Realism Tattoo Tutorial for Beginners

Realism tattoos try to perfectly recreate a photograph on someone’s skin. It is the most popular tattoo style in the world. Being able to tattoo realism can boost your earning potential as a tattoo artist. 

However, it’s also one of the hardest styles to get right because of all the detail.

In this article, we’ll break down how to create realism tattoos by discussing:

  • Which materials you need
  • How to set up your tattoo machine for realism
  • How to build up layers with your shading to create depth and smooth transitions

Realistic Eye Tutorial

Realism Tattoo Materials

Here’s what you need to get started tattooing realism:

Stencil

Make sure to let your stencil dry for a long time. (We recommend letting it dry overnight.) It’s very difficult to tattoo realism if your stencil rubs away.

However, you obviously can’t dry a stencil on a client overnight. That’s why it’s important to work from the bottom corner of your design. This will make it less likely that you’ll smudge the stencil with your hand because you’ll only be touching places you’ve already tattooed.

Remember to put a thin layer of Vaseline over your stencil to protect it while you work. Vaseline also helps clean your fake skin later.

Reference Photos

Keep your stencil nearby so you can see where you originally placed the shading. We recommend having multiple references (one normal, one lightened, and one darkened in Procreate) so you can more easily see where the light and dark areas of the tattoo are.

Note:

If you let your stencil dry for a long time, you’ll still be able to see the stencil after you’re done working. You can use a little bit of bleach, if needed, to help get the stencil off.

Needles 

For this realistic eye tattoo, we recommend the following needles:

  • 1011CM
  • 1015CM
  • 1007RS
  • 1007RL

The mags will be used for pendulum shading around the eye, while the round shader and round liner will be used in the eye and for eyelashes.

Ink

For your gray wash, we recommend the following measurements:

  • Solid black
  • 6 drops
  • 3 drops
  • 1 drop
  • Plain distilled water

You can also add three drops of white ink to your three gray washes. This can help smooth out all the tones in your tattoo. 

If this were on human skin, we’d recommend using 8 drops, 6 drops, and 3 drops for your gray wash measurements. However, ink goes into fake skin darker than normal skin. Because of this, we recommend using the lighter gray washes listed above.

Tattoo Machine

We recommend using a short (2.9-3mm) stroke for this tattoo. It’s very difficult to get smooth blends with a long stroke like a 4mm.

In the video, Brandon is running his machine (an Axys Valhalla) on 8.5v.

Note:

Which voltage you need will depend a lot on your hand speed. The main thing you want to think about is slowing down your machine from where you would normally have it. This makes sure you don’t overwork the skin while building up your layers. 

The Realism Tattoo Process

Realism tattoos require you to build up layers of shading in the skin.

1015CM

Use this needle to block in some of the bigger areas and set up your shading. Once you know where you need to start building up tones, you can go over those areas so they get darker over time. Skip areas that will remain light. 

Building up your tones by lightly going over the area multiple times will make your transitions look more smooth. Make sure to keep your hand speed slow. To “feather out” the edges of an area of shading, dip your needle into your lightest shade of gray wash and your water cap to get a super light tone.

Pro Tip:

You get better transitions with a bigger mag. If your transitions don’t look smooth, change back to your larger mag needle and feather out your edges. 

1011CM

You can hang your needle out a bit further to make sure you have good control over where the ink is going into the skin. With this smaller needle, you’ll continue to build up tones. You’ll want to keep everything light and avoid any type of “packing” motion.

Try to avoid filling all the shading in on your first pass. The goal is to map out all the shading. Then, you can go back in and continue to build up your tones and smooth out your transitions.

To avoid smearing the stencil, remember to work on the bottom areas of the tattoo first. 

Note:

Throughout the tattoo, you may switch back and forth between your needles. For example, in the video, Brandon uses a curved mag both before and after using his round shader. 

Pro Tip:

Alternate between using darker and lighter gray washes to get your shading to its perfect tone and create depth in the tattoo.

Cross Hatching

Cross hatching will allow your blends to look smoother. By shading in different directions, you’ll fill in any gaps, which will make your transitions less noticeable.

Note:

It’s always better to go too light instead of too dark. Stay on the lighter side and then go back in and add more shading if necessary.

1007RS

Some areas are too difficult to get into with a mag needle, so you can use a round shader instead to make sure the ink goes exactly where you want it. 

In areas where you need to pack in ink, remember to hold your machine at an angle so the needles overlap. This will make sure you get a good fill.

In realism, you might need to make “lines,” but they will need to be softer than what you can do with a round liner. This is why you can use a round shader to create soft linework. You can also make a soft line and then smooth it out with a mag later on.

Note:

Even though you have your stencil, make sure you’re looking back at your reference photos. This will make sure your shading is as dark/light as it should be without trying to work from memory.

Pro Tip:

Don’t look at the design as a whole. Instead, focus on little areas at a time to break down the image and make it easier to work with.  

1007RL

While realism tattoos are mostly shading, you can use a small round liner to add in details and make sure they pop. However, you should only use a liner when you absolutely need it. If you use it too much, you’ll lose the realistic look. 

For example, in the video, Brandon only uses a round liner to add eyelashes and to emphasize small details in the eye.

Healing

With real skin, the tattoo will heal lighter. However, in fake skin, the tattoo will not lighten up over time.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning to tattoo realism is an exciting 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?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

  • 500 video modules
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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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