The first time ink touches skin for a tattoo, it will almost certainly be for the outline. Occasionally a tattoo will be given without an outline, but this is fairly rare. The outline does many things, after all. It defines the image on the skin, giving contrast and shape. It draws the lines so that shading and coloring can happen later without worry that the stencil will have been washed away. Some tattoos take many sessions to complete, and no stencil will last long enough to allow for days of healing in between tattoo sessions.
The process of outlining, or simply “lining”, an image sounds simple on the surface. The ink is often black, and the linework is already on the skin via the stencil, and is waiting for the permanence of the needle. Not all lines are created equal, however, and not all lines are the same weight, or width. In fact, varying the weight of the line can be an excellent way to play with drama and effect. Using thicker, bolder lines for emphasis and smaller, more delicate lining for other areas can be part of executing a compelling design.
The weight varies based on the size of the needle being used. A seven liner will give a thicker line than a three liner, after all. The artist should determine in advance which lines should be outlined with which needle, since once the lining begins the skin will get quite messy with blood and ink.
Lining usually starts at the bottom of the piece. This is done for two reasons. First, since the heel of the hand needs to rest on the skin during the tattooing, it can sometimes smear the stencil depending on how well the stencil has set.
By starting at the bottom, the hand is only resting on unmarked or recently outlined skin, leaving the stencil free of pressure.
Second, the ink itself will need to be wiped off of the skin, as there will be excess during the tattooing. Removing this ink can also wipe away at the stencil over time.


