How to Set Up Your Gray Wash

Putting ink in your ink caps is a pretty straightforward process. However, when you’re working with gray wash, things can get confusing quickly. 

Unlike color ink, where you can see exactly what color you’re working with, most gray washes look exactly the same when they’re in your ink caps.

If you aren’t sure which gray wash you’re using, your shading could turn out too dark in some areas and too light in other areas, completely ruining your design.

If you don’t have a system to help you keep your gray washes in order, you’re in the right place.

In this article, we’ll be breaking down:

  • Where to find inspiration for custom script
  • How to draw your own script tattoos
  • Why adding gray wash to your designs is important

Using Gray Wash on Fake Skins vs. Real Skin

When it comes to tattooing on fake skins, the ink that you put in the fake skin is always going to be darker than it would be on actual human skin.

Because of this, your darkest gray wash will show up black on fake skins. When working with fake skins, we recommend leaving out your darkest gray wash. For example, if you have an ink cap of each of the following:
  • Black
  • Dark gray
  • Medium gray
  • Light gray

…You would leave the dark gray out. However, you will want to add it back in when you move onto real skin.

Safety Reminder: Working on Real Skin

Additionally, you need to make sure you’re tattooing in a sterile environment if you’re working on real skin. 

While this applies to all tattooing - and not just using gray wash - you need to make sure you have your Bloodborne Pathogens Certification, as well as knowledge on how to sterilize your equipment properly before moving from fake skin to real skin.

Setting Up Your Gray Wash


Wrap Your Table

If you’re using fake skins, there’s a good chance you’ll be working on a table. One trick to make sure your barriers aren’t sliding around everywhere is to put a little bit of water on the table before putting down your plastic wrap. 

If you’re using a massage table, this might not be a problem, because that material is more “grippy” than a wooden table.


Decide How Many Ink Caps You Need

How many ink caps you need will depend on what tattoo style you’re doing, as well as the design itself. 

In this article, we’ll be showing gray wash setups using three and five ink caps. However, some styles - like realism - will need more.


Secure Your Ink Caps with Vaseline

It’s very easy to accidentally move your ink caps (or even knock them over) if they are not secured to your workstation.

To avoid this problem, you can use a clean tongue depressor to make a line of Vaseline on your plastic barrier. You can then stick the ink caps into the Vaseline to get them to hold in place. 


Choose Your Ink

dynamic black ink
solid lining black
eternal ink gray wash set

Which ink you use will affect the quality of the tattoo.

You can use any black ink you like for gray wash, as long as you are buying from a reputable brand. For example, we recommend Dynamic ink for creating gray wash. 

We recommend finding a brand you like and sticking with it. While you might want to try new things every once in a while, it’s important to remain consistent with your gray wash so you know what each wash looks like in the skin, and you know how it heals up on a client. (This is why some artists like to buy premade gray wash - they know that it will look exactly the same every time.)


Do not buy tattoo ink off of Amazon. There are a lot of fake sellers who recreate the ink bottles and labels of popular brands for a cheaper price. Fake ink can cause harm to the skin, and mess up the skin’s healing process.


Make Your Gray Wash - the “Drop Method”

We recommend working right to left every single time so you always know which gray wash is which. If you set up your station differently for each tattoo, you’ll have a harder time remembering which gray washes are lighter or darker.


Remember to shake your ink bottles before pouring ink and to wrap your bottle of distilled water. 

Three Ink Caps: American Traditional and Color Tattoos

how to make gray wash

For traditional style tattoos, you want solid, bold lines and crisp shading. That means it’s important to be able to see the little dots your needles make while pepper shading. So you won’t need the lightest gray wash often. 

We also recommend using this setup for color, because you don’t need as many transitions with your black ink.

Five Ink Caps: Black and Gray Tattoos

gray wash recipe

For the measurements above, you’ll want to use the largest size ink caps you have. Using the same measurements in small ink caps will make every shade much darker because you’ll be using less witch hazel. 

After you add the right amount of black, fill the rest of the ink cap with witch hazel or distilled water. Do not use tap water, as it is not sterile.

Creating “In-Between” Tones

You can dip between two different gray washes to get an “in-between” tone. 

Additionally, you can dip into your ink cap of water to create super light transitions between gray washes.

Adding White to Your Gray Wash

While every artist has different preferences, some artists add white ink into their gray washes. Because the white mixes with the black (instead of clear water diluting the black), it gives an extra bit of gray tone to it. 

This means that the colors stay more true during the healing process. It doesn’t lighten up as much because there’s actual tones in the gray wash. For example, Brandon uses this type of gray wash for Neo Traditional tattoo designs because it creates a different effect than plain gray wash.

To add white ink, we recommend adding three drops of white to each ink cap (except your all-black and all-distilled water caps).

Learn to Tattoo Without an Apprenticeship

In the past, learning in the shop through an apprenticeship was the only way aspiring artists could learn to make and use gray wash correctly. Today, artists are skipping the apprenticeship to learn on their own time at home with the Artist Accelerator Program.

The world’s oldest and largest online tattoo course, the Artist Accelerator Program’s easy-to-follow, 9-step framework lets anyone go from complete beginner to professional tattoo artist without the year of grunt work or hazing. 

Inside the program, you’ll be taught everything you’d learn in a traditional apprenticeship by professional tattoo artists and receive feedback on your art and tattoos in the program’s private online Mastermind community.

Over 2500 students have used the Artist Accelerator Program’s 9-step framework to break into the tattoo industry, with many opening their own studios or working in shops around the world. 

If you’d like to see the framework they used, 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
  • Professional tattoo artist coaches
  • Private mastermind community
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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