Tattoo Shading for Beginners Tutorial

Shading is one of the fundamental skills of tattooing. However, a lot of new artists struggle to create smooth transitions from black to skin tone. 

Because shading is what creates depth, a tattoo without proper shading techniques will look flat.

To help, in this article we’ll be breaking down:

  • Multiple shading techniques (and when to use them)
  • How to transition between shades
  • When to use gray wash

Getting Started

In the video, Brandon chose to tattoo a flower. This is because flowers allow you to practice every shading technique just in a single tattoo. 

Other designs might require you to stick to one type of shading - either whip shading or pendulum shading, depending on the style. For example, if you're tattooing a traditional piece, you would want to stick with whip shading the whole way through to clearly see all the pepper shading in the tattoo.

Types of Shading

There are four different types of shading:



Also called “filling,” you move the mag in tight circles to completely fill the area. 

If you make your circles too big, you're going to be able to see the individual needle marks from the mag. So you want to keep them small and close together. Additionally, it’s important to keep a steady hand speed, since you’ll want to fill in the space completely the first time. Going over an area multiple times can cause problems with healing.


You'll use this method with tribal or any big, dark areas that you want to completely saturate.

Pro Tip:

Don’t use lining black for packing black ink. Lining black is made super thin on purpose to avoid having your lines widen over time. If you’re going to pack an area of black, make sure to get a black ink that’s meant for packing. It will be thicker and make it easier to pack.


Whip Shading

For this type of shading, you'll be putting the mag into the actual skin and whip it out in an ark motion. Increase your hand speed so the area starts dark and then transitions into lighter dots in the skin.


Pendulum Shading

Instead of just putting the needle in the skin and whipping forward, you'll instead use a brushing motion. This lets you slowly build up your tones using a back-and-forth motion. 

After that, you can turn your mag and continue the same motion in a different direction (this is called  cross hatching).

Cross Hatching

Cross hatching is not necessarily a shading method, but it is definitely a way to build up your shades.

Cross hatching in multiple directions will smooth out all the dots in the skin and build up more tone. 

For example, only going one way will leave all your dots a similar pattern. In the traditional style, you want to see those little dots to do pepper shading. Cross hatching, however, saturates the area a little bit more, allowing transitions to look more smooth and clean. 


Brush Shading

Also called “light shading” or “feather shading,” this method of shading is similar to pendulum shading, except you’ll barely go into the skin. You’re just lightly brushing

Brush shading works best in areas where you want a bit more shading - without it being super powerful.

Tattoo Using Each Shading Method

With each of these four different techniques, the most important part is your hand motion.  it's just a matter of how you're really moving with your hand.

Needle Recommendation

For this video, Brandon used an 11 curve mag. We recommend using curved mags when you are first starting out. Since they don’t have the sharp corners that normal mags have, you’re less likely to over work the skin. 

Brandon used standard needles for this design (not bugpins). If you're doing realism, black and gray, or want perfect transitions, you’ll want to use bugpins.

Shading a Flower

Step 1 | Packing

Start your shading by filling in areas that need to be completely black.

Step 2 | Whip Shading

With whip shading, you want to move from your black line to light, peppery dots. 

Do not press too hard in the skin. The mag should go into the skin at the correct depth, and then you work the needle up and out. That's what creates the different tones as you can see. 

Cross Hatching

After you’ve done whip shading in one direction, you can turn the mag to go another way.  

Begin Gray Wash

Dip the needle into your darkest gray wash (~6 drops black) and add extra shading in areas in the background that you want to be darker.

Step 3 | Pendulum Shading

To feather out the shading, it’s best to use the pendulum motion. For this, you’ll use a lighter gray wash (~3 drops black) to build off the darker shading.

Step 4 | Brush Shading

Brush shading uses the same motion as the pendulum shading, but you only go very lightly into the skin. This lets you build up more subtle tones and add finishing touches. 

Prepare for a Tattooing Career with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning when to use different 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.

Looking for a tattoo apprenticeship?

Tattooing 101's Artist Accelerator 90 day program is the closest thing to a real apprenticeship

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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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