How to Pack Color Into a Tattoo

Being able to correctly pack color is what brings a color tattoo to life. Without the right techniques for packing and blending out colors, your tattoos will look pale and patchy.

To help, our Lead Instructor, Nathan, filmed a full tutorial to help you pack color like a pro.

In this article, we’ll be breaking down:

  • How to pack color correctly
  • How to blend out colors to skin tone
  • How to make sure your colors stay vibrant in the skin

Materials

Machine

For this tutorial, we used the Inkjecta Flite Nano, set at a 3.5mm stroke. That is what we normally use for color packing (we’d drop down to a 3mm stroke for black and gray, and go up to a 4mm stroke for line work). 

For the depth, we like to float the needle, even when color packing because it gives you more visibility. 

We ran the machine at 10 volts.

Note:

A lot of people think that you can tattoo really fast if you just turn up the volts. This is not recommended. If you’re not super confident yet and you turn the volts up super high, it becomes much easier to overwork the skin.

Needles

In this video, we’re using TTech needles, which are standard (12-gauge) needles. On standards the sharps on the needles are thicker, and they put bigger holes in the skin. That means they will pack the ink in a lot faster, which is what you want for color packing. (In our shading tutorial, we used 10-gauge Kwadrons.)

We prefer straight mags over curved mags for color; it feels like we’re able to cover more ground.

We used a 7 Round Shader for the white highlights.

Inks

In this video, we used black, red, green, yellow, and three caps of Foundation Flesh by Fusion Ink. 

Foundation Flesh is the closest color you can get to actual skin tone. So, when you whip your colors out and then you mix a little bit of that color with foundation flesh, it’ll blend nicely to skin tone. 

For our black ink, we’re using Power Black by Fusion. This is different from a lining black. Lining black is very thin, and it doesn’t thicken as much over time. However, shading black will expand out into the skin as the tattoo ages. (You never want to use shading black for lining because it will spread and make your lines super thick.)

Because the ink “expands,” if you have any tiny gaps in your packing, the ink will expand to fill them in.

Note:

This isn’t a “silver bullet” for shading. The expanding effect is minimal, and it won’t fix patching shading. However, if there’s tiny imperfections in your work, shading black will cover it over time.

Warm Up Exercises

Packing

To pack ink into the skin, all you have to do is move in really tight oval formations. If you’re too loose, you won’t get a solid color; you’ll only get a tint of that color. 

Make sure that you’re not moving side to side when you’re doing your ovals, or that will slice the skin (all the sharps will line up and slice across). Instead, you’re going to want to go diagonally up and down. That will give you a solid fill, but it won’t slice up the skin.

Crosshatching

If you are moving up and to the right every time, and then you change direction and go the other way, you’ll fill in the gaps that are left by the needles when they’re going up and down and hitting the skin. This is why crosshatching will give you more consistent fills.

Blending to Skin Tone

To blend your colors, you want to whip the color out a little bit on the edge of your packed area. The more whipped out it is, the easier it will be to blend to another color. 

Once you’ve whipped the color out and there’s almost no ink in the needle (in this case, there’s almost no red ink left), you want to pinch the needles with a paper towel to get out the rest of the ink. Then, you can dip into the Foundation Flesh. You’ll see the color start to mix. Pinch the needles in the paper towel again, and then dip back into the Foundation Flesh again.

For this example, the combination of the red and Foundation Flesh will make a very light red (not quite pink). While it might look pink when it’s just coming out of the tube, it will just look like a brighter red in the skin.

When you’re mixing with Foundation Flesh, you’re getting closer and closer to skin tone, so it gets easier and easier to fade it out to the actual skin tone. 

After this, you’ll pinch the needles again in the paper towel, dip into the Foundation Flesh a little bit longer. When you start to pack the color, you’ll see that none of the red is left, and you’re only left with the cream color. On skin, this will look like you’ve blended it out perfectly to skin tone.

Blending with Water

A lot of beginners won’t use Foundation Flesh, and instead try to dilute their colors with water. They think if they flick their diluted color out, that the blend will be nice and smooth, but this doesn’t work. 

Either you can whip it out and leave it (the traditional, peppery look) or blend it out with Foundation Flesh for a perfect transition to skin.

Blending Color Combinations

When blending colors, you’ll do the same process. If you’re blending red to yellow or red to purple, it’s a very similar process. 

For example, you would pack in solid red, and then whip it out. You can think of the area that is whipped out as if it’s at “50% opacity.” Because of this, when you put another color over the top of that, you’ll still see the red, but you’ll also see a bit of the color that you just packed over the top of that whipped out section.

Layering Colors

Like with blending, you put a darker color down first at a lower level of “opacity,” and then you put another color over the top. 

