When we look at the world, we see more than the outlines of shapes. Even in a black and white photo, we see the way the light moves across people and objects through the shadows upon them. These shadows, in tattoo, are called shading. They make objects look three dimensional instead of flat, and quality shading is the hallmark of a professional tattoo artist.
Traditionally, the term shading refers to black applied to the tattoo in the interest of creating shadows and dimension. Some tattoo artists believe that using color to achieve the same effects is also shading, although this is a less common view.
The term coloring can be further confused because some artists see using any solid color in a tattoo, including black, to be coloring—not shading.
Ultimately, it is up to the apprentice to learn what the terminology used in his or her shop is, and to follow that lead when describing a tattoo. The words don’t change how the design is applied, but can matter quite a bit when understanding what application of ink is being requested. Every shop works a little bit differently, even though the basics are the same.
For the purposes of this course, however, shading will be discussed as black only.
It is also important to remember that there are as many ways to shade as there are artists. Again, the basics remain the same, but different techniques work best for different people. As long as the technique the artist adopts creates quality work and is safe for herself and the client, it is an excellent way to approach shading.
The Basics
Black ink is, of course, the darkest ink that will be applied to skin. It is added first because it completely covers any other color it is applied over. The more ink is applied to the skin, the more puncturing from the needles, and the greater the chance of excessive damage to the skin. Sometimes the same area of skin will need to be inked more than once, but this should be less common, and not a matter of habit.
Most artists use shader bars when they shade a tattoo. Clearly, this is how these needles received their name. They are specifically designed for shading work, and many artists find them to be the easiest way to shade, appreciating the control these needles give them. There are always different opinions, however; some artists use a liner or other needle for shading. Again, whatever results in the best design and is safe for the client is OK.


Go Solid Dark First
Shading should always be started on an area of the tattoo that will be completely black. In the case of a solid black tattoo, that could be almost anywhere, however, if the tattoo will have color, the artist needs to think ahead about where the best place will be to begin the shading.
The machine should be moved in small circles on the skin in order to achieve the desired amount of coverage. The machine should be guided gently, but allowed to do the work without a lot of downward pressure. The idea is to never have the machine stop over any point on the skin, but instead to continue with the gentle circling until coverage has been achieved or until the needle needs to be re-dipped into the ink. When shading, the machine will need to be run a little bit faster than it was with outlining.

If the needle remains too long in one place, the repeated puncturing can cause bleeding, bruising, scabbing, and in extreme cases, scarring. This skin will not heal properly, and the image left will probably be spotty and fade along with the scabs. If the shading is repeated in the same area too many times, even with gentle circling, the same thing can happen, so it is important to pay close attention to the shading during this process. The client’s skin is meant to last a lifetime, and should be treated accordingly.
In order to create the effects of shadow on the skin, the amount of black pigment that makes it into the skin must be strictly controlled. Once the full black portions have been completed, the areas needing lesser amounts of shading can be started on. These areas may range from almost full coverage to the merest hint of shadow, and are usually accomplished darkest to lightest. Not only is this method easier on the artist, as it usually allows him or her to work from the outline inward, but it also helps the artist to get a feeling for how the ink is penetrating the skin before reaching the areas that require a more delicate hand.


Top To Bottom?

While outlining is usually done from bottom to top, shading is done from top to bottom. With the outline already permanently marked upon the skin, there is no risk of smudging or erasing it. Quite a bit more ink is used when shading than when outlining, however, so going from top to bottom minimizes the amount of ink and blood smudged from a completed area to the area being worked on.


If there is a smear, however, these fluids can be easily removed, and should be cleaned off often during the course of the tattoo.
In practice, both of these habits simply aid the artist in seeing where to tattoo, but have no other impact on the finished design.
Starting With Shading Before Outlining
For years and years tattoo artists always started a tattoo with the outline. The concept of this came about due to the transfer of acetate stencils and the lines they left, so it only made sense to start with the lines and then render in details such as shading after.
Now, many tattoo artists will actually start shading with a mag first, before they ever lay down a line. Why? Starting out with a mag can not only save time and possible damage to the skin of the client, it can take less effort and lead to less healing issuesdown the line.
Of course, when you start out a new tattoo with shading first, your whole approach will be radically different than starting with a solid outline. By starting out with a solid outline, it does help you basically lay down the groundwork for the tattoo, but it may limit the color scheme and most importantly, the positive/negative relationship in the tattoo. Starting out with mag shading instead might take a bit longer at the beginning, but it’ll save time in the long run because you won’t have to go in trying to figure out how to shade certain areas due to the initial outline.
If you do decide to start out with shading first, you will want to make sure you either use a hand-drawn stencil or a stencil that exemplifies the areas of shading, not outlines.
Large magnums (13+) are ideal to start out shading when doing more realistic tattoos that need edges with some gradation. They work very well for blocking in the ink quickly and effectively due to the surface area that they can cover. When magnums are held on edge (meaning only the corner pushes into the skin), the needles will create a really nice and soft gradation that fades away from the edge.
The motion you will want to use in this case are longer oval rotations that overlap slightly while keeping a nice clean cut edge. Just be sure that you are careful when working with the edge of the magnum. There is much less skin resistance since you are not applying all the needle points at once, so it will take less pressure. If you apply too much pressure, you can easily go in too deep into the skin. I would highly recommend using a curved magnum in this case just to be safe, it will still allow you to get the right edge and fade, but with more skin resistance.

