Figure out how to fix common problems in shading techniques, which needles to use while building up layers, and our best grey wash tips, as well as the difference between “whip” and “pendulum” shading.

Tattoo Shading Techniques: How to Shade Tattoos for Beginners

In a tattoo, shading is what creates depth by blending black ink out to skin tone. A tattoo without proper shading techniques will look flat.

If your tattoo 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.

To help, in this article, we’ll break down:

  • The 3 shading techniques every tattoo artist needs to know
  • How to fix common shading mistakes
  • Which tattoo needles and machines to use
  • Why your black and gray tattoos are healing lighter than they “should”
  • How to make your own gray wash

Tattoo Shading Techniques Tutorial

The 3 Tattoo Shading Techniques Tattoo Artists Use Every Day

The three most common tattoo shading techniques are based on the type of movement the tattoo artist makes when putting ink in the skin.

1

Packing

tattoo machine moving in a circular motion
  • What it does: Lets you create solid fills in areas with darker shading.
  • How to do it: Move the tattoo needle in tight oval motions over the skin. (Some tattoo artists prefer to say “circular motion”). 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.

Note

Use larger mags to cover a big space. Slow your work speed as well as your tattoo machine speed to really pack the ink into the skin.

Pro Tip: Don't "Hop Around" While Shading

While you shade 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.

2

Whip Shading

tattoo machine showing the whip shading process
  • 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. 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 tattoo 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.

Fading Out to Skin Tone Using Whip Shading

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

Do not press too hard in the skin. The mag should go into the skin at the correct needle 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. This will make the shading effect even in all directions as you blend out to skin tone.

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.

Advanced Technique: Stipple Shading

stipple shading tattoo
tattoo artist stipple shading a tattoo

Stipple shading uses the same hand motion as whip shading. However, instead of using magnum needles, you’ll be using a round liner. 

By making your tattoo machine voltage lower and moving your hands faster, the tattoo needle won’t have enough time to create a line, and you’ll instead have several ink deposits that look like tiny dots in the skin.

3

Pendulum Shading

brush shading technique
  • 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 tattoo ink, then more ink, and then less ink again. This leaves a smooth gradient in the skin with “feathered edges.”

Note 

Used with mags. The lines you create with this method need to overlap slightly to make sure there’s no patchy, empty space.

Fading Out to Skin Tone Using Pendulum Shading

To feather out the shading, you’ll use the same motion with a lighter gray wash (~3 drops black) to build off the darker shading.

Advanced Technique: Brush Shading

Brush shading uses the same motion as the pendulum shading technique, but you only go very lightly into the skin. Tattoo artists use brush shading to build up more subtle tones and add finishing touches.

Pro Tip:

You can also practice shading effects by creating a pencil drawing of your tattoo design.

Common Tattoo Shading Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)

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 techniques for shading

PROBLEM 1

Your circles (or ovals) are too large, leaving empty space between the circles. Keep your ovals tight and tiny.

tattoo artists get darker shading with slower movements

PROBLEM 2

You’re moving the needle too quickly. Circular motions should be slower to pack in the ink

angle tattoo machines with mag needles to protect natural skin

PROBLEM 3

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.

PROBLEM 4

Go a little bit darker than you think with gray wash. 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 gray washes 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.

The Best Tattoo Needles, Machines, and Inks for Shading

Having the right equipment will make it easier to learn the right shading techniques.

Tattoo Shading Needles Recommendation

Needle Type

magnum tattoo needles diagram

M2 STACKED MAG

Stacked magnum needles allow tattoo artists to pack black ink quickly (great for tribal tattoos). Needles are tighter and make sharper edges.

curved magnum tattoo needles

M1C CURVED MAG

Curved magnum needles are great for softer shading like portrait work. The curved edges leave you with soft shades without hard lines at the edges.

Digram

3RL THIN LINER

A thin liner is great for stipple shading, and it can help you fill in fine details like eyes, lashes, brows, and nostrils. 

RS ROUND SHADER

Round shaders can help you when shading in tight corners or other small areas.

Why Magnum Needles are Our #1 Choice for Shading a Tattoo

We recommend using magnum needles for your shading for almost all tattoo styles. Magnum needles allow you to cover the most amount of space in a single pass, which can keep you from causing too much trauma to the skin. A good rule of thumb is to use the largest mag the tattoo design will allow. This will save you time and make your shading look more even.

Round shader needles can help you pack ink into tight corners when you’re shading a tattoo, if needed. However as you become a more experienced tattoo artist, you will be able to tilt your magnum needles to get into those corners without going outside your tattoo outline.

Choosing the Right Diameter for Your Shading Process

Diameter

Bugpin
(#08/#10, 0.25 - 0.3mm)

Soft portrait work. Easier on the skin, allowing you to build up layers.

Standard
(#12, 0.35mm)

Better for solid black due to its larger (more even) coverage over a bigger space.

Most experienced tattoo artists will use “standard” needles or “bugpin” needles. Bugpin needles are a little bit thinner, which means they can create more intricate shading and produce smoother blends. However, you’ll move at a slower speed because less ink is getting into the client’s skin.

Standard needles, on the other hand, pack more ink into the skin so you get even coverage quickly. They work well for most tattoo styles.

Tattoo Machine Recommendations for Shading

When shading a tattoo, you’ll often crosshatch, or you might need to build up shades over multiple passes if you’re trying to get super smooth blends for a portrait tattoo. This means it’s important to avoid causing too much trauma to the skin with just one pass.

Use a Machine with a Shorter Stroke: 3.0mm-3.5mm

Because of this, you’ll want to use a shorter machine stroke for the shading process. A 3.5mm stroke is good for shading or even a 3.0mm stroke if you want to get super soft black and gray.

Some tattoo machines will allow you to change the stroke. However, many tattoo machines come with a “set stroke.” If you buy a set stroke machine, we recommend going with a 3.5mm stroke, since that can help you get both lining and shading practice.

Our Artists’ Favorite Machine

The tattoo artists at Tattooing 101 recommend the Inkjecta Flite Nano. It’s a rotary machine, which means it is easy to start tattooing without having to learn how to tune a machine and you can get multiple cam wheels, which makes it easy to change the stroke back and forth.

Best Tattoo Ink for Shading

Our artists’ favorite brands are Solid Ink, Intenze, and Fusion. 

Specifically for packing and creating large areas of solid black ink, we recommend using Dynamic Triple Black. This ink expands in the skin over time, which means it can fill in tiny inconsistencies in your shading after you’re done tattooing.

Using Gray Wash

There are two ways to get gray wash. You can either buy it in sets specifically made to help you shade tattoos, or you can make your own. If you aren't sure where to start, begin with these four caps:

You’ll want to use the largest size ink caps when using these measurements, and you’ll want an ink cap of just 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 use this to smooth out shades).

Best Fake Skin for Shading Practice

Before tattooing on human skin, we recommend practicing each of the tattoo shading techniques on a high-quality fake skin like ReelSkin or Pound of Flesh. Some artists prefer “actual skin” and will tattoo on pork belly, just keep in mind that this is quickly perishable.

Pro Tip:

To get excess ink off your fake skin, use lots of extra Vaseline.

Become a Tattoo Artist with the Artist Accelerator Program

Learning how to shade a tattoo is an important/exciting 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 straightforward 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
AUTHOR
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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  1. Thank you! This is so awesome. I’ve been an artist my entire life & recently was given tattoo equipment. This new median is amazing and I am in love with the emails, hints and the online program. Thanks for being here! You rock 🙂

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