How to Tattoo Black and Gray

Black and gray is one of the most popular tattoo styles in the world. Knowing how to create smooth shades using gray wash raises your earning potential as a tattoo artist and gives you the ability to add lots of depth to your designs.

However, using gray wash correctly can be difficult. It’s very easy to go too light or too dark.

To help you find the perfect balance, in this article we’ll be breaking down:

  • Which machines are best for black and gray
  • How to pick the right stroke
  • How to to smoothly move from dark to light shades

Machine Settings

In the video above, Brandon explains that his tattoo machine, an Inkjecta Flite Nano, is set up on a 3mm stroke. He’s also using the soft torsion bar so the machine has a lot of “give” to it.

A Machine with “Give”

When you're looking for a tattoo machine to do black and gray, you want to make sure that it has some “give” to it. You don't want it to be a direct-drive or a hard-hitting machine, because it can really overwork the skin.

For black and gray, you want to be using a machine with a short stroke. A shorter stroke means the machine will hit a little softer on the skin, which means you can make more passes to build up shades without causing too much trauma. 

Needle Recommendations

Which type of needle you use for black and gray depends on your preferences. However, we recommend using 10-gauge needles (these are called “Double Zeros” but most artists refer to them as “bugpins”). They’re smaller than standards, which means they leave really small dots in the skin. This allows you to create nice, smooth blends. 

We recommend using the following needles:

  • 1015CM
  • 1023CM

Which mag needles you use will depend on the size of the tattoo. You’ll need to make sure that you’re able to hold the mag the correct way while still being able to get up right next to your lines and in tight areas. 

If there's a huge area in one place and a small area in another, just pull out two mags. You'll be able to do the tattoo more efficiently and avoid overworking the skin with a smaller mag.

Tattooing Black and Gray

When you get to tattooing, here’s a couple of things to keep in mind:


Prepare the Skin with Vaseline

Put Vaseline down on the actual area before you go into it. It calms down the skin, makes it easier for the needles to go in, and helps you avoid over-traumatizing the skin. 


How to Make Your Own Gray Wash

When it comes to gray wash, you can either make your own or use gray wash sets.

Brandon’s Gray Wash Measurements

  • Undiluted black ink
  • 10 drops + distilled water 
  • 6 drops + distilled water
  • 3 drops + distilled water
  • Distilled water

If you want to copy the above method, make sure you're using the biggest ink caps that you can get. Different size ink caps will make each gray wash darker. For example, putting 10 drops of black in a small ink cap will fill it up all the way, leaving no room for water. 

Gray and Silver Tones

When making your gray wash, add four drops of white to each ink cap. This gives the gray wash a “cooler” effect on the skin and can completely transform the way the tattoo looks. 


Pendulum Shading is Best for Smooth Blends

While you might use a packing motion for areas where you need a solid shade, you’ll mostly want to stick to pendulum shading. This back-and-forth motion helps you build up all the tones you need to create a good black and gray tattoo.


Take it Slow

It takes a long time to do a black and gray tattoo. You want to start out really slow and light. 

You’ll barely touch the skin, building up your tones. It’s easy to accidentally pick up the pace and tattoo faster, so you’ll need to be mentally prepared to focus on going slow.


Shallow Needle Depth and Light Pressure

If you're going too far into the skin, and you can see that it's super-saturated when you first start out, your needle is going too deep in the skin. You want your hand pressure to be light and your needle depth to be shallow so you can build up shades without traumatizing the skin or causing issues with healing.

If you go in with too much pressure and overwork the skin immediately, you’ll have a hard time creating a good tattoo.


Practice on Skin You Can Watch Heal

Once you’re confident with your skills on fake skin and you’re ready to tattoo human skin, make sure to practice on yourself or on someone you’ll be able to see every day. (Or, at least someone who will send you a picture or video of their healing process every day.)

This way, you can see the healing process. For example, if you see that a tattoo you did is scabbing up a lot, you know that you’re overworking the skin and going too deep.

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning how to tattoo black and gray is an important 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
  • 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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