"This is twenty-nine layers, just for the flag, so there are seven reds, seven blues, seven greys, seven golds and a black. I tried to blend them but you can still see some of the stencil lines in there [you can’t]. Artist B.D. White is describing an astronaut’s patch measuring about 4” x 3”, part of a much larger painting. Twenty-nine layers… and so begins our odyssey into the mind of B.D. White set to change the world of stencil art forever in a few short days.
We are in the studio with stencil artist B.D. White, a large airy, light filled space in Williamsburg.
Wanting to start at the beginning, I ask B.D. if he hand cuts his many layers of stencils. "Hand cutting stuff adds nothing to it, there is no artistic creation, it's basically just tracing a line with a knife. I used to hand cut all my stuff and it's a waste--you can get so much more done if you don’t do that. I moved on from hand cutting to machines." Sounds easy, right? According to B.D. the machines come with their own list of complications. “They are a super pain to use,” he tells us. "I have had so many problems with them I can’t even begin to tell you the headache. Getting them to cut accurately and once you do get them to cut they don’t always cut the stencil material fully so it's still a long process, but it is better than hand cutting.”
"Hand cutting a stencil is like a carpenter making his own hammers."
"All these are brand new techniques I have been doing; I have been testing so much stuff." We have moved on to talking about materials "I’ve gone through Mylar, sandblast material, stencil board, polyurethane. I have a bunch of different ones I am using at the moment… I am switching back and forth between three of four different materials for every painting. "I do a lot of split tones and intricate cuts, before the machine they just weren’t possible.” he goes on to explain. “I have eliminated the bridging… If I was doing this by hand I would have one painting a year. Hand cutting a stencil is like a carpenter making his own hammers. It’s a ton of work" he says as he bends over a workbench using a knife to clear freshly machined stencils. “My building owners were on me” he laughs as we notice all the small little throw away bits of paper, plastic and board.“They were threatening to fine me." A sign by his front door reminds visitors to check their shoes before leaving.
We ask him about his inspiration and about his process of acquiring reference materials. "I photographed the girls, using models for references, but I change the photos a lot. As far as the astronauts go those are drawn. There are no reference photos for those, no google-sourced images, no astronauts in those poses, you won’t find them on the internet anywhere. I wanted to do that specifically because I wanted everything to be 100% my creation." And how does he break down the layers? “I draw the layers” he says. “It's all drawn with a pen and tablet on the computer.” “I am zooming in about a thousand percent with all the detail in things like the stitching on the patch.” Every color, every layer… he draws. “Seven reds, seven blues, and so on and so forth.” He actually had envisioned doing eleven layers for each color, but size was a constraint. “You would have to do something really massive. When I separated that many different layers I get into a single pixel line, something I can never spray out.”
We follow him into his paint room adjacent to his open studio space. He spends the next few minutes setting and painting to show us another part of the process. Even a single layer of stencil can receive more than one spray color blended to create gradients, shadows, etc. “It has been constant problem solving”, he tells us as he tries to adjust the stencil to fit precisely on his large canvas. "When you are working with this many layers, the stencils have to be at a level of precision that is not normally done by a stencil artist. They have to be so perfectly on that if even just one of them is slightly off it snowballs throughout the whole thing and by the time you get to the end you have separations of layers that are huge. I have had to start over on one. One of the layers didn’t line up at all and I went five or six layers in and there was no way I could fix it, so I had to scrap it and start over.”
Back in his main workroom, he describes a finished work for us. "This piece is a diptych [at the time of this interview the other half had not been created] in this one the flag on his shoulder was twenty nine layers in itself and I tried to blend all the layers together so you can’t count the layers even if you tried, that is the goal. To make it so the stenciling is seamless I want people to look at the painting and not realize it is a stencil painting." [That is most certainly going to happen.]
"And for those that say stencils are not art. I challenge them to draw and paint my stencils and see what they come up with, I promise you they will be nothing like mine,"
"I want to push myself and create something that is always challenging to me. I get really bored and I can’t stand the thought of doing the same things over and over again. So I wanted to make the best possible paintings I could do and I wanted to take stencils to a level that had never been seen before [again let me interject with a big huge--HE HAS]. I started drawing a year ago, I wanted to make the drawings as detailed as I possibly could and that was the whole reasoning behind it."
His entire family is in on the effort. As we were leaving his mother had arrived to help clear stencils, something she and his sister have been doing daily in the weeks leading up to his show. “It can take hours to clear a stencil," he says "And for those that say stencils are not art. I challenge them to draw and paint my stencils and see what they come up with, I promise you they will be nothing like mine," he says chuckling. I have to agree. This really is like nothing anyone has ever seen before...