Adult coloring books are dominating the bestseller lists. This isn’t surprising when you consider that there’s a long tradition of American women coloring inside the lines.

Stencils first caught on in the colonies as an inexpensive way to simulate carpet on bare floors and add color and pattern to plaster walls. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century finishing schools, academies that taught middle and upper class young women the feminine “accomplishments,” included drawing and painting in their curricula.

Students learned to draft by copying from books of engravings.  Stencil paintings became popular as a way to introduce younger students to color and composition but quickly grew into an art form of their own. The preferred surface for stencil painting was fine paper or velvet.



A copy for sale from Bow Windows of London.

A copy for sale from Bow Windows of London.


Instruction books — bestsellers in their day — abounded. In 1805 J.W. Alston published Hints to Young Practitioners in the Study of Landscape Painting… Intended to Show the Different Stages of the Neutral Tint… to which are Added, Instructions in the Art of Painting on Velvet.

Next came Matthew Finn’s 1830 Theoremetical System of Painting, or Modern Plan, fully explained in Six Lessons; and Illustrated with Eight Engravings, by which a child of tender years can be taught the sublime art in one week. To which are added, The Theory and Practice of the Old School, in the introduction of Landscape and Figure Painting; with many valuable receipts on the subject. This longwinded title gave us the shorthand we use today: theorem painting. The Historical Society of Early American Decoration offers reprints.

Stencils made their way into memorial art as well and resulted in extraordinary compositions:



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There are even contemporary artists making theorem paintings today. If you want to try your hand at theorem painting, Jean Hanson sells kits, books, and supplies. And if you’re feeling adventurous enough to stencil your walls, Yankee Stencil has you covered.