How to Shade a Tattoo

Three Methods:Preparing to Shade a TattooPlanning the TattooShading a Tattoo

Good shading can make a huge difference in the quality of the tattoo. It can help cover up mistakes, or add a fresh three dimensional look. Many people take years to perfect their shading ability, so don’t expect to learn a few days. However, if you are interested in an overview of how shading is done and the techniques used to accomplish the task…you’ve come to the right place!

Method 1
Preparing to Shade a Tattoo

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    Practice with paint or pencil. Shading is an artistic endeavor - no instructions will be able to duplicate the confidence you'll gain by trying to shade yourself. Shading a tattoo is not so much different from shading a still life. Try to become comfortable shading off body, even if you are already an accomplished artist.
    • Practice with pressure. Pressing hard versus pressing lightly can have dramatically different effects, so you should get a feel for this ahead of time.
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    Practice tattooing on a pork belly. Pigs make good human analogues and you can buy a pork belly at a local grocery store or even online. This way you can get a feel for how much pressure to use and what type of strokes to use without worrying about permanently marking a human's skin just yet.
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    Choose an appropriate tattoo machine and needle size. You’ll use larger gauge needles for bigger shading areas and smaller gauge needles for smaller areas. Ensure that the needle is protruding no more than one millimeter for the purposes of shading.[1]
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    Consider the speed on your tattoo machine. Most tattoo artists recommend that you choose a faster setting for shading[2] because they think it helps make the tattoos look smoother. This is a personal preference, so try both ways.
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    Prepare the area. Clean the entire area with soap and water, especially if you have already done the lining. Make sure that you have gotten rid of any stencil marks, sticky residue, or grease that will get in the way of your shading process.

Method 2
Planning the Tattoo

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    Plan the tattoo accordingly. Always discuss with your customer how they want their tattoo to appear. Even if they say they trust you, it’s always good business to keep them in the loop on the decision-making process.
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    Consider light and shadow. You need to consider that light and shadow will play into each individual tattoo if you want to successfully shade. Shading a tattoo is as much about art as it is about technique. Ask your client to describe the hypothetical lighting of the tattoo.[3]
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    Plan ahead. Your hypothetical light source should always be the same throughout the course of your shading. You don’t want the shadow to be incongruous. If the top part of an arm is lit up, then the bottom part should be darker. If you're using colors, try to shade with complementary colors. Grab a color wheel and find a complementary color to the one you used for lining. This will make the tattoo really pop.
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    Draw a sketch for the customer. The customer will want to have an idea of what the tattoo is going to look like and it will also help you figure out exactly how to draw it. Try a few practice sketches to get it right.

Method 3
Shading a Tattoo

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    Fire up your tattoo machine. Ensure that you are using a machine that is appropriate to the tattoo and a needle size that will fit the work that you are doing. Address the speed on the tattoo machine as well. Many tattoo artists recommend a higher speed for shading than normal lining.
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    Leave time between lining and shading.[4]You don’t want to go straight from your line work to shading. Although it is possible to wait fifteen minutes or so for the tattoo to dry, most artists prefer to do the shading in a separate session than the lining. Not only will this make your job as the tattoo artist easier, but it will also give the customer a chance to think over how they want their shading done.
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    Work in a circular motion. Start with the darker areas of the tattoo and then move out in a circular motion to the lighter areas. Remember that the darker areas are going to require more pressure than the lighter areas. This takes a lot of feel, so you’ll have to practice. [5]
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    Change the depth of the shade by adjusting the weight of your technique. Essentially, your brushwork should be heavy to light. You want to add more pressure to produce the darker areas and reduce pressure as you move to a lighter area. You don’t want the gradients to look obvious, so try to make this transition very smooth. [6]
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    Change the ink capacity in the needle mouth as you move forward. This is a slightly more time consuming method. However, it helps if you aren’t comfortable with your ability to produce a gradient simply by managing the pressure you apply with the needle. If that is the case then changing the ink capacity is another option.
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    Dilute the ink. This is another strategy. Dip your needle in distilled water to dilute the black pigment into a gray pigment. This is helpful because you don’t have to change needles as you move through the tattoo. As you apply the ink, tilt the needle in a circular manner to blend the tones of the tattoo effectively. This will apply a different amount of ink and contribute to the shading.[7]
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    Clean the needles as you go. You want to make sure that the darker ink is completely gone from the needle before you move onto shading lighter areas. Neglecting to clean your needles could seriously mess up your shading.
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    Cover up previous work if necessary. Shading is a great time to cover up any mistakes that you or a previous tattoo artist has made. You can even shade over previous shading mistakes. Follow the same techniques.
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    Remove all unnecessary ink. If there is any unnecessary ink on the surface after you have finished the tattoo, take it off. You need to be able to examine your work. You may notice some inconsistencies in your work, in which case you need to go back in and fix it up. Alter the shading to address any inconsistencies in that specific tattoo.


  • Take your time.
  • Practice a lot. Shading is more about art than specific directions.
  • Consider taking an art class on shading. Taking an art class will help you get comfortable with the basics.

Article Info

Categories: Tattoos and Piercing