Just as important as getting comfortable with the machine and the artist getting his or her body ready to tattoo is understanding how to adjust the machine during the tattoo in order to get the desired result. Finding the right needle depth, and knowing which needles to use and when to use them are critical components of giving a great tattoo.
Finding The Right Depth
In the earlier biology section, you learned quite a bit about skin, but now that you’re getting ready to actually apply ink, it’s a good idea to review what was covered, as well as to take a look at it with the knowledge you’ve gained as you’ve continued reading. This will help reinforce what you’ve learned, as well as to put it into more practical terms for your personal process.
Tattooing requires that the needle pierce the skin so that ink can be deposited. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, however. In order for a tattoo to be professional and to last, the needles need to deposit the ink at the proper depth within the skin. If the ink is too shallow, it may seep out of the holes and leave a washed out design. If the ink is placed too deep, the skin may be damaged far more than it needs to be, leading to pain, scarring, and excessive bleeding. Clearly, either set of circumstances would be terrible for the client and also affect the artist’s reputation.
In order to know what is too shallow and what is too deep, it is important to understand skin. Skin is the canvas the tattoo artist works upon, and the artist will work on the skin of thousands of people throughout a career. Like any artist, understanding the materials involved in the artistic process allows those materials to be used to their fullest potential. This is just as much the case with skin as it is with paper or a canvas, only the stakes are higher—skin cannot be replaced.
The skin is composed of three primary layers. The first layer is called the epidermis. The epidermis is the layer we see on the surface. It is waterproof, it protects us from bacteria, viruses, and parasites, and it also allows us to touch our world. This layer has a remarkable ability to heal, but does not always do so without leaving marks, or scars. The epidermis itself is composed of four layers of skin composed of cells. These layers are constantly being created, and as the top layer dies, it is sloughed off to reveal a new layer underneath, while the newest layer of cells is being generated at the very bottom portion of the epidermis. This process is a continual cycle, ensuring that there will always be new skin ready to protect the body.
Going Into The Skin and Healing
It takes about two weeks for the top layer of the epidermis to journey form being new cells on the innermost layer to being the top layer being sloughed off, which is the amount of time it takes to heal from a shallow cut. Because this layer is sloughed off regularly, a tattoo placed in the epidermis will not last. Some of the ink may seep deeper into the skin, but most of the tattoo will, like any other wound, heal over time and disappear.
Under the layers of the epidermis is another layer of skin called the dermis. The dermis is itself composed of two layers, called the papillary (top) and reticular dermis (bottom). These layers do not regenerate as quickly as the layers of the epidermis do, and they never slough off. This layer is remarkably stable, and it will hold ink very well. It may be surprising that we can see ink through multiple layers of skin, but skin itself is actually quite thin when taken as a whole. Not only this, but skin is translucent. Holding a flashlight next to the skin in a dark room will reveal veins, arteries, and capillaries, and illustrates just how easy it really is to see through the skin. Ink isn’t luminescent, of course, but it is deep enough in color to be able to show through many layers of skin, which is how a tattoo works.
Underneath the dermis is the final layer of skin, which is made up of subcutaneous fat. Subcutaneous simply means under the skin, and it is a thin layer all over the body directly under the skin. It offers cushion over bones and joints even in areas that rarely have much other body fat, such as elbows or the top of the feet. The tissue here isn’t as stable as other layers of the skin. In fact, it tends to move around a little bit, and can even shrink if the body loses weight. Because of this, tattoos placed here will become blurry and vague over time as the cells move about. Also, when this level of the skin is damaged, it can take more time to heal than the other layers. It also bruises and bleeds, creating unwanted damage during a tattoo. Clearly a tattoo breaks the skin, but doing the minimal amount of damage necessary to leave proper pigmentation should always be the goal.
Some artists will use a standardized approach. 1/16 of an inch, or 1 millimeter are common measurements listed for proper tattoo depth that will hit the dermis yet won’t go into the subcutaneous fat layer. The problem with this method is that every piece of skin is different. Some people are skinnier, and some have more fat.
Tattooing even a slender person’s belly will give the artist an area with thicker skin than tattooing the top of the same person’s foot. An artist can estimate all that they want, but ultimately there is no way to come up with a common measurement for all people, or even all parts of the same body.
Thankfully, learning how to feel for the proper depth is something that can be learned through a comprehensive apprenticeship, and lots of practice. A master tattoo artist knows how to work with skin, and how to tell by feel what the proper depth of the needle should be. This skill is taught to the apprentice, who will spend quite a bit of time assessing skin until it becomes second nature to him or her as well.
There are also some tell-tale signs that can be seen during the tattoo when the depth is incorrect. The color may be too vibrant if it is not deep enough, rather than having the slightly murkier tone that is expected when the ink is placed into the dermis. Ink welling up out of the punctures is also another sign that the depth is too shallow. Some ink will seep during any tattoo, but too much of it is a sure sign that the needle adjustment needs some fine-tuning.