However, you need to be careful with this. Layering works great if you do it in the right order. A darker color will always show through a lighter color when the tattoo is healed - but not when it’s fresh. 

When it’s fresh, you can put a light color over a dark color and it’ll cover it. This is why cover ups look great when they’re fresh, but when it heals, the old tattoo shows right back up again. For example, if you tattoo red and then tattoo a lighter color over that, the red is always going to show through.

So when you do your layers and you’re putting your first colors down, just lightly brush them into the skin. Think of the skin almost like a container. It can only handle so much pigment. So, when you whip a color out, it’s “50% full.” Then, when you pack ink into the skin, it’s 100% full. You can’t add any ink over the top of it, unless it’s a darker color and it covers the color underneath.

However, if you only whip the color out a little bit and you’ve only filled the skin 50% full of pigment, and you put a lighter color over that, the two will mix.

Rose Tattoo

Step 1: Vaseline

Put a small amount of Vaseline over the tattoo. You don’t need much because you can still clog your mags with Vaseline.

Step 2: Black Ink

Technique: Feathered Edges

If you want to get a natural, feathered edge to your shading, we recommend using the corner of the mag. This means that one edge will be super sharp and completely filled in (in most cases, you’ll want this edge up against your linework), while the other side will be feathered because the needles are at different depths in the skin.

Then, when you change the direction of the mag (crosshatch) and start whipping out, it will give you a nice, even fade out. 

You don’t always have to push the needles into the skin super deep. When you want to get really light fades - or even just a transition - you can lightly brush them across the top of the skin.

Reminder: Don’t Overdo the Black

It’s great to have areas of black shading in the tattoo, because it helps it age better. Additionally, every tattoo you do has to have a little bit of black in it to give it contrast and make the colors pop more.

However, if you put too much, the tattoo ends up being very dark. Because of this, instead of having a ton of solid black, we recommend just having a little bit whipped out.

That way, when you put the colors over the top, it’ll still darken the areas that you want to have a little darker, but it won’t be overpowering and make the tattoo way too dark. If you put too much black in, you’ll run out of space to blend it out to skin tone.

Add Darker Tones to Things that are Further From the Eye

If you’re brand new to tattooing and art, and you don’t have a ton of drawing experience, a good rule of thumb of where to put your darker tones is to add shading to items at the “back” of the drawing. 

Making those areas darker and the things at the “front” of the drawing lighter, will give your image depth.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a great start. For example, if you’re tattooing petals like the ones in this example, you would add shading to show which parts are furthest away from the eye, or where one petal is under another.

Hang Out Your Needles to See What You’re Doing

We recommend having your needles out fairly deep so you can float the needle. This lets you see what you’re doing, and when you dab, you’ll be able to get rid of all the excess ink. If you have your needles set very shallow, as soon as they touch the skin, ink will dump everywhere, and you’ll have to wipe the tattoo a lot more, which adds extra time to the tattoo.

If you float the needle, though, you’ll have to manually set the depth. Use your ring and pinky finger to set the depth and keep your middle finger connected right beneath the cartridge to keep it nice and steady. From there, you just rock the machine back and forth.

Note:

You’re not moving the machine with your thumb and forefinger. Instead, you’re almost “pushing” your elbow and just pivoting on the fingers that are setting the depth.

“Brush” the Skin with Your Needles

To get smooth blends, you can crosshatch your whip shading, making sure to lightly brush across the skin. This will keep you from fully saturating the skin with black ink while still getting a smooth transition. 

In this tattoo, we didn’t pack any black ink. Instead, we recommend using this lighter brushing motion to create a darker shade of the color without drowning it out.

Note:

When you’re whipping out black or your colors, you want to get it as smooth as you can. However, when you are packing color and blending colors, you’ll find it’s a bit more forgiving. Even if your transition isn’t perfect, you can hide a lot of it when you put the color over the top. While you want to aim for a perfect transition, you do get a bit more wiggle room with color in terms of getting your transitions to be super smooth.

Step 3: Color

Pick the Right Mag for the Job

Normally, you want to use the biggest mag that the tattoo allows. However, it’s sometimes faster to use a smaller mag when you’ve got lots of intricate, tiny spaces. If you’re using a huge mag, you’ll constantly have to maneuver it and use the corners. This increases the chance that mistakes are going to be made and you’re not going to get super smooth, clean fills. 

For example, we only used an 11 mag for this tattoo. It’s big enough to cover a lot of ground, but it’s also small enough that you’re able to move through small areas very quickly.

Green

In this tattoo, we packed green right over the black. So instead of solid black fading out to green, it just looks like a darker green toward the base of the leaf. It might not be visible straight away when it's fresh, but as it heals, the black is darker than the green, and it will show through. 

