To learn how to shade a tattoo, you usually have to attend extended classes or training sessions. After all, it’s a part of learning how to do a tattoo in the first place. There are a few tricks to shading a tattoo that are lesser known, and several different techniques, so even if you attend training there are certainly techniques that couldn’t fit in those sessions. If you are interested in learning or are already an expert looking to learn something new, then these tips on how to shade a tattoo are for you.
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The Basics of Tattoo Shading
First up is basic technique. It’s common practice to finish the line work before you ever touch it with colors or tattoo shading techniques. This prevents the dark ink of the line work from leeching in with the rest of the colors and making a muddled mess. While some artists opt to dry off the tattoo and wait fifteen minutes before proceeding, it’s considered best practice to do the coloring and inking in two entirely different sessions. On top of that, many artists use multiple tattoo guns for different purposes (such as inking and shading), so it may cost extra time for them to set up both types.
You can learn about the different types of tattoo guns here, but for now, just know that you can expect at least two sessions for colored tattoos. This intermission also gives the customer some last-minute opportunities to think about the color they want. If they decide to stick to the colors they chose, you know that they know what they want. If they decide to change their mind about the details, thoroughly prod them for the reason why. Both you and they need to be sure that you’re doing what they want. Before your client sits in for their session, let them know what sort of seating you will be using. We recommend a few comfortable and convenient chairs here for artists.
Related: Tattoo Shading Techniques
All Black Ink
Once you have all of that sorted out, your technique will differ depending on whether you are making a colored or a black and white tattoo. Let’s go over the black and white tattoo, first. As you probably already know, a common shading technique involves just black ink. By dipping the needle in water, you can carefully dilute a solid black pigment into a gray pigment without needing to change needles. When applying the ink, you can tilt the needle and use it in a circular fashion to help blend in the slightly different tones of the ink. By pressing the needle down less deep in lighter areas, you can give the illusion of a fading gradient. If you made a mistake during line work, shading is an easy way to cover it up while making the tattoo look aesthetically pleasing.
From Black To Gray
That might all work well, but if you have the opportunity, try using gray inks instead of diluting black ink. The result is a more permanent shadow that stays on the skin for almost as long as the lines themselves. Plus, it’s easier to get a solid gray through this technique. If you expect to have very similar gray tones or to use a cell shading technique, then gray ink is the way to go.
There are various styles of gray ink—with some leaning towards a blue or a brown tone—so be sure to test the color on different mediums before applying it to skin. Despite not having a hue of its own, gray can be used as a color itself and bring out many different shades that diluted black can’t. And, since you’re starting with a midtone, you can use all the techniques that you normally would while producing a much more detailed gradient.
When using colors, thoughts of shading should come first! The darkness and lightness of a color affects how the tattoo turns out. If you use a light color on top of a dark ink, you end up with a muddled mess. Therefore, you need to pick your colors ahead of time and ink them in a very specific order. Start with light, warm colors such as white, yellow, or lime green, then move on to light cool colors, and then move on to darker colors in the same sequence. Dark purple and blue should always be the last colors you use. In between colors, be sure to clean off your needles carefully. If you don’t, the inks will mix and ruin the color before it’s even placed on the skin. Plus, it’s just hygienic.
From an artistic standpoint, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. First is your light source: you should always have a light source that is the same throughout the picture. If the top right of a face is lit up on a subject matter, then the bottom left should be darker. The other areas should follow suit, with the top right being brighter and casting a darker shadow on the rest of the image. It sometimes helps to start with the base colors and then ‘project’ a shadow where no light would reach. While it sounds like an easy rule, beginners can easily find themselves forgetting. The result is an incongruous tattoo that might look nice, but could have looked better.
You should also keep color theory in mind: using a complementary color like purple when shading green works better than using just gray. This is because the mind is tricked into thinking the complementary color is gray, while the color retains its vivid hue. It can make a tattoo pop nicely, so it’s something to keep in mind!
Techniques And Technology
Of course, there are many ways to control shading with your machine. Some artists find that a higher speed makes shading much more smooth, and a higher amount of coils helps with this. Some artists even choose to use a shader bar rather than a shading pen to create solid transitions in large tattoos. Of course, this is all up to personal preference, and the advantages of machines can always be emulated by handiwork through hard work and practice. Try to keep your tattoo area evenly lit–tattoo chairs with lots of exposure help with that!
Practice Is Key
If you want to improve your technique, practice using a brush and watercolors. Since you are naturally using the same inks to stain skin, the same techniques apply! However, paper is easier to practice on than skin. Finding paper and ink that emulates your process correctly could take a while. Since artists all use different inks and techniques, you need to browse around. However, the end result of your work will always be fantastic-looking shadows on your clients!