If the client has an unusual amount of bleeding, or seems to be experiencing more pain than would be expected for the area of skin being tattooed, it is possible that the needle is going in too deep. Different people have different pain thresholds, but tattoo artists work with many people, and should have a pretty good idea of when the pain is just too much. There is no cut and dry method for predicting needle depth, but quality training and experience will give the artist the ability to tell when to increase and when to shorten the depth of the needles.
Tattooing Different Skin Tones
Human skin tone certainly varies from person to person. What looks stunning on one skin color just simply might not work well on another. Designs tend to be clearer and easier to read on light colored skin than on darker skin, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t provide amazing tattoos to clients with darker skin tones.
A big part of the issue has to do with where the ink is placed. Because the needle delivers it below the epidermis and into the dermis, when it heals up, there will be a layer of dermis over the top. This isn’t as much of a problem when the client’s skin is lighter in tone, but for clients of color, this means that the natural pigmentation of the epidermis will mute some of the tattoo color placed below. Additionally, the “canvas” itself is darker, which means that the colors will not necessarily “pop” as well as on lighter-skinned clients.
Go for Contrast!
Instead of focusing so much on ink color, artists working with darker-skinned clients should direct their efforts more into thicker lines and a larger design. Dark, thick lines and larger-scaled tattoos look incredible on dark skin. On the other hand, small designs and light colors tend to get overpowered and will likely be a disappointment. Use a larger needle grouping to make your lines thicker and more substantial so they will stand out from the skin’s natural coloration.
Of course, the client generally has the final say in what will be going on his or her skin; but your job as the professional is to offer as much knowledge and expert advice as the client will accept. You might want to use photographic examples of different tattoo styles on various skin tones to illustrate to the client why it would be a good idea to revamp his or her original idea into something that reads better as a finished piece.
Some artists may be tempted to go over the same area a few times or to move the needles more slowly across the skin in order to make the ink appear darker, but this should be avoided. Darker skin is more likely to scar than lighter skin, so you want to avoid causing extra trauma as this can easily cause keloids on darker skin.
Tattoo Techniques That You Absolutely Need To Learn About
Knowing how to use the machine and all of its technical aspects is important, but so are the results the machine gives. It is a tool, and like any tool, understanding how to properly use it to give the results the artist is looking for is part of the learning process. In tattooing, there are three major types of ink distribution. The first is outlining...
The first time ink touches skin for a tattoo, it will almost certainly be for the outline. Occasionally a tattoo will be given without an outline, but this is fairly rare. The outline does many things, after all. It defines the image on the skin, giving contrast and shape. It draws the lines so that shading and coloring can happen later without worry that the stencil will have been washed away. Some tattoos take many sessions to complete, and no stencil will last long enough to allow for days of healing in between tattoo sessions.
The process of outlining, or simply “lining”, an image sounds simple on the surface. The ink is often black, and the linework is already on the skin via the stencil, and is waiting for the permanence of the needle. Not all lines are created equal, however, and not all lines are the same weight, or width. In fact, varying the weight of the line can be an excellent way to play with drama and effect. Using thicker, bolder lines for emphasis and smaller, more delicate lining for other areas can be part of executing a compelling design.
The weight varies based on the size of the needle being used. A seven liner will give a thicker line than a three liner, after all. The artist should determine in advance which lines should be outlined with which needle, since once the lining begins the skin will get quite messy with blood and ink.
Lining usually starts at the bottom of the piece. This is done for two reasons. First, since the heel of the hand needs to rest on the skin during the tattooing, it can sometimes smear the stencil depending on how well the stencil has set.
By starting at the bottom, the hand is only resting on unmarked or recently outlined skin, leaving the stencil free of pressure.
Second, the ink itself will need to be wiped off of the skin, as there will be excess during the tattooing. Removing this ink can also wipe away at the stencil over time.
Starting the Line
Now is the time to dip the needle into the ink. Make sure that the machine is running, and dip the needle in order to fill the reservoir. The ink in the reservoir will be enough to tattoo the skin for several seconds. It will need to be re-dipped into the ink regularly just like pens were many years ago. If the needle runs dry, it may still tattoo some residual ink from the skin and needle, but the line will not be as bold or as controlled as it needs to be.
Before applying the needles to the skin, press the foot pedal and start the machine. This is the final opportunity to test the machine before the actual tattooing begins. Run the needles briefly on sterile tissue to be sure that the needles aren’t spitting ink, and listen to the sound of the machine. Is it operating properly? Chances are the machine is in fine working order, but it is always better to test it before applying the needle to skin.