To further “fade” the color out, you can do the same thing with the black ink. By lightly brushing the green, you leave “space” to put the lighter green over top of that. Doing this will make a nice, even transition toward the end of the leaf all the way to skin tone.

Note:

A lot of Traditional artists will just whip out the green and fade it out to skin tone. However, if you want to go through and make perfect blends, you can blend it out with Foundation Flesh.

Pro Tip:

Always do your dark colors first. In this tattoo, you’d want to do green first, then dark red, then light green, then light red. If you tattoo the red first and then wipe green over it, it’ll completely mess up the red.

Dab Instead of Wipe

When you’re doing color, it’s always best to dab with your paper towel than wipe. It keeps things a lot more visible.

Shading and Packing Does Not Require 3 Points of Contact

We always recommend using 3 Points of Contact while you’re lining to keep your hands steady. However, you don’t have to do this while shading or packing because you need your hand to be loose, especially when you’re going for lighter shades and need to expand the size of your ovals. 

Making the ovals larger will cover more ground and put less ink over a wider area.

Red

Because red is darker than light green, we’ll move to the petals before finishing the leaves.

Change Paper Towels When You Change Colors

It’s important when you’re switching colors to change your paper towel (especially if the previous color is darker). For example, if you have green ink on your paper towel and wipe that over your red ink, it will stain it. 

So when you change colors, change your paper towel and rinse your needles out (we recommend double-rinsing).

Use Negative Space

Remember to use negative space to keep dark areas from blending together.

Avoid Rotating the Skin

Try not to rotate the fake skin too much. Instead, practice being able to do different angles that you’re not comfortable with. When you start tattooing people, you won’t be able to flip them around, and you’ll need to be able to work with some uncomfortable angles. 

Use a Machine with a Harder Hit

It’s easier to get the color into the skin if you have a machine with a bit of a harder hit. 

Foundation Flesh

Mixing your colors with Foundation Flesh will help you keep them nice and light.

Tattooing Darker Colors Next to Lighter Colors 

When you’ve got a lighter color and you need to go back and do a dark one next to it, you can put a bunch of Vaseline over the lighter color to protect it. This way, if you get any ink on it, the ink won’t seep in and you’ll be able to just wipe it right off. 

Have Separate Foundation Flesh Ink Caps for Different Colors

Make sure you’ve got a separate ink cap of Foundation Flesh for each color that you dip into it. Because it’s a very light color, it’s easily tainted. For example, if you used both red and green in the same ink cap of Foundation Flesh, it would mess up the colors.

Light Green

You can pack lighter colors over darker colors you’ve whipped out to get nice, smooth transitions (like the light green over darker green).

Mixing With Foundation Flesh Maintains Vibrancy

When you mix a color like green with a white or a black, it mutes it out. Whereas, if you want your colors to look nice and rich, if you mix them with Foundation Flesh, then they’ll maintain their vibrancy. 

This is especially useful for New School and styles where you want to make your colors super bright and have them pop. 

How to Get Colors to Gradually Lighten

When you’re mixing colors with Foundation Flesh, every time you dip into the Foundation Flesh, the color gets lighter. You can use this to your advantage and make new blends that are brighter and brighter as they move across.

Yellow

Yellow can be a tricky color to work with when you’re tattooing on people. As soon as the blood starts to come through, you’ll get all sorts of red spots through it, and it’ll be difficult to tell whether it’s in there solid. 

Make sure you take your time with it and trust that, if you see blood on the skin, then the ink’s already in there. You don’t want to keep going over it because that will overwork the skin.

White

Now that all the colors are done, it’s time to use white ink. You want to make sure that you pour the white at the very end of the tattoo because it dries much faster than all the other colors. If you pour it at the start, by the time you get to the end of the tattoo, it’ll be hardened enough that you won’t be able to use it, and it’ll just waste your ink. 

For this tattoo, we recommend doing the white highlights with a 12-gauge 7 Round Shader. 

Less is more when it comes to highlights, and you want to put them in the same way you would normal lines: slowly arc in and don’t push the needle in the full depth right away. Instead, start shallow and then slowly get deeper (this will make the line thicker). Then, as you tape out, the line gets thinner and you get a clean line. 

Don’t Use Steel Grips for White Ink

When you’re doing the highlights, don’t use a steel tip grip - always use a disposable grip. The metal filings from the needle filing against the tube will taint the white and it will go slightly gray. 

Using White Ink Over Colors
You can put white ink over a light color and the white will show through. However, if you put white over black ink, it’ll just get hidden again, or the black will just show through it when it heals.

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning to pack color 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.

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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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