When artists focus on making a career in a specific aspect of creation in the world of art they work tirelessly to become adept at something, anything, that feels like an extension of their being. As an artist becomes more skilled at a specific style or type of art, the work they produce becomes an extension of their body, mind, and soul. To the onlookers of the finished product, the work that is viewed is more obviously attached to the person who completed the work – a part of their soul bared onto a canvas, skin, or wall.
As with any trade, the fundamentals you learn at the beginning will influence your ability to learn and adapt in the future. In reality any artist who has been working in tattooing will tell you that the machine, pigment, or any other disposable variable is second to the skill of the tattoo artist.
As I was once told by a friend, “The Bushido is always dangerous, regardless of the weapons they possess” – this statement makes more sense to me the longer I stay in the field. Regardless of what tool I am using, the fundamentals I learned along the way make it possible to achieve legible, long-lasting tattoo work.
To be honest, you don’t need a $1000 machine to make a good tattoo – you need decent technique to make a decent tattoo.
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Basic Tattooing Techniques – Art Concepts In Tattooing
First off, Everyone talks about contrast, as this aspect of tattooing makes things appear… well, dense, deep and lifelike in most applications. This may be an easy phrase to throw around but contrast means more than some well placed white pigment.
Using different values of color or black dispersion, artists are able to create visible textures – things that look like they feel different than human skin. Whether it be lumps, bumps, or other textures, a well executed tattoo that adds a level of texture ensures a tattoo appears more organic.
Where the light shining on an object will determine where the shadow falls. This basic aspect of art creation is one of the most difficult to master.
When creating a design that has depth, both black and colors used in tattoos lead viewers eyes through a design, from light to dark to light
But first, the aspiring tattoo artist will want to learn the basics – the foundational aspects of the trade that ensure quality production and timeless application.
We have a few lengthy articles about art and the creation of large scale (or small scale) tattoos found in the links below. Follow them to learn more:
What Tattoo Techniques Are Needed For Good Tattooing
Line work and Tattooing
Outlining, lining, or line work is the foundation of creating a border, guidelines, or boundaries inside or around a design. Lines are the framework that make a tattoo legible and are made up of simple shapes that easily translate to the skin through stencil application or through free hand design application.
Line work is the most important fundamental of tattooing and obtaining a basic understanding of this technical aspect will ensure that even a novice tattoo artist can accomplish a solid looking, basic design.
Two ways of running lines with a tattoo machine are:
Running off the tube.
Setting the needle so that very little of its tips are sticking out of the tube – usually enough to just break the surface of the skin with little pressure applied to the stretch.
Running off the needle.
Sticking the needle out of the tube far enough that an artist is able to see the full strike and adjust the depth of needle penetration, and be able to adjust the depth on the fly (by lifting or dropping the machine in relation to the skin’s position, parallel to the artist’s movement of the hand).
Tattooing lines is all about giving definition to a design. Hard edges lead to an easier separation between different planes or aspects of a design. Hard lines in tattooing are great for borders, negative space, or even skin breaks – all of which give definition to the viewers eyes.
…And yes, lining doesn’t have to be done with just a heavy black pigment., it can also be accomplished with colored pigment as well as distilled water (which create blood lines).
Packing Color in a Tattoo
Coloring packing is just what it seems, putting colored pigment into the skin, within a tattoo design. Color packing is all about the dense, well saturated, insertion of pigment into skin and can (in most cases) include the color black.
Artists may choose to pack color in a few different ways (which are always influenced by the needle and machine settings – Yay Variables!)
Layering is the process of mixing colors in the skin to achieve a gradation effect. This technique is great for traditional/neo-traditional tattoo designs but is also used in things like realism. Layering involves a decreased saturation of colors being placed into the skin, one at a time, that overlap each other. The process of overlapping at different levels of saturation creates a smooth texture that is easy to look at.
Be forewarned, sometimes layers do not fully blend until the tattoo has settled or fully healed. Sometimes the layering only takes effect after the tattoo has had the chance to settle for multiple years.
Color Packing Techniques
Using small concentric circles, artists fill color into the tattoo much like coloring a picture with a ballpoint pen. This technique works well with rounds and small groupings of mags/shaders.
Moving the machine back and forth, evenly across the skin surface, a tattooer shoves the pigment into the skin in a single, fluid, line.