For the actual outline, be sure that the needles are running when they touch the flesh. Starting the needles when they are touching skin can cause them to bounce, which can injure the client and can also disturb the design by applying ink where it does not belong. Apply even pressure, and don’t press too hard at the start of the line. Too much pressure can leave too much ink at the start of the line, which is not only hard to wipe away, but can also permanently change the shape of the line.
The first few lines are very important. Not only do they begin to bring the design to life, but they provide their own feedback to the tattoo artist. If the lines do not look right, they can sometimes be worked on in order to correct them. If nothing else, their width and appearance can be made part of the design as the lines are corrected for the rest of the piece.
Some common issues an artist may have with lines:
- The lines have gaps in them. When this happens, it is likely that there is a problem with the actual needle. The machine should be turned off, and the needle thoroughly inspected and possibly replaced.
- The lines are faint. This problem is usually caused by the artist moving the needle too quickly, or occasionally by the needles moving too slowly. It can also be caused by how the skin is being stretched, or when the reservoir has run out of ink and needs to be re-dipped. Worn out needles could also be the cause.
- The needle is snagging on the skin. When this happens, the machine may be running too slowly to allow a clean puncture of the skin. Adjusting the speed and ensuring that the skin is being stretched appropriately should solve this issue.
- The lines are uneven and shaky. This could be the client or even the artist being a little shaky due to nerves. Sometimes it is the machine running too quickly; in this case, the power and speed can be adjusted to a lower setting.
There are some best practices that can help keep the lines neat and precise. Doing the entire length of a line in one full motion is the best way to make it look clean.
In order to achieve this, be sure that the ink reservoir is full before starting the line. If the line needs to be stopped part of the way though the line, be sure to apply a more gentle pressure at the end of the stroke as well as when the line is restarted, lifting out, and back in to the line.
This method will help to keep the level of ink entering the skin consistent, so there isn’t extra ink under the skin.
It may be necessary to make multiple passes over the same line in order to obtain the look and thickness desired. The machine should be doing most of the work, but even with the proper needles, extra strokes may be required. It’s important to be very precise and to take the time to make the lines blend together as one stroke. If the line is very thick, outlining the edges and then filling in the center of the line may be the best method.
Excess ink and blood will need to be wiped from the skin during the process of outlining. Even though the tattoo was begun at the bottom of the design, these fluids will travel and likely cause some smearing on the skin. Even if the design is tiny and does not require much wiping during the lining process, it will need to be cleaned after the lining is done and before the shading begins. Some artists use some green soap and sterile water, and other use plain water and sterile gauze to gently clean all of the excess ink and blood away so that they can take a good look at the completed outline.
When the skin is clean, the artist can take a look at his or her work to see if it is accurate and complete. It is unlikely that any lines were missed, but if they were, now is the time to go back and complete the design, as well as touch up any inconsistent lines. Fortunately, tattoo artists are excellent visual artists, so filling in a missing line should be fairly easy, markers may help to redraw a line before tattooing it if necessary. Occasionally, a line will need a touch up or the design may need to be adjusted slightly; again, the artist’s skills should be more than sufficient to complete this task.
Even if a mistake is hard to cover, the next step, shading, can do wonders to hide mistakes, and even to fix them. By blending the outline into the full design, they become less dramatic and even mistakes can become part of the fully realized image.
A Few Tips for Outlining
Before you begin a new line, fill the ink tube. If you are able to avoid having to stop in the middle of a line to refill, you are likely to get a smoother result.
- Along those same lines, do your best to create lines in one single motion, constantly moving forward at an even pace until you get to the end of the line or must refill your tip.
- Make sure you are using new needles that you have inspected for burrs, pits, bends, etc. Your lines are only as good as the needles you use to create them.
- Keep your pressure even from the beginning to the end of the line. Some newer artists have a tendency to press down too hard at the very beginning of the line, which results in a blob of ink that is difficult to conceal in the final piece. Let the machine do the work, you're simply guiding it along the path.
- Move from the beginning of the line to the end, rather than trying to draw it from the middle out. Make sure you only move your machine sideways or forward, never backward.
- Focus on point A - B, that is, the beginning of the line and the end. The middle part will take care of itself. The analogy I love is: think about when you're driving a car. You're not focusing on one inch in front of your bumper. You're looking at the horizon, other cars and obstacles on the road. If you were focused on avoiding each and every bump one inch in front of your bumper you'd have a shaky, erratic ride.
When you feel you have completed the outline part of your design, it’s time to give it an inspection. Wipe away any remaining stencil by washing the tattoo gently with soap, water, and a clean towel. At this point, you may see a line that has been missed or one that you’d like to improve with a quick touchup. Now is the time to make these corrections before moving on to shading and coloring.
Building Up Thicker Lines
In order to get lines to the proper thickness, as well as to help make them smoother in appearance, you may want to “build up” your lines. This means that rather than doing a single pass to create your line, you choose to make multiple passes very close together.
