How to Shade American Traditional Tattoos

American Traditional tattoos use bold shading to create depth and make sure a tattoo holds up well on the skin overtime.

Being able to shade traditional tattoos correctly will allow you to tattoo designs that have that “classic” style to them that customers love.

Traditional shading usually relies on only using black ink to create a “peppery” look. To help you master this well-known style, in this article, we’ll be breaking down:

  • How to set up gray wash for traditional tattooing
  • Which needles to use while shading
  • How to create American Traditional “pepper shading”

How to Do Traditional-Style Shading


Set Up Your Gray Wash

Traditional style shading does not use the soft transitions you see in black and gray or realism. Instead, it transitions from black shading to skin tone using “pepper shading.”

Because you won’t be relying on several different tones of gray wash, you’ll only need three ink caps:

  • Solid black ink
  • 6 drops black + distilled water (or witch hazel)*
  • 3 drops black + distilled water (or witch hazel)*

While we do recommend having these gray wash mixes on hand, you don’t have to use them. You can do traditional shading with only black ink. 

*These measurements are for the largest size ink caps. If you use smaller ink caps, you will need to adjust how much black ink you use.


Pick the Right Needles

Tattoo Needle Diameter

For traditional tattoos, we recommend using standards (12-gauge tattoo needles). Using bugpins will make your shading too smooth and you won’t be able to get the “gritty” pepper shading effect that makes a great traditional tattoo.


Use “Whip Shading” Technique for Transitions

After dipping into your black ink, you’ll want your hand motion to be similar to the “whip shading” technique. That means putting your needle into the fake skin and then quickly moving the needle up and out of the skin in a slight “arch” motion.

As your needle moves out of the skin, your hand will be moving quickly enough that there will be small spaces between each “down” motion of the needle. This makes your shading look like little peppery dots in the skin.

Because the “whip” motion causes the dots to be further apart as you go, you can transition from the dots being close together (making “dark” shading) to the dots being farther apart (making “light” shading).

Cross Hatching

Angle your needle in different directions to crosshatch your shading.

This will fill in areas of the skin and let you get smoother transitions while still looking like pepper shading. However, you don’t want it to get so smooth that it looks like a perfect gray wash. This will take away from the American Traditional style.

How Far to Transition Your Shading

In some areas, you're going to want very short transitions, and in other areas, you’ll want to draw it out. 

This will take some practice, since it’s a very different technique to drawing with a pencil. Just start out in smaller areas until you get comfortable. Then you can start dragging it out pretty far in the design.


Even if your Traditional tattoo is only going to be in black and gray, you’ll want to shade it the exact same way you would for a color tattoo.

“Push” the Needle Instead of “Pull”

With whip shading, you don’t want to go backwards by pulling the machine in toward your body. It feels much more natural to push the needle away from yourself. (It also makes it easier to create smooth transitions.)

However, in some areas you won’t have a choice. You can’t move your clients the way you can flip around a fake skin. But in any area possible, we recommend “pushing” the needle instead of pulling it.

Background Should Be Darker

When you’re shading, anything in the background is going to be darker, and anything in the foreground is going to be lighter. If you shade everything dark, it will all blend together.

For example, in the sample tattoo design, you wouldn’t shade the flower to be all black because it would blend in with the dark background leaves. Instead, you’ll shade the petals to be lighter so they stand out from the background (see image above).

Control the Needle to Avoid Gaps Between Linework and Shading

If you’re going to be shading out from a line (as seen in the wings of the sample design), you’ll want to make sure you know exactly where the needles are going into the skin. Your needle should line up perfectly with the line so you don’t end up with a small gap between your shading and your linework. 

A lot of beginners make the mistake of lining up the end of their cartridge with the linework, and not the actual needle inside the cartridge. Because there’s a tiny space between the cartridge and the needle, that space shows up in the skin.


Use a “Packing” Motion for Straight Black Shading 

If you have an area that needs straight black shading, you can pack the ink into the skin using tight circles. 

Then, when you get to the area that needs to be transitioned out to skin tone, you can move back to the whip shading motion.


Use Gray Wash, if Needed

If you want your transitions to look a little smoother - and to keep some areas from appearing too bright - you can use some of the lighter gray wash. You don’t want it to be overpowering. Keep your whip shading very light and quick so it doesn’t get oversaturated. 

Learn to Tattoo at Home

basics of tattoo art
techniques for applying tattoos
butterfly body art

While getting the fundamentals of traditional tattooing is an important part of your journey, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what you need to know as a tattoo artist.

In the past, learning to tattoo in an apprenticeship was a full-time, unpaid job, which kept many talented artists locked out of the industry.

Today, full-time teachers, restaurant and construction workers, parents, and more are learning to tattoo at home, on their own time with the Artist Accelerator Program

The program’s easy-to-follow, 9-step framework guides you through all the information you need to know to become a tattoo artist, and our online Mastermind community gives you support and feedback on your art and tattoos from professionals in the industry.

Over 2500 students have used our proven framework to break into the tattoo industry, with many of them leaving their old jobs to tattoo in shops all around the world, or even open up their own studios.

If you want to see the framework they used to get their dream jobs…

Click here to check out the Artist Accelerator Program

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

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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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