If your shading looks choppy or is healing patchy and you don’t know why, changing your technique can set you on the path to smoother blends and perfect contrast.
In tattooing, black and gray realism is incredibly popular. But it is also highly competitive. Customers have a much higher standard today than they did just 20 years ago. If your shading’s not on point, you’ll struggle to keep up with your competition. And if you can’t compete, you’ll lose access to the massive group of customers who love black and gray. As a result, your earning potential as a professional tattoo artist will fall through the floor.
If your tattoos don't look as sharp and refined as your drawings, don't worry. With a few key changes to your tattoo shading techniques, you can massively improve your results almost immediately.
By the end of this article, you will understand:
When it comes to black and gray, the issues many artists face 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:
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 below), 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 skin.
Pack in solid black 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 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 only of shading. Just like the human body has no "outlines", realism portraits have no true outline to them because they're representing a 3-D shape.
The three most common 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 needle into the skin. 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.
- What it does: Gives you a dark mark on the skin with lighter gradients on either side.
- How to do it: While swinging the needle 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.”
Used with mags. 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. Instead, flow with the piece and continually expand the shading of the area you're working on until the piece is filled.
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).
Ready to Learn More About Tattooing?
Learning a few shading techniques and how to mix your own gray wash is a good start, but this article only scratches the surface of what’s required to create world-class black and gray tattoos. While you can learn a fair bit online, if you’re constantly scouring the internet for the information you need to get to the next level, it will slow your growth as a tattoo artist and make it almost impossible to reach your full potential.
If you want to be taken seriously for your tattooing and eventually open up your own shop or travel around the world doing guest spots, then Tattooing 101 can help. We are the world’s first and largest online education platform for tattooing. Through our flagship Artist Accelerator program, we help you refine your black and gray skills, develop your own unique style, teach you sanitization, show you how to get clients and so much more.
We have literally compressed everything that you would learn in a traditional tattooing apprenticeship into a proven 90-day blueprint. Join our students and go from complete beginner to professional tattoo artist in as little as 90 days.