Let’s say that you are going to build up a horizontal line in three passes. First you might want to create the top of the line. On the next pass, you will create another line slightly below this one. On the third pass, you come back and fill in the gap that was left between. It is recommended to use a smaller needle group
to outline both edges of the thick line first, then move over to a larger needle group to fill in the middle area.
Typically speaking, the built-up lines tend to stay sharper for a lot longer than the one-pass lines.
They also allow a little leeway for the artist. Getting a perfectly straight line in a single pass is not easy to do, so the building-up method provides a little room to tweak the line as you go along.
There will be times when you don’t want an actual outline to appear on the final tattoo, but you still need a guide to follow for your shading or coloring. In these cases, you might consider using what is known as a “bloodline.”
This technique utilizes the needles without dipping them into any ink. You still want to wet them in order to provide lubrication. Some artists choose to simply use distilled water, while others go for a solution of water and alcohol or water and witch hazel.
You then use the needle to create a temporary line on the client’s skin, tracing over the lines of your stencil. The line appears red due to the blood, which is how the technique got its name. When the tattoo heals, the bloodline will disappear. Artists use this trick in order to make more realistic versions of smoke or water and to give themselves a guideline on where two colors should meet, such as in an American flag.
Some artists will also add just a very small amount of gray in their bloodlines. Whatever your approach, it’s a good idea to only do bloodlines for as much of the tattoo as you expect to be able to finish in that particular setting, while those with a hint of grey may be visible on the next session.
Making Straight Lines
Getting your lines to come out straight is something that takes a lot of time and practice. Really, practice is the ONLY way you are able to improve any of your skills. Even those artists who have been tattooing professionally for years can struggle with straight lines. After all, you have a lot of things working against you.
- The human body is not a flat surface
- You are working with a vibrating machine
- Your hand may shake due to nerves, fatigue, or basic human physiology
Spending time practicing your straight lines is time well invested in improving the overall quality of your work. In addition, you can use a few “tricks” to help with the overall look of your straight lines.
One approach is to include less straight lines in your design. This, of course, depends on your personal style and the client’s vision for his final piece, but it can be done in many cases. Those who choose a more “illustrated” or “cartoony” style, for example, can get away with using more rounded edges rather than having to have nice straight lines that form perfect angles when they meet up in corners.
In addition to using the technique of building your lines that was described above, you can also create a thin bloodline or gray line first, too. Put that line down on the skin and then go back over it with your liner, using the first pass as a guide. Just remember that you don’t want to overwork the client’s skin.
Some artists will tell you that putting down a bloodline or gray line first is not “right” and that a good artist will be able to do a straight one-pass line. Like pretty much everything else in tattooing, there are lots of opinions on what is the correct way to do something. In the end, though, if your tattoo looks good and heals properly, does it really matter whether you did your line in one pass or two?
Becoming good at straight lines in a single
pass is something you can definitely strive
to achieve, but it’s not going to happen
immediately, so having other techniques
to get what you desire is just a good idea.
If your lines are not turning out straight despite your best efforts, you might want to consider whether your machine or needles need an adjustment, or if you or the client need a break.
When we look at the world, we see more than the outlines of shapes. Even in a black and white photo, we see the way the light moves across people and objects through the shadows upon them. These shadows, in tattoos, are called shading. They make objects look three dimensional instead of flat, and quality shading is the hallmark of a professional tattoo artist.
Traditionally, the term shading refers to black applied to the tattoo in the interest of creating shadows and dimension. Some tattoo artists believe that using color to achieve the same effects is also shading, although this is a less common view.
The term coloring can be further confused because some artists see using any solid color in a tattoo, including black, to be coloring—not shading.
Ultimately, it is up to the apprentice to learn what the terminology used in his or her shop is, and to follow that lead when describing a tattoo. The words don’t change how the design is applied, but can matter quite a bit when understanding what application of ink is being requested. Every shop works a little bit differently, even though the basics are the same.
For the purposes of this course, however, shading will be discussed as black only.
It is also important to remember that there are as many ways to shade as there are artists. Again, the basics remain the same, but different techniques work best for different people. As long as the technique the artist adopts creates quality work and is safe for herself and the client, it is an excellent way to approach shading.
Black ink is, of course, the darkest ink that will be applied to skin. It is added first because it completely covers any other color it is applied over. The more ink is applied to the skin, the more puncturing from the needles, and the greater the chance of excessive damage to the skin. Sometimes the same area of skin will need to be inked more than once, but this should be less common, and not a matter of habit.
Most artists use magnum needles (shaders) when they shade a tattoo. Clearly, this is how these needles received their name. They are specifically designed for shading work, and many artists find them to be the easiest way to shade, appreciating the control these needles give them. There are always different opinions, however; some artists use a liner or other needle for shading. Again, whatever results in the best design and is safe for the client is OK.
