Some tattoos just look better than others. But why? As a beginner tattoo artist, it can be hard to figure out what makes or breaks a tattoo...especially when you’re staring at a blank page, trying to draw. 

Tattoo artists know that designs that work with the body will always look good...even if they aren’t tattooed perfectly. On the other hand, a poorly-designed tattoo will always look bad, even if you have perfect tattooing technique.
Luckily, learning how to draw tattoos that work with the body isn’t too hard once you know a couple tricks. By the end of this article, you’ll know how tattoo artists create drawings that look great on skin…and how to draw tattoos yourself. 

This post will cover how to:

  • Identify the “flow” of the body
  • Draw tattoos that flow with the shape of the body.
  • Develop your tattoo drawing skills
  • Master one style that will allow you to begin tattooing faster
  • Make sure your tattoo designs age well on the client

Drawing tattoos that “Flow” with the Body

What is “flow”?

Human bodies are not made of straight lines and edges, but rather more organic, curved shapes. Because of this, every part of the body “flows” in an S-shape. 

tribal tattoo that flows with the body

Why does flow matter to a tattoo? 

Working with the flow of a client’s body means creating a tattoo design that goes along with the lines and curves of their body. This makes the tattoo look more dynamic (because it “moves” with the body) and gives it a stronger aesthetic (because it “fits” that part of the body. It also ensures your design doesn’t get warped over different bones and planes of the body.

How working with the flow improves a tattoo: Just like well-fitting clothes, a tattoo that works with the lines of the body is more pleasing to the eye. A tattoo that is not warped by the planes of the body not only looks better, but makes the overall design more attractive. While designing a tattoo, try to place elements in a way that moves along those curves of “flow.”

A good design that flows with the shape of the body will still look good, even if it is not tattooed perfectly. In the same way, a poorly designed tattoo that is also placed poorly will stand out much more and be far more difficult to repair later when your skills improve. 

Pro Tip: Identifying Flow

The way the muscles are placed under the skin is what gives the body "flow". If you're struggling to identify the "flow", try to imagine how the muscles wrap around the body.

Fitting Designs Within the Body’s Shape

What does “fitting” a tattoo mean?

Fitting a tattoo with a person’s body shape simply means aligning your design elements with the “outline” of the person’s shape, whether you’re working on their arm, leg, torso, etc.

Why is fitting a tattoo important? While a design might look great on paper, a 3-D human body is a different matter. If your design is trying to wrap around an elbow or reach around a shin bone, it’s going to look stretched on the client.

Note: Most tattoo designs are long and skinny for this purpose.

While you can wrap simpler background elements around the body (for example, letting a few leaves or waves reach around the back of the arm to extend the tattoo’s coverage), you do not want to do this with the key elements of the tattoo (like faces, animals, intricate linework, etc.).

How to make sure a tattoo fits a body part correctly:

  1. 1
    Print an image of the body part you are designing the tattoo for. Screenshot an image if you are using an iPad.
  2. 2
    Place your tracing paper over the image of the body part. Upload into Procreate if you are using an iPad.
  3. 3
    Outline the body part on your tracing paper (remember to use a separate layer if you are on an iPad). All the main parts of the design should fit within this border.
  4. 4
    Add a dotted line just outside the outline of the body part. This is the part of the design that is allowed to wrap around the body part. Make sure that only background elements like leaves, clouds, waves, etc extend into this section.
  5. 5
    Draw your design.

Pro Tip: Faces Look Forward & Inward

Images of faces always look forward or inward. When the face is on the side of the body, it should face forward and should not appear to be "looking back". If the face is closer to the center line of the body (inside of the shin, inside of the upper arm, torso, ribs, chest, etc.), the face should always be looking inward toward the body's center line.

a custom tattoo with a face on it facing forward

How To Practice Drawing Tattoos

How do you create tattoos from scratch? The best way to learn how to draw your own tattoos is to first replicate other artists’ tattoo designs without tracing them. 

flash designs on a white sheet of paper

Generally, traditional tattoos are easier to draw because they: 

  • Are 2D
  • Use only one line weight (14 RL)
  • Use “flat” colours (no complicated shading)

This makes them the perfect style to begin practicing on.

Why You Should Practice Drawing Other Artists’ Tattoos

Drawing other artists’ designs instead of trying to come up with your own from the start lets you learn how to draw much faster because:

  • You’ll be able to learn by osmosis. Drawing designs created by professionals will help you pick up on how they create strong designs that flow with the body without having to take the time to figure it out on your own.
  • It’ll increase your output. Instead of running around in circles trying to figure out what to draw and how to draw it, you’re simply recreating another artwork. Getting rid of all the extra decisions means you get to focus solely on improving your drawing ability.

