5 Tips for Drawing Better Tattoos

There’s an old saying in tattooing that your ability to draw is the ceiling of your ability to tattoo. A lot of new tattoo artists think they need to be Leondardo da Vinci before they can ever pick up a tattoo machine, and they spend years practicing their art. 

The reason this doesn’t help them is because they’re drawing things that don’t help them get better as an artist in relation to tattooing

In this article, we’ll break down how to become a better artist for tattooing faster by:

  • Picking a style that will help you improve quickly
  • Learning from more experienced artists
  • Planning your drawings in advance

We recommend choosing either realism or traditional. 

Why Realism?

A lot of people would look at realism and say that it's super hard to do and it's super difficult. The reality is that all it is, is technique. And you don't have to be super creative to do realism, so if you find that you're staring at a blank page a lot of the time and you struggle to come up with ideas for drawing, realism might be for you because you're just copying references.

Realism also allows you to skip the process of learning how to draw proportions and perspective. It lets you focus on technique.

Also, if you learn how to do realism, no matter where you go in the world, you'll always have work. Realism is one of the most popular tattooing styles, and there's demand for it no matter where you go.

Why Traditional?

The good thing about traditional is that all the designs are ultra simplified, which makes them quite easy to draw. For someone that doesn't have a ton of drawing experience, figuring out how to draw traditional it's not a huge stretch. 

Most of the designs are quite flat, so again, you don't have to learn perspective and proportions and things like that. Additionally, there's not a ton of detail in them.


Neither of these styles is easy, so don’t get discouraged if it takes time to catch on. However, it is a good place to start if you're just beginning.

Tip 2: Don’t Draw Things From Scratch

When you're drawing hands, faces, portraits, realism, etc. - don't draw it from scratch. You want to trace a photograph. Drawing something as detailed as a portrait from scratch on a tattoo would take tons and tons of time, which is why most tattoo artists don't do it. 

Instead, the tattoo artist will take the photograph, trace it where all the detail and contours are, and then copy the image they traced the reference from. That's how they get the finished tattoo, and they do it in a single day.

It’s the same thing with hands. You don't need to learn how to draw hands from scratch because you can simply take a photo of your hand and put it on Procreate, or (if you don’t have an iPad) you can print it out and trace it. 

Tracing is a Time-Saver

This saves you all the time it takes to learn how to draw hands from memory. Because tattooing is a business, you don't always have time to spend 10 hours drawing a portrait or getting the hand positioning perfectly right for whatever it is you're drawing. Stuff like that is easier to trace. 

You don’t want to do a hard outline straight from the photo. Just use it to create a sketch, add in the details, and add your background. After everything is in place, that’s when you want to do the hard outline. 


Some people see tracing as cheating. But the reality is, it's just more efficient. The customer's not going to care if you can draw realism from scratch. Instead of building up the ability to draw these things from scratch, focus on being able to shade correctly. Once you can put the tones in the correct spots and make a realistic drawing look exactly like the photo, you are miles ahead of most tattoo artists.

Tip 3: Model What Works

If you have zero drawing experience, you can find a tattoo artist whose work that you admire and try to draw their designs without tracing them. 

Now, obviously you don't want to steal a bunch of their stuff and claim it as your own - that'll get you nowhere in tattooing. Just do this for your own personal use because it will help you build a foundation for your own work.

For example, if you pick a great Traditional artist and draw their tattoo designs, you’ll learn how to draw a bunch of different design elements like eagles, roses, and skulls. After drawing 50 or a 100 of them, you’ll no longer need a reference because you’ll have drawn so many of them. 

You'll also learn how to draw tattoos that flow with the shape of the body, what colors look good on what skin tones, and how to use background elements to create a good composition.

Why Modeling Other Artists Lets You Develop Your Own Style

Once you have that foundation, you can innovate because you know you have something to work from. When you just try and create your own style of tattooing and do something crazy that no one else has ever seen before, you’ll probably struggle because you've got nothing to build from.

Artists out there creating their own amazing styles didn’t start out doing that. Very few artists pick one thing and then continue with it through for the rest of their career.

Many artists change styles multiple times throughout their career - that's when they're building their foundation. When they get to where they are today, it’s because of the years of practice and iterating over and over until they found their style. 


Modeling other artists will allow you to draw much faster because you don’t have to constantly think up new designs to draw. Instead of trying to come up with new ideas, you’ll be able to pump out more designs. This means you’ll make more mistakes (and learn from them), faster.

Modeling Example

In this example, you can see how these images of other masks inspired the new piece. Using references like this will enable you to draw the design much quicker because you didn’t have to create it off the top of your head. 

Not only did it increase the quality of the drawing, it also gives you inspiration to work from without copying the references. 

Tip 4: Build Up Your Designs

When you’re drawing, you don't want to come in right away with a hard outline. Instead, you want to build your drawing up in layers. For the most part, you want to work with rough, loose shapes for the first layer of your drawing.

In the second layer, you’ll start to refine the sketch. Clean things up a little bit, straighten up your lines. At this point, you’ll know where all the dark lines are going to go. 

That way, by the time you get to the black line, you’re not guessing where anything is, and you’re basically just tracing the sketch beneath. 

If you don't have an iPad, you would use tracing paper instead of layers in Procreate. You just use one level of tracing paper for the rough sketch. Then you put another layer over the top to refine it. And then another layer and you get the hard outline. The hard outline is what you'd need to photocopy for the stencil.

Tip 5: Preparation - Know What You’re Drawing in Advance

A lot of artists will finish a drawing and then wonder “What do I do now?”

This keeps you from being as productive as you could be, which means you aren’t improving as quickly as possible. This is why it’s helpful to plan out your drawings in advance.

In the spreadsheet above, you can see each of the weeks within the month. Separating your time like this allows you to plan the design you want to do, whether or not it's color, the style that it's in, and links to references from Instagram. 

What Gets Measured Gets Managed

If you plan out a month in advance what you're going to draw, not only does it hold you accountable, it saves you a lot of messing around because you get all your references in batches. 

Because of this, you’ll be able to pump out designs much faster, which will be much more efficient. As the old saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. You'll be able to keep track of how frequently you're drawing, how much work you're producing, and track your progress over time.

Become a Tattoo Artist With the Artist Accelerator Program

student work from the Artist Accelerator tattoo artist training programs

Having a career in tattooing is not only fulfilling, but it’s also the most stable way to make a living as an artist. However, for decades, the process to become a tattoo artist has been notoriously difficult. 

The apprenticeship process requires aspiring tattoo artists to work 50-60 hours a week without pay for 2-4 years. That, combined with the toxic culture of abusing apprentices, makes getting into the industry almost impossible for newcomers. 

That’s why we created the Artist Accelerator Program. Our online course provides a simple, structured way of learning to tattoo that has been proven to work by over 2500 successful students, with many of them having gone on to open their own shops all around the world. 

Inside the program, we’ll take you through every step of the tattooing process in 9 clear, easy-to-follow modules and support you along the way within the Tattooing 101 Mastermind online community.

In the Mastermind group, you’ll collaborate with other students, get answers to your questions, and receive personalized video feedback on your artwork and tattoos from professional tattoo artists. With this friendly community of both new and experienced tattoo artists, you’ll never be stuck again. 

When you join the Artist Accelerator Program, you’ll have instant access to the full course and the Mastermind community, as well as our 30-Day Flash Challenge and recorded interviews with tattoo artists from all over the world. 

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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