Shading is what creates contrast in a tattoo and makes it “pop” on the skin.
If your shading looks choppy or is healing patchy, you won’t be able to get that strong contrast, and your tattoos will look faded and flat.
If you want to make your shading sharp and bold, you’re in the right place.
By the end of this article, you will know:
Most issues with black and gray come down to tiny changes in technique. Here’s the top mistakes new artists make, why they happen, and how to fix them:
Tattoo Healing Patchy or Uneven:
There are multiple reasons your tattoos could be healing patchy, though most of them will occur when using a circular motion with the needle (AKA “packing”):
Your circles (or ovals) are too large, leaving empty space between the circles. Keep your ovals tight and tiny.
You’re moving the needle too quickly. Circular motions should be slower to pack in the ink.
You’re not angling your mag. If the needle is straight when you’re moving it in an oval formation, all the needle barbs will line up and slick the skin like a razor blade (see the image left), leaving you with overworked skin and a patchy tattoo. This is not what you want.
Not making the tattoo dark enough:
Black and gray lightens up 30% when it is fully healed. This is especially true when you’re working on sensitive areas like ribs, inner bicep, or the back of the knee.
During the tattoo, blood seeps through the skin, making your lighter shades look much darker than they really are. This leads artists to put less ink into the skin, which causes their tattoos to fade much faster than a normal tattoo.
Using Wrong Stroke, Diameter, or Needle Type:
If you’re using the wrong needle or stroke on your tattoo machine while working on black and gray realism, you could be sacrificing the smoothness of your blends and causing patchy healing.
Build up layers in black and gray, allows for multiple passes without chewing out the client’s skin.
Pack in solid black tattoo ink.
Note: 3.5 Stroke
If you only have access to one tattoo machine, a 3.5 stroke will allow you to shade and pack in ink.
Soft portrait work. Easier on the skin, allowing you to build up layers.
Better for solid black and packing dark colors due to its larger (more even) coverage over a bigger space.
M2 Stacked Mag
Tribal and packing black ink quickly. Needles are tighter and make sharper lines.
M1C Curved Mag
Soft portrait work. Curved edges leave you with soft shades without hard lines at the edges.
3RL Thin Liner
Fine details like eyes, lashes, brows, and nostrils.
Keep Realism from Looking Like a Cartoon
While portraits and realistic images might look like they have hard edges, portraits are composed using only tattoo shading techniques.
Just like the human body has no "outlines", realism portraits have no true outline to them because they're representing a 3-D shape.
Tattoo Shading Techniques
The three most common tattoo shading techniques are based on the type of movement the tattoo artist makes when putting ink in the skin:
- What it does: Leaves you with a dark mark on the skin trailed by a lighter gradient.
- How to do it: Touch the tattoo needle into the skin at the proper depth. Then drag it across then gently flick the machine away from the skin.
- Why it works: The needles go deeper in the skin when you first hit it. As you gently flick the needles across and out of the skin, the needles won’t be in the skin as deep. The ink will appear lighter as the needles move out.
When moving the needle down, make sure you’re coming down straight with the tattoo machine. If you come in at an angle and then quickly switch to another angle to “whip” the needle back, you will cause damage to the skin.
If you’re not sure how far to go into the skin with your needle, check out our article: Needle Depth, Explained.
- What it does: Gives you a dark mark on the skin with lighter gradients on either side.
- How to do it: While swinging the tattoo machine back and forth, move the needle down at the center of the swing motion and up at the ends of the swing motion.
- Why it works: By moving gradually in and out of the skin, you gradually distribute less ink, then more ink, and then less ink again. This leaves a smooth gradient in the skin with “feathered edges.”
Many tattoo artists prefer to use mags for pendulum shading while they build up one thin layer after another. The lines you create with this method need to overlap slightly to make sure there’s no patchy, empty space.
- What it does: Lets you create solid fills.
- How to: Move the needle in tight oval motions over the skin. Make sure pressure on the needle is not heavier on one side of the needle.
- Why it works: Moving your needles in an oval motion covers more surface area and prevents gaps from appearing in your shading.
Use larger mags to cover a big space. Slow your work speed as well as your machine speed to really pack the ink into the skin.
Pro Tip: Don't "Hop Around" While Shading
While you're shading a tattoo, don't move from one area to another. Do all the shading in one area as you flow with the piece. Continually expand the shading of the area you're working on until the piece is filled.
Remember to wipe excess ink away with a clean paper towel while you work so you can make sure you’re not missing any areas.
Making Your Own Gray Wash
Having the right technique when you shade is critical. But without the right mixture of gray wash, your tattoo will either be too dark or so light that it will fade within a month or two.
This can be difficult to spot when you are tattooing because the blood in the skin makes gray wash look darker than it actually is. On average, gray wash will look 30% lighter when it heals. To prevent that from happening follow this simple formula when mixing your own gray wash (if you don't buy premade) to get the best result:
Gray wash will heal 30% lighter when it heals.
Gray Wash Measurements
There's an unlimited number of shades you can create with gray wash. If you aren't sure where to start, begin with these four caps:
- 1Full black
- 21/3 black, 2/3 with hazel
- 31 drop black, witch hazel
- 4Full witch hazel
The cap of plain witch hazel can be used to dilute the gray wash in the needle's tip to produce smoother blends and more shades of gray. (For example, if you need something a bit darker than the one drop ink, but lighter than the 1/3 full black cap, you could lighten some of the 1/3 mixture with witch hazel.)
Dip in the lightest wash then in the witch hazel to create ultra light shades to smooth out where the tattoo fades from ink to skin. This combination will be nearly invisible when healed. (Do not use in large areas; only us to smooth out shades).
Become a Professional Tattoo Artist with the Artist Accelerator Program
Learning proper tattoo shading techniques 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.