Go Solid Dark First
Shading should always be started on an area of the tattoo that will be completely black. In the case of a solid black tattoo, that could be almost anywhere, however, if the tattoo will have color, the artist needs to think ahead about where the best place will be to begin the shading.
The machine should be moved in small circles on the skin in order to achieve the desired amount of coverage. The machine should be guided gently, but allowed to do the work without a lot of downward pressure. The idea is to never have the machine stop over any point on the skin, but instead to continue with the gentle circling until coverage has been achieved or until the needle needs to be re-dipped into the ink. When shading, the machine will need to be run a little bit faster than it was with outlining.
If the needle remains too long in one place, the repeated puncturing can cause bleeding, bruising, scabbing, and in extreme cases, scarring. This skin will not heal properly, and the image left will probably be spotty and fade along with the scabs. If the shading is repeated in the same area too many times, even with gentle circling, the same thing can happen, so it is important to pay close attention to the shading during this process. The client’s skin is meant to last a lifetime, and should be treated accordingly.
In order to create the effects of shadow on the skin, the amount of black pigment that makes it into the skin must be strictly controlled. Once the full black portions have been completed, the areas needing lesser amounts of shading can be started on. These areas may range from almost full coverage to the merest hint of shadow, and are usually accomplished darkest to lightest. Not only is this method easier on the artist, as it usually allows him or her to work from the outline inward, but it also helps the artist to get a feeling for how the ink is penetrating the skin before reaching the areas that require a more delicate hand.
Top To Bottom?
While outlining is usually done from bottom to top, shading is done from top to bottom. With the outline already permanently marked upon the skin, there is no risk of smudging or erasing it. Quite a bit more ink is used when shading than when outlining, however, so going from top to bottom minimizes the amount of ink and blood smudged from a completed area to the area being worked on.
If there is a smear, however, these fluids can be easily removed, and should be cleaned off often during the course of the tattoo.
In practice, both of these habits simply aid the artist in seeing where to tattoo, but have no other impact on the finished design.
Starting With Shading Before Outlining
For years and years tattoo artists always started a tattoo with the outline. The concept of this came about due to the transfer of acetate stencils and the lines they left, so it only made sense to start with the lines and then render in details such as shading after.
Now, many tattoo artists will actually start shading with a mag first, before they ever lay down a line. Why? Starting out with a mag can not only save time and possible damage to the skin of the client, it can take less effort and lead to less healing issues down the line.
Of course, when you start out a new tattoo with shading first, your whole approach will be radically different than starting with a solid outline. By starting out with a solid outline, it does help you basically lay down the groundwork for the tattoo, but it may limit the color scheme and most importantly, the positive/negative relationship in the tattoo. Starting out with mag shading instead might take a bit longer at the beginning, but it’ll save time in the long run because you won’t have to go in trying to figure out how to shade certain areas due to the initial outline.
If you do decide to start out with shading first, you will want to make sure you either use a hand-drawn stencil or a stencil that exemplifies the areas of shading, not outlines.
Large magnums (13+) are ideal to start out shading when doing more realistic tattoos that need edges with some gradation. They work very well for blocking in the ink quickly and effectively due to the surface area that they can cover. When magnums are held on edge (meaning only the corner pushes into the skin), the needles will create a really nice and soft gradation that fades away from the edge.
The motion you will want to use in this case are longer oval rotations that overlap slightly while keeping a nice clean cut edge. Just be sure that you are careful when working with the edge of the magnum. There is much less skin resistance since you are not applying all the needle points at once, so it will take less pressure. If you apply too much pressure, you can easily go in too deep into the skin. I would highly recommend using a curved magnum in this case just to be safe, it will still allow you to get the right edge and fade, but with more skin resistance.
One last word on starting with shading first. If you are going to attempt a tattoo and start with a mag first, I highly recommend practicing small tattoos first that have both solid areas for shading and also a nice use of outlines. Don’t go too advanced right out of the gate. Be smart about it.
One of the most common shading techniques is called sweep shading. This technique is performed by “sweeping” the color across the skin in order to deposit more ink at the beginning, and less at the end of the motion, much like the “flick” of a paintbrush stroke.
With the machine on, place the needles right along the outline and make sure that each needle on the needle bar is in full contact with the outlined skin. “Sweep” or “Whip” the machine away from the outline, flicking it up and gradually reducing the amount of contact it is making with the skin.
The finished result of sweep shading is less ink at the end of the stroke and more at the beginning, giving a natural gradation of shadow to the shading.
Careful circling can give a similar effect if
done well, but sweep (whip) shading is easier, and
leaves less room for error—not to mention
the finished product looks superior.
