As a new tattoo artist, it can be hard to come up with your own tattoo designs. That’s why most tattoo artists practice drawing designs by more experienced artists before coming up with their own.
When you draw designs by professional tattoo artists, it’s easier to see what looks good in a tattoo, instead of trying to figure it out alone.
To help, we’ve broken this process of modeling professional tattoo artists into three drawing exercises:
In this article, we’ll walk through each step so you can start creating your own unique designs, faster.
Exercise 1: Recreating Other Tattoo Artists
To start, you’ll want to pick a design by another tattoo artist that you want to recreate. Without tracing, you’ll want to try and draw the image exactly as you see it.
Avoid Designs That Have Already Been Tattooed
We do not recommend using designs that have already been tattooed as reference images. Because the designs are tattooed on a 3D surface, the image you’re seeing is slightly warped. If your drawing is warped, and then you try to wrap it onto a body part, it will warp the design even more. Instead, it’s best to practice with original tattoo drawings.
Pick One Style
When you’re at this stage, we recommend picking one specific style and one good tattoo artist that you want to emulate. Sticking to one style and one (or two) artists will narrow your focus and allow you to get good at one type of tattoo instead of stretching yourself too thin and not improving at all.
Especially if you’re new to drawing, we recommend learning the Traditional tattoo style. You’ll have no problem finding references, and it is a 2D style so you don’t have to worry about realistic shading or different line weights.
As you copy several of these designs, you’ll start to build up your knowledge of tattoo designs to the point that you won’t have to look at a reference to draw a traditional rose, swallow, dagger, etc.
Practice With a Tattoo Machine
Tracing can help you practice tattooing as well. When you start tattooing, you’ll be following a stencil on your fake skin the same way you follow the design beneath your tracing paper.
That’s why this is a great time to work on keeping your hand stable while you do your line work. Many aspiring artists will attach a tattoo machine to their pencil. This lets you get used to the weight and build up your strength for when you start using tattoo machines for hours on end. (You can also use this method when you practice shading techniques or on colored pencils.)
Building Muscle Memory with Basic Drawing Exercises
To see faster improvement, you can build up muscle memory by doing the exact same movements you’ll be doing while actually tattooing a client. Practice drawing straight lines and doing other basic drawing exercises like circles, curved lines, and small boxes.
Many aspiring tattoo artists find that doing these drawing exercises on paper first and then repeating them on synthetic skin makes it easier to feel confident in their tattooing skills.
Practice Drawing Exercises on Real Skin with a Marker
To practice on real skin, some artists will put stencils on themself or a friend and trace it with a non toxic marker. This will help you get used to drawing lines on curving body parts.
Exercise 2: Adapt Other Artists’ Work
Now that you have a better understanding of tattoo design, it’s time to use your own creativity. You’ll still work with reference images, but you’ll change bits and pieces of it using your knowledge of tattoo design to create your own unique work.
You can also take different pieces from different tattoos as inspiration. The videos above will show you what this process looks like in real time as our instructor, Brandon, creates two new tattoo designs.
You Will Still “Adapt” Designs as a Professional Tattoo Artist
As a professional tattoo artist, you will use these techniques all the time. You won’t always have hours to create a completely new design from scratch. Instead, you’ll be able to grab one of your old designs and change pieces of it to create a custom tattoo for your client.
Additionally, you’ll have plenty of clients come in with a design drawn by another tattoo artist they found online. A lot of the time, they’ll say they want that exact design.In this case, it’s best to let them know that you won’t steal another artist’s work, but that you can make something very similar for them. (The exceptions to this are very simple tattoos like small infinity signs or a symbol, where changing the design would change the meaning.)
Using Adaptations to Build Confidence as a New Tattoo Artist
Many tattoo artists will also use this technique to ensure that the tattoos they do on human skin will look good.If they’re struggling to create designs that look great from scratch, basing a design off of one they know looks good because a more experienced artist made it will make sure their client is happy with their tattoo.
Don’t Copy When Taking Inspiration
If you use another artist’s work to make your own tattoo design, it must be different enough that it does not “match” the original. Basically, the original artist shouldn’t be able to look at it and think “That’s my design” because you’ve changed it too much to be recognizable.
Exercise 3: Creating Your Own Tattoo Designs
*Images from the Tattooing 101 Sketchbook
Using your knowledge from the previous drawing exercises, it’s time to create a design from scratch with no references sitting in front of you. (The only exception to this is realism.)
Presenting Original Designs to Clients
Once you have an original pencil drawing, you can go through and create a polished final version to present to clients or place in your portfolio. To learn how to do that and what tools to use, visit our “How to Create Tattoo Flash” article.
How to Find Clients With Your Tattoo Designs
Posting the drawings you create during each of these exercises on social media can help you “pre-build” a client list.
Instead of waiting until you know how to tattoo, people will see your drawing skills grow overtime and become fans of your work. This means when you enter the tattooing industry, you’ll already have clients, which is a huge part of getting your career off the ground.
Buying Tattoo Designs to Own
While it’s fine to practice with other artists’ work, posting their designs on your social media without their permission is considered stealing. It can even affect your chances of getting a tattoo apprenticeship or a job in a tattoo shop.
You either have to adapt the design enough to turn it into a new tattoo, or you have to get permission from the original artist to use their design (which is very hard to do).
Instead, we recommend buying designs that will then belong to you. That way, you can use them as practice or for tattoo stencils, and still post your work to grow your audience (the people who will become your future clients).
Take Your Tattooing to the Next Level with Professional Designs That Belong to YOU
As a new tattoo artist, simple tattoos are the best place to start to build your skills. However, as you move forward, you’ll need to be able to design larger, more intricate tattoos for your clients.
To do that, you’ll need to know how to draw with the flow of the muscles - and make sure your designs fit on the body without it wrapping too far around and overlapping. Without the right fit and flow, your tattoos will look awkward and limit your earning potential as a tattoo artist.
However, learning to draw with flow takes most artists years of trial and error…
And it can be really hard to wrap your head around when you’re just starting out. The best way to get the hang of it fast is to look at references of other artists’ work and see how they did it so you can replicate it in your own work.
As you practice drawing and tattooing those professional designs, you’ll naturally learn how to create designs that have flow.
That’s why we created the Tattooing 101 Sketch Book.
Inside, you’ll find 74 tattoo designs drawn for you by our professional tattoo artists. You can use them to inspire your own designs - or you can stencil them up and start tattooing right away.
Instead of hoping another tattoo artist doesn’t see that you’re practicing with their designs, you can rest assured that these are 100% for you to use however you like.
When you draw the designs inside or use them as tattoo stencils, you’ll get used to creating designs with flow, which means you’ll be able to draw tattoos that always look good on the body. If you would like to get your hands on a digital copy of 74 pro designs…Click here to get your copy of the Tattooing 101 Sketchbook.