One last word on starting with shading first. If you are going to attempt a tattoo and start with a mag first, I highly recommend practicing small tattoos first that have both solid areas for shading and also a nice use of outlines. Don’t go too advanced right out of the gate. Be smart about it.
Getting It Right
Shading is one of the hallmarks by which a tattoo artist is judged. The ability to do it well means that your final designs will be more realistic and far more impressive than those that look “flat.” From the amount of saturation to the way you transition from lighter to darker areas, each aspect will have a major effect on the overall outcome. For example, if you transition too quickly from dark to light, the result is a fairly blunt line between the two. This is called “dead heading,” and it shows inferior skills.

Instead, you want to see how the light travels across an object, creating depth and shadows as it goes. Using a “feathering” touch between lighter and darker areas helps to avoid deadheading.
As with any aspect of tattooing, practice makes perfect. Start your practice by spending time with your art supplies learning how to shade on paper and canvas. This allows you to have a much more thorough understanding of how to lay out your design than you would have otherwise.
Shading isn’t only used to create depth and realism, however. It can also be a tool the artist uses to help fix errors or even cover old, unwanted art that a client already has. Since black is the darkest of the inks and covers quite thoroughly, it can be used to blot out areas that one doesn’t want seen. Of course, neither the artist nor the client is likely to want a big, black splotch on the skin. This is why it takes careful forethought to come up with the best approach for covering an old tattoo or fixing a mistake in a current one. Finding ways to incorporate what is there into something else means relying less on simply covering up the old ink.
Shading can lead to a whole lot of ink splatter. Make sure you keep plenty of tissues handy to wipe away excess ink on the skin that might cover up part of your design and cause you to miss a spot.


As previously mentioned, there is disagreement in the tattoo industry over the terms coloring and shading. Some elements of coloring are performed exactly like shading with black ink, only the color used is different. The apprentice should make note of how the terms are used in the shop he or she is training at in order to minimize confusion when speaking with clients or other artists.
One difference with coloring, however, is that it can be used for both shadows as well as for the solid color of a large expanse of skin. For adding deeper color in shadowy areas, the sweep shading method can also be used with colorful inks. To increase the depth of a design, sometimes this method is used along with shading, allowing both the black and the other colors to give the objects in the design dimension and life.
For solid coloring, or for areas with a very gradual shift in color, the artist can use the circle method. Small, barely overlapping circles fill in the shape, much like crayons on paper. Only minimal pressure should be applied; the machine should do the work for the artist, who only needs to guide the needles. The work should be wiped regularly to ensure that color is being applied to the proper places in the design. Depending on the design, even uncolored areas of skin may benefit from a barely visible application of gentle circles. This can often blend a design into the skin better than leaving the skin its natural color.
Some colors, especially lighter ones, will need more passes with the needle over the skin in order to obtain the desired coverage. This needs to be done with caution, however. Vivid color can be the result of just a few strokes if the ink and needles are handled properly.
Repeated puncturing of the skin can cause permanent damage, so rely on the ink to do the work, not multiple passes over the flesh.
If the damage leads to excessive scabbing, the color will be removed during the healing process, and may also leave scars. The general guideline is that no more than two passes be made with the needles over the same area of skin until it has the chance to heal.
Just as when the artist is done using black, each change of color requires that the needles, the bar, and the tips be thoroughly cleaned. While some mixing of colors can be part of a good design, the accidental mixing of color can lead to a tattoo that looks muddy and poorly done. Fortunately, a little cleaning can avoid this issue entirely.


Colors are usually applied from darkest to lightest
The black lining and shadowing are done first, and then other dark colors are applied one by one. Light colors run the risk of becoming muddied when dark colors are applied over them, so doing lighter colors last and using them where they are needed is the best way to end up with clear, true colors.


The most common progression of colors is the following:
  • Black and dark grays
  • Deep purples (values closer to black)
  • Blue
  • Green
  • Light purple (value with little to no black)
  • Brown
  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • White


There is certainly wiggle room in this color list, of course. Some reds are deeper and darker than some greens or blues depending on their color value.

This list refers to the most common, intense shades of these colors, and isn’t meant to replace the artist’s good judgment when it comes to determining which color is lighter, darker, or should be applied in which order.

