Tattoo Design Techniques: Advice for Artists

As a beginner tattoo artist, it can be hard to go from a blank page to a complete design. On top of that, it’s even more challenging to draw something that not only looks good on paper, but actually looks good on someone’s body

Knowing the best practices when designing a tattoo will not only improve the quality of your work, but they will also make you more efficient and reduce artist’s block when you don’t know what to draw. 

By the end of this article, you’ll know how to get past the blank page and build a solid design. 

In this article, we’re breaking down:

  • How to find reference photos, pick color palettes, and add depth to your tattoo designs.
  • How to sketch in layers both on paper and on an iPad so you can create unique designs while still pulling inspiration from other artists.
  • Design “rules” and other considerations while designing tattoos.

How to Design a Tattoo

There are two different ways to design a tattoo. You can either:

  • Draw it out on paper
  • Design it digitally 

Note:

Most of the time, you’ll want to create a unique design for each client. However, tattoo flash designs are simple tattoos that can be tattooed over and over again.

Whether you’re drawing on paper or digitally, you’ll still need to go through the same 3 steps. 

1

Choose Reference Photos

Finding good reference photos will help you start brainstorming as you put your ideas together. They’ll also give you something to start with when you actually start drawing. 

Reference photos are especially important for styles like realism. For example, while you might be able to draw a great tiger from memory, it’ll look better if you’re tracing a good reference image. 

How to Find Good Reference Photos

Use Pinterest and Copyright-Free Photography Sites Instead of Google

Google.com search results for “tiger.”

Unsplash.com search results for “tiger.”

Google isn’t the best place to find images. You’ll end up getting a lot of the same ones over and over again, and they tend to be low resolution. Pinterest tends to have pictures more suited to tattoos, and clicking on images with the “vibe” you’re looking for will guide your search. Even if that’s not the image you want to use, it will help the search engine refine your results. 

Using copyright-free sites like unsplash.com, pixabay.com, and pexels.com will help you find high-resolution images that you don’t have to pay to use.

Choose the Right Search Terms

Knowing how to ask a search engine for what you actually need will help you find reference photos more easily. For example, you might want a picture of a woman’s face for a tattoo. But what you actually need is an image of a woman’s face - at a good angle and with great lighting. Searching “portrait photography” or “woman portrait” will get you much better results than something like “woman’s face.”

Search results for “woman’s face”:

reference for portrait tattoo

Search results for “portrait photography”:

black and white reference for portrait tattoo

Know the Difference Between Good and Bad Reference Images

High-resolution, real-life images won’t be the answer for every tattoo reference photo. For example, if you want to do a rose in the traditional tattoo style, you probably wouldn’t want to look at a real rose for your design. You would need to look at other tattoo designs

However, when using other tattoos as inspiration, you’ll need to redraw the image to avoid plagiarism and any distortion in the design that happens from it already being tattooed on a person. 

Here’s an example of why you don’t want to trace tattoos that are already on other people. 

Batman neo traditional tattoos

2

classic tattoo style

American Traditional Style

Neo Traditional Tattoo Style

Realistic Tattoos

New School Tattoo Style

classic tattoo style

American Traditional Style

Neo Traditional Tattoo Style

Realistic Tattoos

New School Tattoo Style

classic tattoo style

American Traditional Style

Neo Traditional Tattoo Style

Realistic Tattoos

New School Tattoo Style

What style you want the tattoo to be will make a huge difference in how you go about designing it. For example, American traditional tattoos use thick bold lines and a very limited color palette, while realism has no lines and can feature any colors found in a real-life photo.

3

Pick a Color Palette

traditional tattoo style
neo traditional tattoos
japanese tattoo style

Which colors you choose to use in your tattoo design will partially depend on the style you’re designing in. If your design is in the American Traditional style, you’ll want to stick with red, yellow, green, and black. If you’re doing a new school or Japanese piece, you can use bright and bold colors. And if you’re doing realism, your color palette will be dictated by what your subject looks like in real life

Note:

If you’re having a hard time creating a color palette, you can use Adobe Color for free to generate and adjust custom palettes.

Design Technique #1: Hand-Drawing Your Tattoo Design

We recommend drawing in layers. This gives you several opportunities to refine your work and get comfortable with your design before tattooing it.

Layer 1: Define basic shapes

On your first sheet of tracing paper, start sketching out the basic shapes that make up your image. This will give you a good foundation for the rest of your design. We recommend using Strathmore tracing paper and a graphite pencil.

Layer 2: Create your sketch

Still on your first sheet of tracing paper, start building your design (still in pencil). At this point, you can decide which elements you want to include - or erase ones you don’t.

Layer 3: Strong line work

On a new sheet of tracing paper, trace the pencil sketch using a dark marker to tighten up your drawing and make clear outlines. Make a photocopy of this paper to use for a stencil. 

Layer 4: Add color

On a thicker sheet of paper, you’ll create your final draft. (We recommend using a light box.) If your piece includes shading or color, you’ll add it in this last step. Be sure to stick to the color palette that best suits the style of your tattoo. 

If you’re coloring with watercolor, we recommend using Arches watercolor paper. If you’re coloring with Copic markers, use digital photo paper to keep the colors from bleeding into one another. And if you’re using pencils, use a high-GSM drawing paper (Strathmore brand is recommended). 

Choose a reference photo.

Layer 1: Define basic shapes in your design

Layer 2: Create a sketch with more specific details.

Layer 3: Strong line work on a new sheet of tracing paper. Make a photocopy to use as your stencil.

