Tattoo Design | How The Body Is Different Than Other Mediums.

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How Different is Tattooing to Other Mediums?

The skin is a living, breathing organ.

Artists spend lifetimes mastering their medium of choice. For painters it is canvas or boards, for tattooers it is the skin. If you don’t know what skin is, well… You probably need to go back to Wikipedia and take a read through what skin is and how it is constructed. Here is a link if you need help finding it

—> Skin (Wikipedia) <—

Now that everyone is caught up on the skin, let’s ask a question that is relevant to tattoo design.

What makes skin different to work on?

The answer may… surprise you??

See the source image

The Skin Is Not Like A Painting Or Sketch

Every person has skin and for each and every person, it is unique. The skin is a covering that is ready to be adorned with artwork but isn’t designed for such a purpose. The mail purpose of skin is thermal regulation and infection control, not housing some sweet tribal designs.

The goal of a professional tattoo artist is to be able to see what is possible with an individuals biology. They must be able to understand  a person’s skin so as to make a design that works and ages with them.

Unlike most other mediums where you create the illusion of depth and values on a flat surface, tattoos are applied to a surface that isn’t flat. It also hasn’t been prepared to last generations hanging on a wall.

Well, sometimes it has, after the fact…

are forced to think about multiple lines of sight, a surface that is far from being even and flat; as well as looking for and assuming areas of distortion or stress that’s may occur as the tattoo ages.


Underlying Structures

Looking deeper into the skin, to see what is beneath it, is essential when approaching a mastery in tattooing as well as being able to better achieve a successful, large scale tattoo. The skin is a membrane that is stretched over muscle and connective tissues. There are also structural components of the body called bones that influence the look and stress of the skin.

Canvas paintings have structure as well, the backbone of which s usually made of wood or plastic. Panel boards are usually made of wood.

Let’s compare how each ages to point out differences between the two mediums:

Comparison – The Skin

  • It moves. Each area of the body will shift, distort, stretch and compress in a different way.
  • The skin is viewable from multiple angles
  • It is subject all a host of different environmental stressors.
  • It heals after trauma.
  • When skin ages it becomes thinner and looser through the loss of collagen and elastin fibers (more on this in later lessons), which influences the readability of the design
  • Areas of high mobility see a greater amount of sagging and “looseness”.
  • Tattoo designs lighten with time.


  • Paintings do not move. They are fixed images attached to a wooden frame.
  • When hung responsibly, most art installations deal with humidity and sunlight mitigation.
  • Paintings don’t heal if you stab them.
  • When canvas ages, dust and dirt can collect on them obscuring the image.
  • The stretchers (frame) of the painting become fragile and can collapse.
  • The canvas will oxidize and look darker.
  • Paintings can last hundreds of years with minimal upkeep

Why Tattooing is More Like Sculpture.

How Large Scale Design Moves Away From Simple Paper Drawings.

While tattooers may consider art translatable between the mediums, skin is truly unique. Unlike skin; canvas, paper or the side of a building all work in 2 dimensions.

Think about it…

While most art is 2D giving the assumption of depth through technique, tattoos wrap around the body, over muscles and bone, to create living artwork.

Compared to all other mediums tattooing is more like sculpture – a 3D medium. Even though both art forms lend to each other well, most tattooers do not take advantage of the similarities and to learn how to sculpt.
How would you approach a sculpture?Would you think about the design the same way?If you were doing a sketch, would only one side of the sculpture be enough to finish the product.How many different ways can you approach a statue compared to a painting?

How would you approach a sculpture?

  • Would you think about the design the same way?
  • If you were doing a sketch, would only one side of the sculpture be enough to finish the product.
  • How many different ways can you approach a statue compared to a painting?

In sculpture, the design process is as follows:

  • Roughing in/out a figure or design.
    • The structure of the figure or design is made out of other materials and a framework is built.
      • This is like the tracing method of tattooing where you cover a body part and map out all of the relevant structures before starting a design.
  • Adding Clay
    • Once the structure has been made sculpture start adding clay and creating rough shapes.
      • Think of this step like the initial block/shape drawing you use to create a tattoo design.

In sculpture, the design process is (usually) as follows:

    • Removing Clay
      • Once the sculptor has enough clay to ensure the design will work they start whittling away at what is there to make the shape more noticeable.
        • Compare that to tattooing where your initial tracing and block drawing is redrawn to make to look more like what you are tasked to design.
    • Maneuvering
      • For organic shapes  (hair or things that transition between different focal points) within the sculpture soft clay is added and kept wet while.
        • This is similar to creating a flow sheet that goes over top the original design in tattooing.


  • Repositioning
    • When making a sculpture, sometimes things need to be moved around. During this phase pieces that don’t fit or look good are moved around. This is exactly like tattoo design were you merge a flow sheet with a design image.
  • Detailing
    • The final polish of a sculpture, much like the final draft of a tattoo design.

How to use Sculpture to Design Tattoos.

A practical way to use sculpture to design a tattoo.

Test your design on a friend! When in doubt - Take a piece of paper and wrap it around an object: a roll of paper towel, a pipe, the arm of a couch - This will create a makeshift 3D surface so you can see what the design will look like as it bends and contours around a surface.

Test your design on a friend! When in doubt – Take a piece of paper and wrap it around an object: a roll of paper towel, a pipe, the arm of a couch, a dragon (just seeing if I still have you!)

Using your  will environment to create makeshift 3D surfaces is a great trick. It allows you to look at things in a new way. You can see what the design will look like as it bends and contours around a surface. You can also see how well focal points and areas of interest work together.

Think in 3D

Are you designing a sleeve? How about a full back tattoo? Maybe you are making a simple hand sized jammer?

Regardless of the size, understanding the body and how things will connect can make the design far more dramatic and long-lasting.

When starting your design pay attention to how people will view each individual aspect of the final design. How can the body work with the design? Are there areas to avoid? How do you think the tattoo will age given you client’s skin?

To practice thinking in “3D” you can start with a client consultation.

  •  Start by looking at your client and think how the tattoo will fit into their skin. This is more preferred to the thinking of how the tattoo will fit on them.
  • Look at every possible view of the design where they want to get tattooed. Look for any musculature or underlying structures that move away from the flat plane of the body. Can you use these deviations from a flat plane to accentuate the design?
  • Ask questions like, “How much does this part of the body move?” or, “Where should the main focal point of the tattoo be and where should I place it?”.

Stay away from working on a flat plane (in 2D) – like you do when you draw on a piece of paper or paint on a canvass. Think about the body as a whole and how each successive sitting will be “chipping away” at what natural skin they have.

By tattooing the skin, you are chipping away at the body to create something new.