How to make shades in tattoos? | 10 MASTERS

How to make shades in tattoos?

Everything you need to know to get good shades

14 September 2022


Shadows are essential in tattoos. They generate depth, volume and that relief look in the design.

In tattooing, as well as in drawing and painting, handling the shades is a way of understanding light behaviour.

However, not all styles share the same shading techniques, let alone requiring the same materials. So keep reading to learn more.

The origin of shading in drawing

Nowadays, when we think about a drawing or a painting of tridimensional aspect, what first pops up is shadows. Either knowingly or unknowingly, shadows and chiaroscuros are there and we can’t just separate them.

According to historians, this fine arts tool came up in 5th century BC in Ancient Greece by the hand of an artist called Apolodoro Skiagraphos, who used to paint with the skiagraphy technique, which inspired later painters.

This resource became common after Da Vinci’s selection of charcoal and chalk to create lightning and shadow effects in his paintings. Renaissance painters also gave importance to chiaroscuro to achieve depth and proportion.

Learning to draw through lights and shadows

As mentioned before, understanding light is crucial because it helps you visualise tri-dimensionality to translate 3D shapes into 2D designs, alongside its complexity.

Shading adds contrast, details and it enhances some aspects while disguising others. It helps to focus the attention on the strongest points.

Shading usually is faster than outlining, as it's only a matter of filling in the area, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In tattooing, the tracing or the drawing process differs from that of a sheet, as it begins with darker areas to continue with light colours.

When we draw on paper, we normally start with lighter colours and then gradually work on darker inks.

When we tattoo, we first outline the drawing to finally define its perimeter, and then we apply colour or shading. Depending on the design’s complexity, there are times in which two separate sessions are useful: one for linings, and another one to finish setting the drawing. And even a few more could be needed too…

The way light strikes an object is decisive in a design when planning shadows, as it’s what indicates how you should draw the shadows. This is something you should discuss with your client when planning the design.

To practice, we suggest you draw or paint on paper and other supports, and with different tools, either with B-type pencils, such as 2B, 4B, or with pens, paint, and brushes. Having a drawing basis is beneficial to your learning process.

Types of shades in drawing

There are numerous ways of handling shades to create different effects, and you could find inspiration in many distinct styles until you find the best one for your tattoos. Let’s see some shading techniques.

  • Hatching & Cross-hatching. Drawing lines, either in same or opposite directions, to increase darkness and produce different effects. Brightness will depend on their closeness.

  • Scumbling & scribbling. It consists of tracing little circles or scribbles on top of each other without pressing much. Although the result is a quite irregular finished look, it’s still pretty useful for some kinds of drawings.

  • Stippling (dotwork). It’s a demanding technique that requires patience and it can generate very interesting results. It’s often used in tattooing, although with slight differences in the making, of course. It consists in drawing countless tiny dots next to each other, resulting in darker or brighter areas, depending on how the concentration of dots.

  • Blending or smudging. This one is typically used and consists in using soft and pliable drawing elements to then blur them with your finger or a piece of cotton.

Shadows in tattoos

To shade tattoos, we recommend that you first practice a lot on synthetic or animal skin. If you want to learn a bit more about it, see this post, where we talk about Synthetic skins for tattooing.

A frequent concern: what machines should I use? A coil or a rotative machine?

The answer differs depending on what you have at hand. First, keep in mind that coil machines are useful for making one job at a time, it needs to be calibrated every time based on if it’s used for lines or shades.

On the contrary, rotative machines are good for both scenarios, and it’s not necessary to re-calibrate them, which means they are more flexible and adapt better to your work.

Should you want to learn more about them, read our post Types of tattooing machines, where we analyse the particularities of each machine, so you can select the best option for you.

But, let’s get down to brass tacks, what needles should you use and what techniques can you apply when creating shadows?

A needle can be determined in several ways. Depending on how they group, whether it’s round, as in the Round Shader (RS), or lined up, as in the Magnum (M), or Round Magnum (RM), both suitable for creating different effects.

To find out more about needles, visit our post on how tattooing needles are and for what use is each one intended Tattoo Needles Guide.

You should always use needles on their side because if you don’t, you’ll puncture the skin too deeply and you might end up losing that strumming effect that you get when injecting ink in a more superficial way.