Once the shading has been finished, the next step is coloring the design. Before this process can begin, however, there are a few steps that need to be taken to ensure the success of the tattoo. The client’s skin should be gently washed, and a thin coat of A&D should be applied to the design. Every part of the needle apparatus needs to be cleaned under hot running water in order to ensure there is no black ink left anywhere. If even the slightest bit is left behind, it could deposit black in the areas meant to have vivid color, which could spoil the entire look of the tattoo.
Getting It Right
Shading is one of the hallmarks by which a tattoo artist is judged. The ability to do it well means that your final designs will be more realistic and far more impressive than those that look “flat.” From the amount of saturation to the way you transition from lighter to darker areas, each aspect will have a major effect on the overall outcome. For example, if you transition too quickly from dark to light, the result is a fairly blunt line between the two. This is called “dead heading,” and it shows inferior skills.
Instead, you want to see how the light travels across an object, creating depth and shadows as it goes. Using a “feathering” touch between lighter and darker areas helps to avoid deadheading.
As with any aspect of tattooing, practice makes perfect. Start your practice by spending time with your art supplies learning how to shade on paper and canvas. This allows you to have a much more thorough understanding of how to lay out your design than you would have otherwise.
Shading isn’t only used to create depth and realism, however. It can also be a tool the artist uses to help fix errors or even cover old, unwanted art that a client already has. Since black is the darkest of the inks and covers quite thoroughly, it can be used to blot out areas that one doesn’t want seen. Of course, neither the artist nor the client is likely to want a big, black splotch on the skin. This is why it takes careful forethought to come up with the best approach for covering an old tattoo or fixing a mistake in a current one. Finding ways to incorporate what is there into something else means relying less on simply covering up the old ink.
Shading can lead to a whole lot of ink splatter. Make sure you keep plenty of tissues handy to wipe away excess ink on the skin that might cover up part of your design and cause you to miss a spot.
As previously mentioned, there is disagreement in the tattoo industry over the terms coloring and shading. Some elements of coloring are performed exactly like shading with black ink, only the color used is different. The apprentice should make note of how the terms are used in the shop he or she is training at in order to minimize confusion when speaking with clients or other artists.
One difference with coloring, however, is that it can be used for both shadows as well as for the solid color of a large expanse of skin. For adding deeper color in shadowy areas, the sweep shading method can also be used with colorful inks. To increase the depth of a design, sometimes this method is used along with shading, allowing both the black and the other colors to give the objects in the design dimension and life.
For solid coloring, or for areas with a very gradual shift in color, the artist can use the circle method. Small, barely overlapping circles fill in the shape, much like crayons on paper. Only minimal pressure should be applied; the machine should do the work for the artist, who only needs to guide the needles. The work should be wiped regularly to ensure that color is being applied to the proper places in the design. Depending on the design, even uncolored areas of skin may benefit from a barely visible application of gentle circles. This can often blend a design into the skin better than leaving the skin its natural color.
Some colors, especially lighter ones, will need more passes with the needle over the skin in order to obtain the desired coverage.
This needs to be done with caution, however. Vivid color can be the result of just a few strokes if the ink and needles are handled properly.
Repeated puncturing of the skin can cause permanent damage, so rely on the ink to do the work, not multiple passes over the flesh.
If the damage leads to excessive scabbing, the color will be removed during the healing process, and may also leave scars. The general guideline is that no more than two passes be made with the needles over the same area of skin until it has the chance to heal.
Just as when the artist is done using black, each change of color requires that the needles, the bar, and the tips be thoroughly cleaned. While some mixing of colors can be part of a good design, the accidental mixing of color can lead to a tattoo that looks muddy and poorly done. Fortunately, a little cleaning can avoid this issue entirely.
Colors are usually applied from darkest to lightest
The black lining and shadowing are done first, and then other dark colors are applied one by one. Light colors run the risk of becoming muddied when dark colors are applied over them, so doing lighter colors last and using them where they are needed is the best way to end up with clear, true colors.
The most common progression of colors is the following:
- Black and dark grays
- Deep purples (values closer to black)
- Light purple (value with little to no black)
There is certainly wiggle room in this color list, of course. Some reds are deeper and darker than some greens or blues depending on their color value.
This list refers to the most common, intense shades of these colors, and isn’t meant to replace the artist’s good judgment when it comes to determining which color is lighter, darker, or should be applied in which order.
The artist has two opportunities to mix colors. The first is by mixing the proper color of ink before the tattoo has begun. By applying color theory, almost any color can be created as long as the artist has access to white, black, red, yellow, and blue. Every color can be built from these five hues. Pre-mixing the color in this way allows the shades to be determined before they are applied to the skin, instead of attempting to mix them on the skin or in the tube.