Starting the Line
Now is the time to dip the needle into the ink. Make sure that the machine is off, and dip the needle in order to fill the reservoir. The ink in the reservoir will be enough to tattoo the skin for several seconds. It will need to be re-dipped into the ink regularly just like pens were many years ago. If the needle runs dry, it may still tattoo some residual ink from the skin and needle, but the line will not be as bold or as controlled as it needs to be.
Before applying the needles to the skin, press the foot pedal and start the machine. This is the final opportunity to test the machine before the actual tattooing begins. Run the needles briefly on sterile tissue to be sure that the needles aren’t spitting, and listen to the sound of the motor. Is it operating properly? Chances are the machine is in fine working order, but it is always better to test it before applying the needle to skin.
For the actual outline, be sure that the needles are running when they touch the flesh. Starting the needles when they are touching skin can cause them to bounce, which can injure the client and can also disturb the design by applying ink where it does not belong. Apply even pressure, and don’t press too hard at the start of the line. Too much pressure can leave too much ink at the start of the line, which is not only hard to wipe away, but can also permanently change the shape of the line.
The first few lines are very important. Not only do they begin to bring the design to life, but they provide their own feedback to the tattoo artist. If the lines do not look right, they can sometimes be worked on in order to correct them. If nothing else, their width and appearance can be made part of the design as the lines are corrected for the rest of the piece.
Some common issues an artist may have with lines:
  • The lines have gaps in them. When this happens, it is likely that there is a problem with the actual needle. The machine should be turned off, and the needle thoroughly inspected and possibly replaced.
  • The lines are faint. This problem is usually caused by the artist moving the needle too quickly, or occasionally by the needles moving too slowly. It can also be caused by how the skin is being stretched, or when the reservoir has run out of ink and needs to be re-dipped. Worn out needles could also be the cause.
  • The needle is snagging on the skin. When this happens, the machine may be running too slowly to allow a clean puncture of the skin. Adjusting the speed and ensuring that the skin is being stretched appropriately should solve this issue.
  • The lines are uneven and shaky. This could be the client or even the artist being a little shaky due to nerves. Sometimes it is the machine running too quickly; in this case, the power and speed can be adjusted lower.
There are some best practices that can help keep the lines neat and precise. Doing the entire length of a line in one full motion is the best way to make it look clean.
In order to achieve this, be sure that the ink reservoir is full before starting the line. If the line needs to be stopped part of the way though the line, be sure to apply a more gentle pressure at the end of the stroke as well as when the line is restarted.
This method will help to keep the level of ink entering the skin consistent, so there isn’t extra ink under the skin.
It may be necessary to make multiple passes over the same line in order to obtain the look and thickness desired. The machine should be doing most of the work, but even with the proper needles, extra strokes may be required. It’s important to be very precise and to take the time to make the lines blend together as one stroke. If the line is very thick, outlining the edges and then filling in the center of the line may be the best method.
Excess ink and blood will need to be wiped from the skin during the process of outlining. Even though the tattoo was begun at the bottom of the design, these fluids will travel and likely cause some smearing on the skin. Even if the design is tiny and does not require much wiping during the lining process, it will need to be cleaned after the lining is done and before the shading begins. Some artists use some green soap and sterile water, and other use plain water and sterile gauze to gently clean all of the excess ink and blood away so that they can take a good look at the completed outline.
When the skin is clean, the artist can take a look at his or her work to see if it is accurate and complete. It is unlikely that any lines were missed, but if they were, now is the time to go back and complete the design. Fortunately, tattoo artists are excellent visual artists, so filling in a missing line should be fairly easy. Occasionally, a line will need a touch up or the design may need to be adjusted slightly; again, the artist’s skills should be more than sufficient to complete this task.
Even if a mistake is hard to cover, the next step, shading, can do wonders to hide mistakes, and even to fix them. By blending the outline into the full design, they become less dramatic and even mistakes can become part of the fully realized image.
A Few Tips for Outlining
Before you begin a new line, fill the ink tube. If you are able to avoid having to stop in the middle of a line to refill, you are likely to get a smoother result.
  • Along those same lines, do your best to create lines in one single motion, constantly moving forward at an even pace until you get to the end of the line or must refill your tip.
  • Make sure you are using new needles that you have inspected for burrs, pits, bends, etc. Your lines are only as good as the needles you use to create them.
  • Keep your pressure even from the beginning to the end of the line. Some newer artists have a tendency to press down too hard at the very beginning of the line, which results in a blob of ink that is difficult to conceal in the final piece.
  • Move from the beginning of the line to the end, rather than trying to draw it from the middle out. Make sure you only move your machine sideways or forward, never backward.
When you feel you have completed the outline part of your design, it’s time to give it an inspection. Wipe away any remaining stencil by washing the tattoo gently with soap, water, and a clean towel. At this point, you may see a line that has been missed or one that you’d like to improve with a quick touchup. Now is the time to make these corrections before moving on to shading and coloring.
Building Up Thicker Lines
In order to get lines to the proper thickness, as well as to help make them smoother in appearance, you may want to “build up” your lines. This means that rather than doing a single pass to create your line, you choose to make multiple passes very close together.
Let’s say that you are going to build up a horizontal line in three passes. First you might want to create the top of the line. On the next pass, you will create another line slightly below this one. On the third pass, you come back and fill in the gap that was left between. It is recommended to use a smaller needle group to outline both edges of the thick line first, then move over to a larger needle group to fill in the middle area.
Typically speaking, the built-up lines tend to stay sharper for a lot longer than the one-pass lines.
They also allow a little leeway for the artist. Getting a perfectly straight line in a single pass is not easy to do, so the building-up method provides a little room to tweak the line as you go along.
There will be times when you don’t want an actual outline to appear on the final tattoo, but you still need a guide to follow for your shading or coloring. In these cases, you might consider using what is known as a “bloodline.”
This technique utilizes the needles without dipping them into any ink. You still want to wet them in order to provide lubrication. Some artists choose to simply use distilled water, while others go for a solution of water and alcohol or water and witch hazel.
You then use the needle to create a temporary line on the client’s skin, tracing over the lines of your stencil. The line appears red due to the blood, which is how the technique got its name. When the tattoo heals, the bloodline will disappear. Artists use this trick in order to make more realistic versions of smoke or water and to give themselves a guideline on where two colors should meet, such as in an American flag.
Some artists will also add just a very small amount of gray in their bloodlines. Whatever your approach, it’s a good idea to only do bloodlines for as much of the tattoo as you expect to be able to finish in that particular setting.
Making Straight Lines
Getting your lines to come out straight is something that takes a lot of time and practice. Really, practice is the ONLY way you are able to improve any of your skills. Even those artists who have been tattooing professionally for years can struggle with straight lines. After all, you have a lot of things working against you.
  • The human body is not a flat surface
  • You are working with a vibrating machine
  • Your hand may shake due to nerves, fatigue, or basic human physiology
Spending time practicing your straight lines is time well invested in improving the overall quality of your work. In addition, you can use a few “tricks” to help with the overall look of your straight lines.
One approach is to include less straight lines in your design. This, of course, depends on your personal style and the client’s vision for his final piece, but it can be done in many cases. Those who choose a more “illustrated” or “cartoony” style, for example, can get away with using more rounded edges rather than having to have nice straight lines that form perfect angles when they meet up in corners.

In addition to using the technique of building your lines that was described above, you can also create a thin bloodline or gray line first, too. Put that line down on the skin and then go back over it with your liner, using the first pass as a guide. Just remember that you don’t want to overwork the client’s skin.

Some artists will tell you that putting down a bloodline or gray line first is not “right” and that a good artist will be able to do a straight one-pass line. Like pretty much everything else in tattooing, there are lots of opinions on what is the correct way to do something. In the end, though, if your tattoo looks good and heals properly, does it really matter whether you did your line in one pass or two?

Becoming good at straight lines in a single
pass is something you can definitely strive
to achieve, but it’s not going to happen
immediately, so having other techniques
to get what you desire is just a good idea.

If your lines are not turning out straight despite your best efforts, you might want to consider whether your machine or needles need an adjustment, or if you or the client need a break.