How to Make Realism & Neo Traditional Hand Stencils

Your stencil gives you a guideline to follow while you’re tattooing. While tattoo artists use a stencil machine to save time, most new artists make stencils by hand to practice their design beforehand and improve their work. 

How you make a stencil for a tattoo depends on which style you’re tattooing. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to create a stencil for a Realism tattoo, as well as a Neo Traditional tattoo so you can see the difference in technique.

We’ll break down how to:

  • Block out shading in a realism stencil
  • Create different line weights on a hand stencil
  • Make sure you’re getting the best materials to create stencils

How to Hand Stencil Realism vs. Neo Traditional Tattoo Designs

Get the Right Materials

To create a stencil, you’ll need:

We recommend buying this directly from a tattoo supply company. There are a lot of fakes on Amazon, so it’s difficult to tell if you actually got the right thing.



We recommend using a ballpoint pen (like BIC) to create your stencil. For example, you could use a thick 1.6mm pen to represent your thick round liner and 0.7mm pen to do any thinner lines in the design. This will make it easier to know where to put different line weights when you’re tattooing.


Tattoo Design

The style of tattoo you’re doing will affect how you make a stencil:

Neo Traditional design: This can be a copy of a design you drew on paper or something you’ve printed from a design on Procreate. Your design should be printed on regular printer paper. It’s best if it’s only the linework.

Realism stencil: Print off a black and white version of whatever you’re tattooing. You do not need to draw a realistic design. Your stencil will be more accurate if you work directly from a photograph because you’ll be adding the shading to the stencil.

How to Make a Realism Stencil

While you can reuse stencil sheets multiple times, this is not recommended for realism. Instead, start with a clean sheet, get your smaller size pen, and put on a pair of gloves to keep from getting the dark purple carbon all over you. 

Additionally, you want to make sure you have a very clear picture to work with. If your image is pixelated or fuzzy, it’s going to be very hard to know where everything is supposed to go. 


For most realism designs, you’ll only need very limited linework. Most of the time, lines represent where your shading will have a crisp ending (but not necessarily a line). You may also need lines for details like eyelashes. 

Everything else on your stencil will be dots and little dashes to show different areas where shading needs to be.

Pro Tip:

If you’re first starting out with realism, stay away from doing photos of actual people. Doing pieces of faces on fake skin gives you a margin of error - one mistake isn’t going to change the entire design. If you do a person’s face (like in a family member’s portrait), small mistakes can make it look like a completely different person.


Once you have all your hard lines down, you’ll want to go through the design and add dashes to mark where you’ll put your shading. 

We recommend using a system like dashes for dark shading and a dotted line for light shading. This will let you map out your tones, so that when you make a stencil it is clear where everything goes.


As a tattoo artist, you don’t need to actually draw every realism design from scratch. Your job is to trace the original photo and then shade it in appropriately. The best way to practice this is to trace a design and shade it in with your drawing pencils. This will help you learn how to do realism more than trying to sit for hours making an exact copy of a picture.  

How to Make a Neo Traditional Stencil

To make a Neo Traditional stencil, you’ll want to use your larger BIC pen to go over all of the main outline. Skip over any lines that will be thinner, because you’ll go back to them with the smaller pen. For example, the veins in the leaves will be thinner than the outline of the leaf itself.

With some designs, like a rose, you don’t have to stay perfectly on the line. A small mistake won’t be noticeable. However, if you’re doing something with straight lines like a dagger, you want to make sure you’re using a ruler to get them perfect. If the lines aren’t perfect on your stencil, they will not be perfect in the tattoo. 

Once you are done with all the thick lines, go through with your thinner pen and add in details.

Pro Tip:

Use a different color pen for your thick and thin lines. If you use black for both, it can be difficult to see the difference while you’re stenciling.

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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