One color of ink applied over the other will also result in a new color. It can be hard to predict which color will be dominant, or what precise color will be the result of this mix, however. Also, since no more than two passes should be made over the skin, there is little to no room for error correction if the color or color density isn’t what the artist intended.
Sometimes, however, color should be mixed in the skin and not within the ink itself. This method is reserved for when a color gradient is the desired effect. If the color is going from white to red, for example, an infinite number of inks would have to be prepared to get all of the colors needed for the design. Instead, the artist can apply decreasing amounts of red over the skin starting on the darkest edge, and on the lightest edge, apply decreasing amounts of white. This method takes some practice to perfect, but can give a beautiful result.
The eye sees the color as a blend, not the individual dots of color and the result looks like a color wash over the flesh. The same can be done with blue and yellow, for example, creating a gradient with green in the middle.
While white is often used for this process, sometimes it can cause its own headaches. It is nearly impossible to get a true white on the skin. The skin has its own natural color, and ink is deposited into the dermis, well below the pigmented layer. Any color in the skin is seen through this layer of skin, meaning that white will not show as true white even on the palest complexions. All colors suffer this same effect, but it is by far the most noticeable with white. Also, colors can change with extensive sun exposure, and white is the most likely to fade or turn yellow due to the sun.
White absolutely has a place in tattoo, but these are the reasons why it is rarely seen as a large part of a design, Instead, it is used to modify other colors or in small areas of highlight.
Just as not every tattoo will require color, not every tattoo will require an outline, or even an image. Some tattoos are created using only the gradients of white to black in order to give a result much like a black and white photograph. Other tattoos are only words, but are done in a way that the lettering itself makes as much of a statement as the meaning does. These types of tattoos call for specialized skills, and in the case of black and white tattooing, some artists choose to perform these and little else.
Black and Gray
Color may be flashy, but nothing beats the quality and style of a professional black and gray tattoo.
This style is often called “gray wash” because the tones of grey are usually "washes" of black ink. Some of the earliest gray washes were done in prisons where rudimentary equipment was cobbled together and the ink from pens was the only pigment available. These tattoos were rarely high quality, but modern artists have improved on the them in order to create beautiful works of art.
When done well, the grays and black blend together so seamlessly that it appears as though a black and white photo has been transferred onto the skin. This style is excellent for realizing fine details and to truly play with shadow and light. There is no room for the artist to hide mistakes with color; instead, it is his or her actual artistic ability that shows, and the results can be impressive.
This tattoo specialty shines when it is used for photorealistic images. A face with color in it can make a lovely tattoo, but a well executed tattoo of a face done in gray wash is absolutely stunning. In fact, there are artists who specialize in replicating the faces of famous people and of their clients’ loved ones, and their skills are highly sought after. There is no room for errors when replicating a face, after all. Just one mistake and it doesn’t look right, and the person being represented will look stretched or unrealistic. Because of this, only the best artists succeed at this type of tattoo.
The physical process of a black and white tattoo is the same as a color one. The only change is the value of the ink. The washed outline is done first, followed by the dramatic shading, and the “coloring” is done with black and shades of gray. The tattoo is started with black, and then increasingly lighter values of gray are used, just as lighter colored inks are used after darker ones in a colored tattoo.
Creating Shades of Gray
In order to create the shades used in a gray wash, the artist must remember color theory and the concept of “value.” Value is the lightness or darkness of a color, created by adding white or black to a hue. Gray is already a combination of black and white, however, the amount of each of those hues varies dramatically based on the desired color. White, of course, makes the gray lighter, whereas black will make it darker.
To further confuse the issue, not all gray washes are strictly black, white, and gray. Sometimes to get the perfect shade of gray, a smidgen of another hue might be added. A tiny bit of blue might add a cool depth, whereas a bit of yellow could warm up the gray considerably.
Sometimes the grays are tweaked for the design itself, whereas other times the colors are shifted a bit to compensate for differences in skin tone and pigmentation. These manipulations may not be strictly gray wash, but the human eye still reads the colors as various shades of gray. When this technique is used in moderation, it can have a tremendous impact on the quality of the final design.
Another method for greys
Another method of creating the shades needed for a gray wash is to simply use less pigment in the carrier fluid. The ink can be mixed with a certain percentage or ratio less pigment in each successive cap, giving values from black to the palest gray. In this scenario the clear carrier fluid acts like white pigment would where the amount of black is less and less apparent in smaller amounts.
Perhaps the most common method, however, is to use pre-made washes purchased from tattoo suppliers. These pigments are available in all of the shades needed for a gray wash, and are consistent each time they are used. Mixing a gray from black and white is easy, but replicating it isn’t always as simple as it seems. Using pre-made washes, however, allows the exact color to be consistent with every tattoo, or even if a tattoo needs to be touched up, a time when the ink color needs to be precise.
