How to Create a Realism Tattoo

Realism is the most popular tattoo style in the world. Being able to create great realism designs increases your earning potential. And for aspiring tattoo artists that are still learning to draw tattoo designs, realism allows them to do incredible tattoos without having to draw designs from scratch.

However, creating a realistic design is more than just printing off a photo. In this article, we’ll break down how to:

  • Find reference images
  • Arrange multiple images on Procreate to make a well-designed tattoo
  • Use several versions of the same image to make sure your shading is on point

How to Make a Black and Gray Realism Tattoo Design


Find Reference Photos

Google and Pinterest are the best places to find reference images for realistic tattoos. While they both have great results, Pinterest usually has higher-quality photos.

When you’re looking for reference photos, you want to make sure to find images that have a high resolution. That way, if you need to zoom in on it to capture the details, the image will still be clear and not look fuzzy or pixelated. A close-up photo will work best. 


Google will list the resolution of the image when you select and hover your mouse over the picture. The larger the number, the better the resolution.

Use the Right Search Terms

When you’re looking up images, you will find much better references if you’re using the right search terms. 

For example, instead of typing in “girl” to the search box, you might say “girl face model” instead. Because you’re looking at modeling photos, you’ll be more likely to find high-resolution images with a more dramatic/artistic composition.

Editing Your Images

Once you find a photo you want to use, you can either save it or screenshot it and put it on a blank sheet in Procreate

From here, you’ll want to change your levels. This will let you see all the different shades of gray in the design so you get a lot of contrast in the actual tattoo. 

To turn a color photo into a black and gray image, turn the saturation all the way down. You may also want to move the hue setting up or down to improve the picture.


Use Two Versions of an Image

To help identify where the light and dark areas are in an image, we recommend using two versions of the same picture (just copy and paste). In one image, raise the brightness so you can see where your light tones belong. A good rule of thumb is being able to see individual hair strands, if you’re tattooing a person. 

On the other image, lower the brightness so you can clearly see where the heavy black areas are. You want to make sure the shadows are a bit exaggerated. This will help you make sure there’s enough black ink in the design to hold up over time. (Don’t go so dark that you can no longer see details in the picture.)

You’ll use the lighter image to create your stencil. This will make it easier to go through and mark where all the shading needs to go. However, we recommend printing both images off so you can easily refer to them while you’re tattooing. 

Pro Tip:

Most artists will wrap their iPad so they can look at it while they’re tattooing. However, you won’t be touching the iPad while you’re tattooing. Having printed images showing the different tones in your design will help you create a piece with better contrast.


Combine Multiple Photos

If you’re creating a larger tattoo, you might want to combine multiple reference images and piece them together.

To do this, you’ll repeat the process of finding and editing each image. Make sure to place each photo on a new layer in Procreate so you can edit each piece instead of the whole design and move things around.

Use the eraser in Procreate to erase the backgrounds of each image so you can more easily see what it all looks like together.

Pro Tip:

While you’re tattooing, it can be helpful to sit back and look at the piece as a whole. If you're tattooing up close for long periods of time, it’s easy to get lost in everything. Standing back and looking at the tattoo and your pictures as a whole will make sure everything looks cohesive.

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

Having a career in tattooing is not only fulfilling, but it’s also the most stable way to make a living as an artist. However, for decades, the process to become a tattoo artist has been notoriously difficult. 

The apprenticeship process requires aspiring tattoo artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years. That, combined with the toxic culture of abusing apprentices, makes getting into the industry almost impossible for newcomers. 

That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online course provides a simple, structured way of learning to tattoo that has been proven to work by over 2500 successful students, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world. 

Inside the program, we’ll take you through every step of the tattooing process in 9 clear, easy-to-follow modules and support you along the way within the Tattooing 101 Mastermind online community.

In the Mastermind group, you’ll collaborate with other students, get answers to your questions, and receive personalized video feedback on your artwork and tattoos from professional tattoo artists. With this friendly community of both new and experienced tattoo artists, you’ll never be stuck again. 

When you join the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll have instant access to the full course and the Mastermind community, as well as our 30-Day Flash Challenge and recorded interviews with tattoo artists from all over the world. 

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

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
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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