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How to Tattoo: Using Art Techniques to Become Better at Creating Tattoo Designs.

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Whether you are an experienced tattoo artist or a newcomer to the field of skin modification, you want to learn and improve. It’s like gains at the gym: always gain, never lose, and sweat, sweat, sweat!! While some of us may have the gym rat mentality, most of us are only simple artists. We want concise information, not a sweaty dude listening to 80’s hair metal screaming at us.

Let us feed that need by giving you a few tips and tricks to help you become a better tattoo designer.

Design Like You Are A Tattoo Artist

We have stated so many, many… many times on that tattoos are not equivalent to other artistic mediums. Yes, some aspects of artistic creation run parallel to applying a tattoo, but these two forms of design are vastly different.

Most people’s opinions focus on linework – the strength and form of the structure of a tattoo design – but I am here to disagree. The linework is necessary when your design looks like a coloring book comic or relies wholly on the contrast given by having black (or colored) lines butting up to other aspects of the tattoo. Linework is not necessary for the viewer to understand the design. Nature is not straight. Beyond. The only way a straight line can be found in nature is when we create it ourselves.


plumeria flower picture

Yup. No lines here!

Another example, but this time let’s take a peek at the tattooed version of reality:

soft rose image tattoo in pink on an ankle.

So, now with many questions or possible arguments coming towards the front of your mind, maybe some harsh things you want to say to me regarding my assumption that lines have no place in nature, let’s take some time to break down what a line is and how you can effectively use it in tattoo designs.

What is a Line?

A line is a boundary, an edge. That is it.

In art and tattoos, lines are used to create borders (edges) or transitions between areas of interest, or planes within a design. These borders come in two forms, soft and hard.

Soft Lines.

Soft lines are edges that ease the transition between to sections of a design. They are less focused than hard edges and blend easily with the surrounding aspects of designs. These edges are rarely a solid color. These edges are likely a gradient of sorts and it is difficult to find any edge.

Hard Lines.

Solid, single tones of color that create a separation between two parts of a design. These hard lines are rarely natural and most often human-created. Hard line give focus, a sharp edge for the eye to create an anchor point for the eye.

books in a picture with hard and soft edges

Using Lines to Create Better Tattoos

I know that most of you out there who have had an “apprenticeship” know all about creating lines. Many of you have traced so many basic, old-school tattoo designs that you have mild PTSD at the mention of an anchor and rope design. Worry not! I am not the type of person to recommend tracing the same stupid image over and over.

Wait!  Yes, I am.

To practice using soft and hard lines:

  1. Take any piece of flash or picture you can find. The more illustrative, the better.
  2. Trace a hard edge around the outside of the image with a micron liner, #3 or greater graphite pencil (or equivalent art tool).
  3. Next, take a pencil and trace all other edges that are inside the perimeter line you just laid down.
  4. Take a blender (tortillon) and smudge the heck out of the lines made with pencil.
  5. Make smudged lines darker where they need to be.
  6. Keep repeating for 40+ hours (if on paper)
  7. Finish drawing.

pencil portrait of gone with the wind nearly done

Remember to only use hard edges where you need focus or good separation from other areas of the design.

This whole process is laborious and nerve wracking if you are a perfectionist. Remember to take your time, walk away if you fall into the focus hole, and restart the design if you hate how it is evolving.

How to Use Shapes to Make A Legible Design.

Yes, you have beaten a path towards understanding lines and how they are effectively used in design! Now, to take your designs to the next level we are going to hurt your vision… just a little.

Use the Squint You Got.

Take any picture that you are drawing from a reference. This really works for any reference you have, even those artists choose to trace on their Procreate!

  1. Look at the design with good lighting and your eyes in normal focus. If you are looking at a design that is heavily detailed this technique will be more helpful when compared to squinting an old-school tattoo.
  2. Now, squint your eyes until the image become blurry.
    1. Can you see values that seem more simplified than before? If you answer yes, you are doing the technique correctly.