This is a crucial aspect to have in mind if you want to have control of the shading effects you want to create.

Once tattooing, begin with the darker zones. And from there, continue with the lighter zones. By changing the pressure, you’ll be able to obtain stronger effects in the darker areas.

Be careful, though. This doesn’t mean you should start with the darkest inks, or press harder and deeper. Instead, you should be filling the area with darker shadows and then the lighter areas with superficial movements.

These types of shades will vary depending on the tattoo style and techniques you work with. For instance, in traditional tattoos, shadows tend to be thicker than in dotwork or realism.

Shades in tattoo

The importance of shades in a realistic tattooing

Realism is complex, and a quite challenging style for any tattoo artist. Mastering the techniques takes time and dedication. It is not impossible but you need perseverance and commitment.

One of the core tasks in Realism is knowing how to make shadows.

Shadows give your design a tridimensional effect. Without them, tattoos would be flat depthless drawing, which could actually be useful for some styles, but never for Realism.

Realistic back tattoo

What is Greywash?

Greywash is a technique where pure black inks are specially diluted to create more fluid shadows.

You may have heard about this, it has become very popular. It’s frequently used both in Realism and Black & Grey. Many tattooists use 4 ink caps simultaneously to get 4 different shades.

Ink selection will depend on you, but it’s important that you use a specific diluent for this purpose. You can get it in any tattoo shop.

The first cup should contain pure black, for which you’ll fill it with non-diluted ink. This one is meant to be used at the last shading part, once you have already created your drawing guidelines.

The second cup must have ¾ of black and a third part of diluent. The ink in this case will not be as intense black as the original one.

Then, the third cup would have half black ink and half diluent.

And, the fourth cup would be conformed by 25% ink and 75% diluent. You can use this one either at the beginning of the design, or in the areas where you desire to add a final touch of shade, but be careful not to intensify it too much.

Now the question is, can you use more than four tones? Of course you can! Once you gain more experience, you can learn more on this topic and add as many tones as you consider necessary for the design you’re about to tattoo.

Can you buy the grey wash separately? Sure! There are many brands that offer their inks already diluted, and it could be helpful for you. However, we encourage you to do it as we just taught you, so that you understand better how inks behave. That way you can modify them to your personal taste.

What is the difference between grey wash and grey inks? This is a frequently asked question, and the answer is based on the fact that the level of thickness that grey inks have is greater than the one you obtain with greywash, which translates into a different shading effect. That’s why many artists prefer working with diluted inks, as they give more airiness and wider possibilities in chiaroscuros.

A few final advices

We’ll give you some extra tips so that you can apply all this knowledge to your art.

  • Take your time. It sounds obvious, but it’s crucial to understand that enough time and dedication will involve a better finishing look, which requires you tons of concentration.

  • Practice as much as you can. We’d said it over and over again in this post, but we’ll do it once more! Practising both your drawing & tattooing techniques is key to achieve exceptional shading and be able to comfortably fluctuate between your possibilities.
    As well as learning how to master the tattooing machines and needles. Do your research and practice a lot. Trial and error!

  • Never stop drawing. Keep on practising your technique on paper and other drawing materials. Knowing how to project shadows depending on how light behaves on objects or subjects can only be learnt by observing and practising your drawing.
    So, if you’re interested about getting deeper into this topic, we encourage you to do so and always have your notebook at hand, you’ll see your evolution in your tattoo’s results very soon!

  • Tighten the skin well when tattooing. This could seem a minor detail, and perhaps you already know, but it’s still useful to remind you to do it. Stretch the skin enough with your free hand as you tattoo; otherwise, ink could get inserted irregularly, which is not good for the tattoos’ finishing look.

Now that you have access to this information, you can have a greater picture about shading in drawings and tattoos, as well as how to master them. They are vital for getting a tridimensional effect, emphasise depths and create layers of illusory reliefs in drawings that are actually two-dimensional.

Practising and knowing the basics is fundamental for understanding the value of all components, especially if you want to tattoo Realism or other complex styles.

What do you think about this? Did you already know how to shade? Are you willing to learn how to shade properly in your realistic tattoos? Drop us a comment!


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