How to Draw Tattoo Designs that FIT and FLOW

As a new tattoo artist, you need to know two things about drawing tattoos: 

  • How to make them fit on the body
  • How to make them flow with the muscles

In this article, we’ll break down fit and flow so you can create incredible designs that look great, every time.

PART 1: Drawing Tattoo Designs that FIT the Body

Why a Good Drawing Doesn’t Always Make a Good Tattoo

A big mistake that a lot of new artists make is that they don't make that distinction between drawing art and drawing tattoo designs. A lot of things will look good on paper, but they won't necessarily look good on skin. 

The reason being, if you're just drawing on a piece of paper, the drawing takes up the whole page. When you try to put that on someone's skin, it's not going to fit, just because a page doesn't match the shape of any part of the body. It's going to be too wide and wrap too much around an arm or a leg.

How to Make Sure Your Design FITS on the Body

When you are designing a tattoo, it’s best to get an image of the body part you’ll be tattooing - ideally, you’d get a picture of the person you're tattooing if they've come into your studio. 

Getting a picture is especially important if you’re filling in a gap. If they've got a bunch of other little tattoos that you need to draw something in a weird gap, you want to either take a photo or get a tracing of that part of their limb. That way, you know the exact size of the space that you're working with.

If they're a blank canvas and you're just doing a tattoo on their forearm, then take a photo of that part of their body, trace it, and use that tracing as the boundary of your drawing.

Note:

You can either put an image of the body part as a layer in Procreate on an iPad, or you can print off a photo and put a piece of tracing paper over it to trace the shape.

Planning for Tattoos to “Wrap”

In this example, we’ll be making a forearm tattoo. After you sketch the shape of the arm, you can add a dotted line outside of that to account for areas where the tattoo will wrap. 

It's okay to go outside of the main shape of the arm if it's little background elements. For example, a rose, leaves, water, smoke, flames, etc. 

This is actually helpful for future tattoos, because it will be easier to add onto those organic shapes later, as opposed to having a tattoo that’s completely cut off at the sides. However, the main elements should all be seen from one angle. If they aren’t, it will be hard to tell what the tattoo is.

Note:

The only exception to this rule is the Japanese style, where tattoos are designed to wrap around the whole body.

Example of a Tattoo the Wraps Around the Body Correctly:

In this example, you can see how the shape of the body is traced in red, and that all the main elements of the tattoo fit inside that area. Only leaves and clouds wrap outside of those boundaries.

Example of a Tattoo the Wraps Around the Body Incorrectly:

When you don't draw to the shape of the body, the designs just won't fit well. In this example, the design has a lot of gaps, it doesn't come down the full way of the torso, and it wraps massively around the ribs. Because it doesn’t fit the client’s chest, the design will not “sit” well on the body, and it won’t be as aesthetically pleasing.

PART 2: Drawing Tattoo Designs that FLOW With the Muscles

Tattoo Designs Should Match the S-Shape of a Person’s Muscles

All the muscles in the human body flow in a natural S-shape. If you design your tattoos with this principle in mind, then they're going to sit on the body a lot better, and it's going to compliment the person's figure

Even if the tattoo isn't done perfectly, it will still look good because it's designed for that specific part of the body. (For example, following the swell shape of pectoral muscles, or the downward “wrap” of a tricep muscle.)

Note:

You don’t have to stick to one direction. You can still have the general flow and shape coming from a different direction. However, as long as you have that flow in mind when you’re creating a tattoo, it’ll make the design process a lot easier.

Using Tattoo Styles to Understand Flow

Several tattoo styles are entirely based on how the body flows:

Tribal Tattoos

Knowing how to work with the flow of the body is extremely important whenever you're doing a tribal design.

This is why most mentors will make their apprentices draw tons of tribal designs, even though it’s not as popular now as it was a few decades ago. It teaches you to follow the flow of the body. 

Biomechanical

Using flow is also important with biomechanical. If your design doesn’t work with the body, a biomechanical tattoo will look kind of goofy instead of cool and interesting. 

Japanese

Wind bars in the background are a major staple of the Japanese tattooing style. iIf they flow with that natural shape of the body, they're going to sit a lot better on the body.

A lot of new artists that don't know this will create a background that doesn't flow in any sort of general direction, which makes the whole tattoo look awkward.

Flow Will Change on Different People

It’s important to remember that these sweeping S-shaped patterns can vary from person to person. And there's not just one way to do them. But as long as you've got that sweeping motion in some way, it'll still work. 

Because every body's different, it’ll be easier to identify the flow on some bodies more than others. Also, the build of the muscles might affect the flow. For example, if someone has more prominent shoulders or biceps, that might affect the shape of the flow that you design your tattoo to. But, when you design tattoos with this in mind, it gives the design a dynamic feel - almost like it's moving on the person's skin - which is what you want, especially with styles like Japanese that require a lot of flow.

How to Draw With Flow

Not all designs are easy to add flow to. However, there are a few things you can do to make adding flow easier.

Use Background Elements

Background elements like flames, water, smoke, clouds, Japanese wind bars, leaves, etc. can help you incorporate flow. Below is an example of a tattoo that just doesn't quite flow, and there’s no clear direction to it. 

To make the design flow and have that nice rolling effect that makes it look like it’s designed for the body, you need to incorporate the S-shapes. In this example, redrawing the thorns to flow with the body makes a major difference.

Pre-Draw Your Flow Lines

If you’re working with an iPad, draw your flow lines onto the part of the body that you're drawing, turn the opacity down, and then draw your design over it. Or, if you're working with regular tracing paper, you can trace the part of the body that you're going to be drawing the design for and add subtle flow lines in really lightly. 

This will remind you when you're drawing how to keep with the flow and ensure your tattoos look like they belong on that body part.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program 

Learning how tattoo design is different from other forms of art is an important step in your journey, but it can also be pretty eye-opening to how difficult tattooing can be. Without the right knowledge, it’s impossible to level up your skills and become a professional tattoo artist. 

However, finding the straight-forward information you need to progress is difficult. And with so much out there online, it’s hard to avoid picking up bad habits from incorrect and outdated resources.

This is one of the biggest struggles new tattooers face, and too many talented artists have given up their goal of getting into tattooing because of the years it would take to unlearn their bad habits. 

That’s why aspiring artists are learning to tattoo with the Artist Accelerator Program’s structured course. As a student, you learn every step of the tattooing process from professional artists with the experience and advice you need to build your skills and create incredible tattoos. 

With the Artist Accelerator, you can stop wasting time searching through incorrect information. You just get the clear, easy-to-understand lessons you need to start improving fast… along with support and personalized feedback from professional artists in our online Mastermind group.

Over 2500 students have already gone through the course, with many of them opening up their own studios. If you want to join them and learn the skills you need to start tattooing full time faster…

Click here to learn more about the Artist Accelerator Program.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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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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