Tattoo Shading Techniques

The Basic Elements to Proper Tattoo Shading

The ability to do good shading is a skill that can really make a difference in the quality of a tattoo.  Tattoo artists spend years perfecting their shading skills in order to make their designs really stand out.  There are so many aspects that go into learning proper shading techniques, but there are some basics that every tattoo artist should learn early on.

  • The Machine – Tattoo machines that are set up for shading are similar to machines set up for lining, with a few variations. While you want direct hitting “zippy” machine to lay in solid lines, there are different ways to set up your shader. A more direct hit is better for packing in solid color and getting those nice whips, while a shallower stroke and softer hit is better for layering those buttery black and grays.
  • Speed – Speed is a common question we get here, and unfortunately there isn’t one answer for all machines and all body parts. Depending on where you’re tattooing and the type of work you’re doing you’ll be changing machine speed throughout the tattoo. Liners run at a consistent higher speed, while layering colors and grays will run a bit slower. Don’t let this sound too confusing, you’ll quickly get a feel for your particular machines and the way you tattoo and this will be second nature, just like tying your shoes or driving a car.
  • Preparing the Area – Shading takes place after outlining, and it is recommended to clean the entire area of the tattoo with soap and water.  This helps to get rid of excess ink left by the lining process, as well as to get off any stencil marks or sticky residue that have been left behind so you can make sure your line work is solid before starting to shade.
  • Black vs. Color – Black and solid color and laid in pretty much the same. Packing in black is done assertively with a repeating hand movement, just as solid color. I even run my traditional work this way and just whip out the ends to give that nice pepper shading effect. When layering color for those smooth blends you’ll run your machine slower, shallower, and relax your stretching hand to give a nice edge to lay your next color over. This is where your flash painting comes in handy as it’s nearly the exact same thing!
  • Techniques – There are multiple ways to get a shading effect on your artwork.  The perfect approach for one artist may not give the desired results to another.  It’s a good idea to learn a variety of techniques and then choose the one that is best for a given situation.
  • Black Before Coloring – Inks are generally added to a tattoo in order from darkest to lightest.  This means that shading is often the step right after outlining, even though logic might tell you that shading would be the last step.  This keeps the darker ink from muddying the lighter colors and requires you to do some advance planning.
  • Shader Bars – While some shading can be done with your round liners, most shading will be done with magnums (mags).  They include needles that are lined up in a flat row to cover more space in a single pass than a round liner.
  • Art Appreciation – Understanding the effects of light and shadow play an important part in good shading.  This is an area where it can be extremely helpful to take an art class.  You can possibly even write it off as a business expense!
  • Clean the Needles – …and the tubes, and the tips, etc.  Once you finish shading, you want to make sure that there is no black ink left anywhere that might be able to accidentally mix with the lighter colors you will be applying next.
  • Cover Up Work – Shading can be used as a method for covering up other work.  One example is using shading to hide where you added a line or element that was a mistake.  It is also used to cover up or modify older tattoos that someone regrets or wants to change for some reason.  Shading can be an effective tool for turning an unwanted design into something fresh and new.

Except in cases where there is little to no shading used as a method for developing desired contrast, shading creates a wonderful play of light on your designs and gives them the depth.  The 3-D feel really makes them pop.  When a tattoo artist isn’t particularly skilled in this area, the result is designs that are flat and don’t have much appeal.  This is why artists spend so much time and energy developing their abilities in this area.


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