If you do not have any artwork in front of you, try the squint with these practice pictures. Try looking at the image while squinting at different distances as well – up close and a few feet away (or across the room if you are at a desk):

A pixelated image of Albert Einstein

Neat trick eh!

Why squinting is good for practicing tattoo design.

Being dragged into the minutia of a design may be fun when you are keeping the design on a canvas or piece of paper stock. With skin though, as it ages it will wreak havoc on all pigment embedded into it.

This means that you should just step back form the design and ensure it has room to breathe! Loosen up the process and take liberties with small details. You can choose what is important and what is not.

Allow for small errors and imperfect lines because, and this is important, the tattoo will not always look brand new!

Why You Should Not Stress About the Small Stuff

Not everyone is going to look at your design up close and personal. Yes, some people are just that way; they will grab your body and manipulate it to view your tattoo, put their nose on your skin, breathe all over it, and gasp at how imperfect the lines or other aspects are. In the heat of their meaty embrace, they may make comments like,

OMFG, like, what the heck is wrong with your tattuuuuuuu…”.

Do not worry. The truth of the matter is that all tattoos can only be as perfect as their original session is long. All tattoos age. It is a matter of science, biology, and personal care as to how well a tattoo stands up to the ravages of time. Regardless of how much Botox or plastic surgery a person gets, when they age enough, the tattoo will look like a blog of oil unless it is of decent size.

Aged tattoo comparison on a man whose chest and arms are fully covered.

By the way, if you are interested in how a design can be effectively applied to different parts of the body you should check out our article on Body Mapping And Large Scale Tattoo Design for more information on that complex process.

Don’t Ignore Color.

Just using that cheap #2 pencil won’t give you a good grasp on linework or creating depth in a tattoo design. Go forth to your local art supply store and buy some cheap coloring pencils or markers. Heck, even crayons can be a lot of fun if you have no money or time to go and grab stuff!

To have a little practice with color:

  1. Go grab crayons and a coloring book.
  2. Use the lines supplied as a starting point for the design.
  3. Get creative and have fun! There is no limit to your imagination and what depth you can create with simple art supplies!

A coloring book picture that has been altered by a person. The original image is of a girl in a pond with a dog nearby standing on the shore. The young girl is lifting her dress to not get it wet. In the second image, the girls dress has been altered to show alien like tentacles grasping towards the dog, as if it is trying to consume it. Also, the young girl's face is a mask of death in the second picture.

Get a Book That Tells You What Colors Work Best

Yes, they sell books that spell out the best colors to use when printing or making art. These books can be expensive but, they are fantastic if you are in a rut as to how to finish your design.

Copy Other People’s Work (and Give Credit if Needed)

Try looking up other people’s designs on search engines or social media places like Pinterest. Pay attention to the way that colors, lines, and aspects of the image create depth. If you are working with a design that is like another’s finished work, take a couple tips from their technique and apply it to your own.

If you are really bored, or just getting into designing a tattoo, print out a copy of a design and trace the heck out of it. Use a light board and try to mimic the design or create an exact copy if you are able.

If you do copy someone else’s work and want to put it up online for some admiration from friends and family (or the general public), make sure you give credit where it is due. If you forget, mobs of people will most likely urge you to do horrible things to yourself in the name of artistic credibility. Be forewarned!

Take a Leap and Design Your Own Tattoo!

We have an article all about creating your won tattoo. Why don’t you go ahead and take a look at it by following this link:

Creating Your Very Own Tattoo Design.

When in Doubt, take a Class or Get and Apprenticeship.

You can get inspiration all over the place but when it comes down to it, having a helping hadn can pay itself in dividends if you value your time. Getting a class or an apprenticeship can give those of us who are less than motivated to attempt new things by trial-and-error a way to learn with an endpoint in view.

Go forth, learn more, ask questions, and create some art!