Layer 4: Use a light box to trace your final design onto thicker paper. Add color and shading.

Note:

Even if you’re working with a tattoo style like American Traditional that is famous for specific designs (like this Sailor Jerry Rose), you can still make it your own by adding in your own details and elements.

Each of these layers can be different layers of tracing paper or white paper. This avoids having any sketch lines on the final piece you’d show a client or put in a flash sheet. 

Note:

Struggle with drawing? Check out our guide to learning to draw tattoos fast in How to Tattoo for Beginners.

Design Technique #2: Digital Tattoo Design

Even when you’re drawing digitally, it’s still best to work in layers. However, you can just import reference photos instead of drawing them yourself. 

In this image, for example, each of the elements adapted from photos would be on a different “layer” in Photoshop or Procreate, allowing them to overlap. You can then use a stock image of a body part to make a “mock-up” of the tattoo to make sure it fits well on the body.

blackwork tattoo style on arm

*Image from Tattooing 101’s Artist Accelerator Program.

Pro Tip:

If you’re new to working digitally, try designing a black and grey tattoo first. You’ll need to erase everything in your reference photo except the element you want to keep, desaturate it to turn it black and white, bump up the contrast, and then use the multiply tool to let any white parts show up as skin tone.  

Note:

Photoshop has a pretty steep learning curve. A full breakdown of how to use Photoshop as a tattoo artist can be found in the “Get Digital” module of the Artist Accelerator Program.

Tattoo Design Rules

Tattooing is an art form, so there aren’t many rules when it comes to tattoo designs. However, if you follow these guidelines, your tattoo designs will look much better on the body.

Include a Foreground, Middleground, and Background

Unless you’re specifically going for a traditional or a “sticker” look, you’ll want your tattoo design to look layered. This will give your design more depth on the skin.

Note:

If you want to create a natural transition, you can make it look like your background is fading out at the edges (see swan tattoo).

Heads Face In and Forward

chart of skull tattoos for tattoo artists

If you have a person or animal in your design, they should always be facing in toward the body’s center line (if they’re on the torso) or forward (if they’re on the sides of the body). 

Designs Need to Fit and Flow with the Body

When you’re drawing a tattoo design, it needs to fit with the body and flow with the muscles’ structure beneath the skin to look right. (That’s why creating a design that fills up a rectangular piece of paper will look strange on a person’s leg.)

This is such an important topic, we wrote a whole article about it. If you want our best tips for designing for the body, check out How to Draw Tattoos

Note:

Putting it all together is easier said than done. But as you learn more of the rules and guidelines to different tattoo styles, designing will become easier.

Design Techniques to Consider:

Contrast: Skin Tone

Your client’s skin tone will play a role in how you design a tattoo. It is going to be more difficult to create contrast against darker skin tones, which means you’ll need to pack in more black and use thicker lines in those designs. 

You can create more contrast on clients with very fair skin. And because they tend to stay out of the sun, you can get away with tattooing smaller and more intricate designs that would normally get ruined by too much sun exposure.

Color: Aging

If you’ve heard the term “bold will hold” it’s because tattoos fade with age...which means dark colors will last while lighter colors won’t. 

Line: Aging (Part 2)

script tattoo styl

As tattoos age, they expand just a bit. This is most noticeable in linework or details like the teeth in a skull. If you put your lines too close together and they expand, your client could end up with a tattoo that looks like a blob on their skin. You’ll want to make sure your design is big enough to hold up over time. 

Note:

Choosing the right line weight in a design is also a major part of making sure a design is readable, even years later.

Negative Space: Skin Breaks

A “skin break” is just part of the design where there is no ink. This stops the tattoo from looking super “heavy” or “busy” on the skin. 

A good rule of thumb is to leave a skin break big enough that it could be shaded with a 7 mag. Ink expands under the skin, and after a few years, any lines you tattooed will be thicker. Without enough space between them, the lines will eventually run together and they won’t be legible (see Technique 3 above).

Detail: Placement

tribal tattoos on calf
tribal tattoos on a person’s back

The placement of the tattoo will determine how much detail you can include. If you’re tattooing a small area of the body (calf, wrist, etc.) you have way less room than if you are tattooing a back piece. Because of this, you have to keep small designs very simple (or else all the details will blur together as mentioned above). On areas with more room, you have the space to include more details. 

Discover Tattoo Design with the Artist Accelerator Program.

work by tattoo artists

Understanding and using design techniques is only the first step to building a tattooing career.

However, trying to find all the information you need can be time consuming and lead to incorrect or even unsafe habits. 

That’s why we created the world’s first and largest online education platform. Tattooing 101’s Artist Accelerator Program not only gives you all the up-to-date information you need in one place, it gives you access to an active online community of students and professional tattoo artists who offer feedback, encouragement, and advice.

Inside the program, you’ll find everything you need to learn how to tattoo - at your own pace, and in the comfort of your own home.

Our professional tattoo artist instructors have helped over 2500 aspiring artists break into the tattooing industry, with many of them going on to open their own shops. Join our students and go from beginner to professional tattoo artist in as little as 90 days.

Useful Tattoo Design Articles:

Create Tattoo Flash Art in 5 Steps (Plus 25 Free Flash Designs!)

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How to Draw Tattoos

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6 Key Elements That Make The Perfect Tattoo

December 28, 2012

When it comes to tattoos, everyone is hoping for the perfect execution.  ...

6 Key Elements That Make The Perfect Tattoo

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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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