesive
  • palette
  • fabric squares for rubbing paint (wool or flannel works well)
  • fine-pointed paintbrush
  • recommended oil paints – Cadmium Yellow Light, Alizarin Crimson, Chrome Oxide Green, Prussian Blue, Zinc White, Raw Umber, Yellow Ochre

Tracing the Stencil

Although it’s tempting to purchase ready-made stencils, cutting them out is more authentic. The design should be numbered as to where the stencils will be layered.  Tape the stencil paper over the design and trace the rectangle around the design with a pencil. Trace all number 1 areas. Remove this paper and place another piece of stencil paper on the pattern. Trace the rectangle again and all the number 2 areas. Repeat the procedure for all numbers and carefully cut the stencils with sharp scissors.

Cut the poster board the same size as the frame that will be used. Cut the velvet 1-2cm larger than the board. Lay the velvet face down. Spray the adhesive to the poster board and press it firmly onto the velvet. Smooth the velvet and allow to dry before painting.

Make a stencil guide by cutting a piece of tracing paper 2-3cm larger than the rectangle around the design. Trace the design’s rectangle and cut it out like a window. Center the guide over the mounted velvet and tape into place. Lay stencil 1 over the guide and tape it securely at the corners.

Technique for Painting on Velvet

Mix the desired colors in advance on the palette with a toothpick. No turpentine should be used. Tightly wrap a fabric square around your index finger and dip into paint, rubbing off excess paint on scrap paper. Rub at the outer edge of a stencil opening with a light, circular brushing motion. The edges should be darker than the center.

Carefully remove stencil 1 and position stencil 2, exactly matching the rectangles. Repeat the procedure for all the stencils until the picture is complete. Any areas that do not match can be corrected with a fine-pointed paintbrush. Mix the paint with a little oil, hold the brush vertically and paint with the tip. Add details such as stems, veins on leaves and outlining. Allow the paint to dry completely before framing. Be sure to sign your name at the bottom.


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