How to Develop Your Drawing Skills Quickly 

Organizing your practice and creating a drawing calendar will help you stay on track and start drawing better designs fast:

  • Find a good tattoo artist you admire (or a few, if you’d like). Save pictures of their work (we recommend saving images in a Google Drive folder), and create a drawing calendar so that you have five references that you plan to draw each day.
  • Draw five designs each day over the course of 12 weeks, you’ll have a strong grasp on tattoo design, which means you can start creating your own designs from scratch.

How To Sketch In Stages

Drawing in “stages” means that you build up your design in layers instead of trying to draw the final version of your image right away.

This is important because it allows you to map out your basic shapes and get the right proportions from the start. This saves you time and keeps you having to erase a whole design because one piece is off or doesn’t flow well with the body.

To draw in stages, we recommend using a red pencil to build up your basic shapes. You can use a blue pencil to fill out details and finalize your design. We recommend using a black pen to go over your design and create perfect line work, since you’ll use this final version as the stencil for your tattoo. 
body art drawing
step by step instructions for drawing a heart picture
pencil drawing in neo traditional style
heart tattoo design

Tracing Sheet One: Draw basic shapes and outlines.

Tracing Sheet Two: Build up shapes and muscle memory.

Tracing Sheet Three: Add details and darker outlines.

Flash Sheet: Strong, steady outlines and add color if using color.

Pro Tip: Drawing Hands & Faces

When working on photorealism design (particularly with faces and hands) 

trace your design from a reference photo. Tracing reference photos will save you time and ensure your version of the image looks realistic.

For example, if you need to tattoo an image of a hand in a specific position, take a reference picture of your own hand in the position you need and trace that. From there, you can add details to make it unique, whether you widen the eyes of a face or add stacks of rings to a hand. Tracing isn’t cheating; it gives you the framework you need to create a stunning tattoo.

How to Draw Long-Lasting Designs

art done with a thin tattoo needle

Skin changes with age, which will affect their tattoos. When you’re creating a tattoo design, you want to make sure that it will age well with the person’s body.

What causes designs to blur?

There’s a variety of reasons that can cause a tattoo to blur overtime. Some of them, you as the artist can cause:

  • Placing the ink too deep 
  • Too much detail in a small area, leading the lines to blur together

However, many of these will be caused by the client and the regular wear-and-tear of the skin:

  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Pregnancy
  • Body-building
  • Sun exposure

In these cases, the skin is getting stretched or the collagen building blocks of the skin are breaking down. This causes the ink to shift. However, a tattoo that has been applied correctly can keep most of its sharpness long-term.

Why is it important to take aging into account?

As a person ages, the ink under the skin will spread and all the lines will triple in thickness. If you don’t take this into account when you design your tattoos, in five years the lines will close up together, and the tattoo will look like a messy blob on the skin. 

How to prevent tattoos from aging poorly:

The best way to know that your tattoos will stand the test of time is to ensure your designs can be shaded with 7 mag needle. If a 7 mag is too large to shade your designs, you’re in danger of the design blurring together after a few years.

Pro Tip: Placement & Blur

If your client is particularly concerned about a design blurring, you can suggest either

  1. 1
    Placing the tattoo where the skin does not stretch as much ( like the shoulder, as opposed to the abdomen).
  2. 2
    Placing the tattoo in a place that is almost always protected from the sun by clothing.

Learn More About Tattooing

Understanding how to draw designs that work with the body is just one part of drafting a successful tattoo. You also need to know which settings on your machine will create the effects you need, how to keep your clients safe, how to market your skills, and more.

Trying to scour the internet for updated and complete information can be time consuming and lead to incorrect or even unsafe habits. Instead, you can find everything you need in one place with Tattooing 101’s Artist Accelerator Program. 

We created the world’s first and largest online education platform for tattooing to help artists achieve their dreams at their own pace from the comfort of their own home. Tattooing 101’s Online Course gives you the information you need from professionals in the industry so you can stop searching online and start practicing your craft. Join our students and go from beginner to professional tattoo artist in as little as 90 days.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
  • Professional tattoo artist coaches
  • Private mastermind community
AUTHOR
Nathan Molenaar

Nathan is a licensed professional tattoo artist with over 8 years’ experience working at studios across the globe, including Celebrity Ink, the world's largest tattoo studio chain.

When he's not tattooing, he spends his free time sharing his experience and knowledge with aspiring artists who dream of pursuing a career in the tattooing industry.

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