How To Shade a Tattoo: Best Practices and Techniques You Need To Know

Correct and properly executed shading can make or break a tattoo, let’s be perfectly honest. This is why it is essential to master the art of tattoo shading and bring your tattoo designs to life. The shading, however, not only makes the tattoo look more 3D, but it also helps you conceal mistakes made during the outline process.

Now, given that you’re reading this article, we’ll assume that you’re either an aspiring tattoo artist or just interested in seeing how tattoo shading works. Either way, you’ve come to the right place. In the following paragraphs, we will talk about the best practices and techniques used to color a tattoo. So, without further ado, let’s go!

How to shade a tattoo

Practice makes perfect – Practice shading the tattoo

Maybe you thought we’d start by explaining the tattoo shading techniques performed during the actual tattoo, but that has to wait. First, you need to practice shading the tattoo on mediums other than your client’s skin (you’ll agree that it’s quite embarrassing to realize that you can’t properly shade a tattoo in the middle of the tattoo). So here are some ways to practice the art of shading without any adverse consequences;

  • Get started easy, with paper and pencil – did you know that the majority of tattoo artists have had some artistic training (through art classes or college)? This is because creating tattoos is truly an artistic endeavor and so is shading tattoos. Shading of any kind in art is considered a master technique and requires a great deal of practice. So take a piece of paper, draw some kind of design and start shading.
  • Take online art classes, lessons or even video instructions – if you find it difficult to practice on your own, use the Internet. Just as you found this article, you can also easily find online art courses and courses specifically created to explain shading.

Of course, the majority of these classes and courses require payment, so if you’re on a budget, search YouTube; there are a lot of super cool, elaborate and explainer shading videos provided by real experienced (tattoo) artists.

  • Use training “skins” and synthetic “body parts” – the best way to improve your shading practice is to switch from paper to fake skin. It will give you a realistic feeling of what it means to shade a tattoo on real skin.

Now, for this you will need a real tattoo gun (since you probably have one as a tattoo apprentice) and some fake skin. You can buy fake skin and synthetic body parts on Amazon, or you can just buy pork belly for less. Pork belly has the closest feel to human skin, plus it’s super affordable.

  • Pay attention to the speed, the type of needle and the desired effect – these are the essential aspects that differentiate the good and the bad shading of the tattoo. Going at the right speed, using the right needle, and having the desired effect in mind is crucial to executing the shading part perfectly.

That’s why you need to learn about the types of shader needles, when and how they are used, how quickly the shading gets lighter or darker, and how you can achieve certain shading effects. Then you can continue your practice and make it a master technique.

Also Read: How Many Needles Are In A Tattoo Gun?

Tattoo Shading Techniques

Considering you haven’t learned tattoo shading yet, we decided to also explain the main tattoo shading techniques responsible for almost all known shading effects in tattoos. From creating 3D effects to making a tattoo look like it was done in watercolor, here are the top 4 tattoo shading techniques you need to know;

  • brush shading – this is a shading technique used primarily for portrait tattoos, but also for types of tattoos that require blending. To perform this shading technique, you must use a long tapered needle, which you will move like a pendulum, back and forth, applying ink at an angle.

Gradually, the shade darkens as the ink is distributed on the skin. During shading, the tattoo gun stays in place; only the handle rocks the needle back and forth.

  • whip shading – this is a shading technique suitable for a bunch of different tattoo styles. However, it is said to be perfect for applying sketches and flowers because of the effect it provides, which is that of pencil drawing. To perform this shading technique, you will need a 3-ply liner needle, but you can also make do with whatever needle you prefer to have on hand.

In order to achieve whip shading, you must perform a quick, curved motion, releasing the needle pressure when the motion reaches the end. This will ensure that more pigment is released at the curve and the tip will appear lighter.

  • Dotted shading – this shading technique is used specifically to create dotted lines (for different tattoo styles, of course). For this shading technique you will use a 3 round liner needle with a long taper. Now the way to perform this shading technique is to use either the whip shading motion or the brush shading motion. Either way, your movement should be fast if you want the dots further apart, or slow if you want to group the dots next to each other.

Other important things for tattoo shading

tattoo shading needles

In order to perform any of the aforementioned tattoo shading techniques, you will need to be familiar with the correct shading needles. Of course round shader needles are best for shading tattoos. These needles have specific code names, just like other needles, which refer to the type of needle, how many needles it contains in the group, etc. The usual code for round shaders is RS.

We should also mention the Magnum needles, which are also very useful for shading effects. Magnum needles are arranged in two rows and can stack between 7 and 11 pins, for a standard shading effect.

For denser shading you would use stacked Magnum needles, but if you want a looser shading effect you would use woven Magnum needles. Stacked Magnum needles are excellent not only for shading but also for color packing. But, if you need to shade or color large areas, we recommend using Magnum Woven Needles.

Tuning the tattoo gun for shading

You cannot start shading a tattoo without setting up your tattoo gun specifically for the shading technique. Here’s what you need to do;

  • The distance between the rebar and the contact screw should be 2 mm.
  • Of course, the needle and the ink tube must be attached to the gun itself.
  • Choose the needle depending on the desired effect or the shading technique you choose.
  • Tune the tattoo machine; this means you have to adjust the speed of the machine at which it will run and dispense the ink. Don’t make the machine too fast, but also adapt it to your speed comfort levels.
  • Be sure to stick to 10 volts for shading.

Know when to shade

Many tattoo beginners make a crucial mistake when it comes to tattoo shading; they proceed to shade just after finishing the outline of the tattoo. This is a huge mistake that can lead to lines getting mixed up and a messy tattoo. Best practice is to complete the outline of the tattoo, wait 15-30 minutes for the ink to dry and dry, then proceed with shading and coloring. This will make shading much easier and you will get a clean, mess-free tattoo.

Know the duration of shading

Another common shading mistake is leaving the needle in one place for too long. Tattoo beginners believe that the longer a needle stays in one place, the better the color payoff and overall effect. It is completely false.

By doing this you are creating unnecessary trauma to the skin, plus the client will feel more pain during the session and the tattoo will not look as good as you imagined. This often happens in techniques where the needle has to move back and forth; If you are unsure of this motion, you can always do a circular motion to minimize trauma and skin damage.

Final Thoughts

And that’s all! Now you know how to color a tattoo correctly and effectively. All you have to do is practice. Without practice, you won’t be able to develop a sense of shading, how the needle should work, at what angle, and how you should spread the ink differently for different shading effects. Be sure to practice, use all the help available, and of course always consult your mentor if you are an apprentice. The mentor is there to help and guide you through all stages of the tattoo.

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