Mixing Colors

The artist has two opportunities to mix colors. The first is by mixing the proper color of ink before the tattoo has begun. By applying color theory, almost any color can be created as long as the artist has access to white, black, red, yellow, and blue. Every color can be built from these five hues. Pre-mixing the color in this way allows the shades to be determined before they are applied to the skin, instead of attempting to mix them on the skin.
One color of ink applied over the other will also result in a new color. It can be hard to predict which color will be dominant, or what precise color will be the result of this mix, however. Also, since no more than two passes should be made over the skin, there is little to no room for error correction if the color or color density isn’t what the artist intended.
Sometimes, however, color should be mixed in the skin and not within the ink itself. This method is reserved for when a color gradient is the desired effect. If the color is going from white to red, for example, an infinite number of inks would have to be prepared to get all of the colors needed for the design. Instead, the artist can apply decreasing amounts of red over the skin starting on the darkest edge, and on the lightest edge, apply decreasing amounts of white. This method takes some practice to perfect, but can give a beautiful result.
The eye sees the color as a blend, not the individual dots of color and the result looks like a color wash over the flesh. The same can be done with blue and yellow, for example, creating a gradient with green in the middle.
While white is often used for this process, sometimes it can cause its own headaches. It is nearly impossible to get a true white on the skin. The skin has its own natural color, and ink is deposited into the dermis, well below the pigmented layer. Any color in the skin is seen through this pigment, meaning that white will not show as true white even on the palest complexions. All colors suffer this same effect, but it is by far the most noticeable with white. Also, colors can change with extensive sun exposure, and white is the most likely to fade or turn yellow due to the sun.
White absolutely has a place in tattoo, but these are the reasons why it is rarely seen as a large part of a design, Instead, it is used to modify other colors and in small areas of highlight. Tattoo inks are becoming more advanced every year, however, so these issues may be resolved over time.


Black and Gray

Color may be flashy, but nothing beats the quality and style of a professional black and gray tattoo.
This style is often called “gray wash” because when it is done well, it looks like a wash of color on the skin. Some of the earliest gray washes were done in prisons where rudimentary equipment was cobbled together and the ink from pens was the only pigment available. These tattoos were rarely high quality, but modern artists have improved on the them in order to create beautiful works of art.
When done well, the grays and black blend together so seamlessly that it appears as though a black and white photo has been transferred onto the skin. This style is excellent for realizing fine details and to truly play with shadow and light. There is no room for the artist to hide mistakes with color; instead, it is his or her actual artistic ability that shows, and the results can be impressive.
This tattoo specialty shines when it is used for photorealistic images. A face with color in it can make a lovely tattoo, but a well executed tattoo of a face done in gray wash is absolutely stunning. In fact, there are artists who specialize in replicating the faces of famous people and of their clients’ loved ones, and their skills are highly sought after. There is no room for errors when replicating a face, after all. Just one mistake and it doesn’t look right, and the person being represented will look stretched or unrealistic. Because of this, only the best artists succeed at this type of tattoo.
The physical process of a black and white tattoo is the same as a color one. The only change is the value of the ink. The outline is done first, followed by the dramatic shading, and the “coloring” is done with black and shades of gray. The tattoo is started with black, and then increasingly lighter values of gray are used, just as lighter colored inks are used after darker ones in a colored tattoo.
Creating Shades of Gray
In order to create the shades used in a gray wash, the artist must remember color theory and the concept of “value.” Value is the lightness or darkness of a color, created by adding white or black to a hue. Gray is already a combination of black and white, however, the amount of each of those hues varies dramatically based on the desired color. White, of course, makes the gray lighter, whereas black will make it darker.

To further confuse the issue, not all gray washes are strictly black, white, and gray. Sometimes to get the perfect shade of gray, a smidgen of another hue might be added. A tiny bit of blue might add a cool depth, whereas a bit of yellow could warm up the gray considerably.
Sometimes the grays are tweaked for the design itself, whereas other times the colors are shifted a bit to compensate for differences in skin tone and pigmentation. These manipulations may not be strictly gray wash, but the human eye still reads the colors as various shades of gray. When this technique is used in moderation, it can have a tremendous impact on the quality of the final design.


Another method for greys
Another method of creating the shades needed for a gray wash is to simply use less pigment in the carrier fluid. The ink can be mixed with a certain percentage or ratio less pigment in each successive cap, giving values from black to the palest gray. In this scenario the clear carrier fluid acts like white pigment would where the amount of black is less and less apparent in smaller amounts.


Perhaps the most common method, however, is to use pre-made washes purchased from tattoo suppliers. These pigments are available in all of the shades needed for a gray wash, and are consistent each time they are used. Mixing a gray from black and white is easy, but replicating it isn’t always as simple as it seems. Using pre-made washes, however, allows the exact color to be consistent with every tattoo, or even if a tattoo needs to be touched up, a time when the ink color needs to be precise.

The machine itself can also be used to create shades of gray with only black ink. The ink is still black, but when there is less of it in a greater area, the eye will perceive it as gray. In order to get this result, operate the machine at a higher speed and move it more quickly across the skin. This requires care, however. The highlights in a drawing—the lightest areas—will come from either the natural skin or from the addition of a little bit of white ink towards the end of the tattoo process. If there is already black ink in the skin, however, the white will not have the same effect, and the design may be compromised.
Black and white tattoos may sound intimidating on the surface. They are more difficult to master, but this should be looked upon as a challenge for the artist, and as one more skill to perfect in the quest to become a professional tattoo artist.