More of a shading technique versus a real packing trick – a machine is pulled away from the tube tip allowing for a decreased amount of color to be inserted into the skin.
Mixing in cap
Making a cap full of a specific pigment is possible if the artist mixes colors together before tattooing begins. to start, take an empty pigment cap that has been cleaned, add a base color, then add additional colors to the cap to make something new. A little tip about mixing pigments in cap – the base of your pigment will effect the potential color being made. Pre-dispersed colors are made to not be mixed.
**to mix more effectively, use the back-end of a sterile needle bar as a stir stick. Just spin the loop in the cap by sliding two fingers together while holding the bar**
Mixing in tube
Dipping a machine tube’s tip into one color and then dipping it in another will mix the pigment in the tube. It is a great way to tint a color on-the-fly.
Mixing “on” skin
Most of the time tattooers go from dark to light when adding colors or tones to a tattoo. This is done because many or most people believe that not doing color this way will tint colors that have been introduced to the skin during the tattoo procedure. While I do not have any data to back up this assumption, I can confidently assume that any potential color mixing that occurs when running colors from light to dark occurs in the tube – not with colors that collect in the skin (unless there is some seriously thick accumulation of pigment on the skin directly where a tattoo needle is entering the skin).
Tattoo Shading, or gradation is one of the things that draw eyes onto a tattoo while making a design seem more realistic, or deeper, than tattoos that are made up of just line work.. Someone who is good at shading creates images that have depth and are interesting to look at. Most shading techniques are based around the use of black pigments laid into a design at the lowest points. This doesn’t mean that shading is only done with black inks, colored pigments are very commonly used in realism to create depth and shaded surfaces which make a final design look pleasing to the eye.
Types of Shading
Whip shading is accomplished by inserting the needle into the skin and rotating the hand away from the entry point of the needle on a rounded axis. You are doing whip shading correctly if the needle isn’t able to enter the skin fast enough to make a solid line. Stippling is a result of the fast moving hand, with decreased saturation the further along an axis the hand rotates.
This may not be the usual name used for the technique but I have always described it as the antithesis of whip shading. Instead of circles or whipping, an artist moves a tattoo machine in a linear fashion (straight) leaving less and less pigment in the skin the further it goes. The result is a smooth gradient.
Moving side to side, in small, concentric circles, an artist zigzags pigment into the skin slowly picking up plasma to thin out the pigment as the needle travels across the skin.
Using a limp wrist, an artist shakes their elbow in a slight side-to-side fashion, moving slowly in one direction.
This is accomplished by dragging the machine backwards while it is running.
Opaque Gray Shading
Mix some white and black together. Insert in skin. Mind the mixture of colors over top this blending technique as it will muddy the final look of most colored pigments.
Tattoo Style Cheats
So many people out there are interested in putting their ideas in words. Taking those thoughts and tattooing them onto a person’s skin is the ultimate commitment to the ideals expressed in their own mind!
To make a good lettering tattoo, use an online dictionary or a word processor to make sure the words are spelled correctly. This is the most important part of a lettering tattoo.
To make super clean lettering much can be done to practice on paper but, to be honest to all those lettering junkies out there, tracing practice is by far the best technique to make good looking lettering tattoos.
Always use a fine needle for lettering (I prefer 3-5 round liners, tight or x-tight) and set your machine/hand motion to fit the design.
Just keep things simple. Bold outlines with a simple palette are the easiest way to make a design go the distance. If you use a smaller liner to sculpt or define accent lines, multiply the grouping by 3-4x for the perimeter line work.
Using black effectively will also take these designs to the next level. Never dilute the blacks you use for shading. Instead, use a more simple approach to layering colors to ensure gradations are smooth and effective. Go from your deepest blacks to the lightest colors, section by section, paying attention to the light values associated with the design.
K-I-S-S. Keep it simple stupid.
Most traditional designs have the ability to be drawn directly onto a client’s skin due to their simplistic approach in interpretation. To hack this tattoo design, simply look for the shortcut.
Roses are easily drawn up using the egg or “K” trick.
Swallows are easily made with a loose “S”.
See if you can find other shortcuts as you pick away at designs.
Work in a grid with a sized overlay.
Also, only use round liners for crazy detail in pieces as shaders will blend more than is necessary (they also cover larger swathes of skin in comparison to the fineness of a liner needle). Shaders tend to age more smoothly than a traditional line so they should only be used in areas of the tattoo that have soft edges.