The machine itself can also be used to create shades of gray with only black ink. The ink is still black, but when there is less of it in a greater area, the eye will perceive it as gray. In order to get this result, operate the machine at a higher speed and move it more quickly across the skin. This requires care, however. The highlights in a drawing—the lightest areas—will come from either the natural skin or from the addition of a little bit of white ink towards the end of the tattoo process. If there is already black ink in the skin, however, the white will not have the same effect, and the design may be compromised.
Black and white tattoos may sound intimidating on the surface. They are more difficult to master, but this should be looked upon as a challenge for the artist, and as one more skill to perfect in the quest to become a professional tattoo artist.
Sometimes a tattoo incorporates some words or letters, such as initials of a loved one on a larger design. Other times, the lettering makes up the entirety of the design, and the font used will have the largest effect until the words are read.
Either way, lettering is an important design element that every tattoo artist needs to master. The technical aspects of producing high quality letters for a tattoo are definitely simpler than doing an intricate gray wash, but they do have their own set of complications.
The biggest complication is fixing mistakes. With most designs, if a mistake is made it can be hidden under ink, or incorporated into the rest of the design. Unfortunately, this is rarely true with lettering. Just like trying to correct the spelling of a word written with pen on paper, reworking lettering after the ink has been applied is next to impossible. Because of this, extreme care should be taken to ensure that not only the words are to the client’s liking, but that the tattooing itself is done precisely.
Touch-Ups and Fixes
It’s not unusual for a tattoo to require a bit of touch-up after it has healed a bit. There are plenty of legitimate reasons that an artist might want to touch up a piece. After all, the finished product will forever be associated with you, and you certainly want it to look its very best.
Some artists will ask the client to come back in after the healing process to take a look at the tattoo and to photograph it for the portfolio. At this time, you might notice that a line got missed or that there is some color missing. It is common to charge a small fee for some touchup work, although most shops will offer free touchups for up to a year after the tattoo is completed.
Get It In Writing
You may also want to protect yourself from legal action by taking measures before applying a tattoo. For example, you may want to have a clause in your waiver that relieves you of responsibility, and it’s a good idea to have a client sign off on the spelling of any tattoo that includes text.
Oftentimes, the need for a touchup or fix is really the fault of the client who hasn’t followed the aftercare instructions properly. In these cases, however, it’s unlikely that he or she will admit to doing something wrong. You must determine how you want to approach the situation. Laying blame isn’t likely to win you repeat business, so you may prefer to just do the touchup without commenting too much on the cause for fading from spending time in the sun or loss of color from scratching at scabs.
You may also be asked to touch up or “fix” a tattoo that was done by another artist. Again, it is your choice whether or not to offer this type of service. Some artists have a strict “hands-off” policy because if they are not able to get the original tattoo up to their own standards, they don’t want their reputation to be associated with it.
Of course, if the mistake is your own, it’s in your best interest to fix it. It’s also good practice to apologize for the mistake and make sure that the customer understands that you want to do everything you can, within reason, to make the situation right.
Tattoo artists generally see refunding a client’s money as a last resort. Instead, it is far more important to always to your best-quality work. Work with the client to find out exactly what it is that he doesn’t like about the tattoo and see if it is something that can be rectified. If it is an issue with color, you might be able to easily fix it, either for free or at a discounted rate. If a client does threaten legal action, however, you may find that it would cost more to defend yourself in court than it would to provide the refund.
Cover Up Tattoos
If you do choose to help clients who want to hide or cover up an old tattoo, be aware that it can be a really fun artistic challenge. It used to be that you had to more or less blot out the old tattoo with a new design that was primarily black, but that’s not necessarily the case today.
When you first think about it, it seems like you would be placing ink over the top of the old tattoo and simply covering it up, but that’s not really the case. Instead, you are adding new ink to the same layer of dermis where the original was placed however many years ago. This means that the colors are actually able to mix together, rather than just having one cover the other. Of course, if you’re adding a very dark color, it can overpower what was already there to give you the effect you’re going for.
Instead of simply covering up the old tattoo or trying to find some way to incorporate it into a new design, you might just want to change it entirely. By looking at the overall shape and colors that have already been used, you can work on new design options that complement this and work to cleverly hide the old one.
In order to do this, it’s a good idea to use tracing paper or acetate over the top of the old tattoo to trace it. The artist can then copy this drawing or place it on a light table with a clean sheet of paper over the top to start coming up with new design ideas that will cover the old design without being obvious. Do your best to incorporate already existing shapes into the new design, turning it into something else completely.
The artistry involved in the tattoo industry has come so far in the past several years (and decades) that it is possible to take something old and unattractive and turn it into something completely different and beautiful. What you need is the artistic eye to see the potential in what is already there. This is covered in depth, with video examples in the cover-up module.