Which Colors Work Best For Tattoos? How To Color A Tattoo Like A Pro

Written by: Pete

Learning how color works on skin is essential to not only choosing the best tattoo for yourself but also helping your clients determine the best tattoo for their skin tone. In addition, mastering how to deposit color into skin is an essential next-step after learning how to outline your pieces. In this complete guide, we give a thorough understanding of how ink reacts to melanin, and how to color tattoos like a professional.

Related: Tattoo Outline and Linework

How Your Skin Complexion Influences Tattoo Colors

No matter how a design looks on paper, when considering it for yourself or for your clients, a few things need to be taken into account.

Knowing Your Skin Undertone

Your undertone is what influences your skin complexion, and it’s caused by melanin. Low concentrations give you a cooler tone while more melanin provides your skin with a warmer tone.

If your skin has a pink complexion, you have a cool undertone. If you have an olive or brown complexion, you’re more likely to have warm undertones. The easiest way to discover what undertone you have is to consider what clothes you look best in. Do bright blue t-shirts make you look washed out? Then you may have a warmer undertone. If mustard yellow doesn’t seem to jive with your face, you may have a cooler undertone.

Why Undertone Matters

You may be wondering what part undertone plays in tattooing but it’s important to consider your undertone when selecting colors. This is because your epiderdermis, where your undertone lies, is what heals over your ink, and this coloring will affect how tattoo colors heal as well.

What Your Melanin Means for Your Choice of Colors

A cooler undertone indicates less melanin which means there is less interference between how the ink appears on the surface of your skin after it has healed. If you have more melanin, or a warmer undertone, it will be more difficult for colors to appear as bright once they are healed. In all cases, colors should be chosen in a way that complements your undertone as these will also heal better over time.

Here are some ink pigment recommendations depending on your skin tone:

  • Dark Skin: blacks, deep reds, deep blues, dark colors
  • Tanned Skin: reds, oranges, yellows, blacks, greens, and dark blues
  • Fair Skin: pastel colors, purples, all pigments except warm yellows

Setting Up Your Tattoo Machine for Coloring

Once you’ve selected a tattoo color that will heal well for your skin type and will look the best as it ages, it’s time to learn about how needles influence coloring of tattoos. Using the correct needle is essential to not only getting quality coloring done on your design but also ensuring you don’t overwork the skin.

Round Tattoo Needles

Round tattoo needles that can be used to color in pieces are called Round Shaders (RS). They are also identified by a number which references the amount of pins that make up the needle, as well as a diameter size. Round shaders are great for more precise color detailing in smaller spaces.

Flat Needles

Flat needles are generally used for specific tattoo shading work that you may want to do with complementary colors in a piece.

Magnum Needles

Magnum needles are the most common needle types for coloring, especially for large pieces. They include two or more layers of multiple pins that meet at a flat point. They hold a lot of ink and pack in a lot of color. They also bring more pigment to a space without having to go over the skin multiple times, avoiding trauma.

Magnum needles come in three formats:

  • Weaved Magnum - has a pyramid pattern and usually spreads over a larger area of skin
  • Stacked Magnum - this format allows for tighter color packing
  • Round or Curved Magnum - great for tight spaces, rounded edges, and small details with color

Blending and Mixing Tattoo Ink for Color Application

Did you know that you are not only limited to the colors of ink you have in bottles on your shelf? It’s completely appropriate and often practiced by professional artists to mix up the inks to achieve the perfect color or tone of the color that you are looking for.

When mixing ink for a client’s piece, make sure to write down how much pigment you use so if you ever need to do touch-ups, it’s easier to color match.

Making the Ink Darker

Adding a black pigmented ink to any other color will create a darker tone. Always blend the ink after each drop of black so you know you aren’t making it too dark.

Making the Ink Lighter

There are two ways to make ink lighter; add white pigment drops to your color, or distill it with water or witch hazel. Always remember that anything that’s distilled tends to heal around 30% lighter.

Making a Different Color

Don’t hesitate to mix up two colors to get the perfect tone for your designs. Always make note of how much of each pigment you are using.

Preparing to Add Color

It’s important to remember that outlines should always be done first, and that color should be added from darkest to lightest. Coloring and shading use different voltages or power, and color usually requires the machine to run slower. This allows you to do more complete, gentle strokes that pack in the most color without healing patchy.


Color should always be added in shorter, more compact strokes and circular motions. When using circular motions, make sure they are small circles. Try not to overwork the skin by going over the same piece multiple times.

Ensure you get the right amount of pressure so the pigment deposits in the dermis and stays potent. Overpacking the skin will not brighten the color, and if you feel that the work you did won’t heal as bright as you intended, it’s always better to touch up the tattoo at a later date.

In addition, needles should be held at an angle to better pack the color into the skin.

Black vs. Color

If you’re filling in a space with black, it should be done in the same way that you color. Run the machine rather slowly, do short and compact strokes in circular motions, and pack in the ink, dipping your needle as frequently as needed.

Clean and Edit as You Go

As with any tattoos, you should be wiping the area after doing a small piece of work. This will allow you to see if you’ve missed any spots while coloring in your design. It’s easy to correct any mistakes or missed skin if you are constantly wiping your client. In addition, you need to be sure to rinse your needles if you’re switching to another color.

If you need additional help, check out this incredible video by Art-Something which gives you beginner insight into color packing techniques using a magnum needle.

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Our Final Thoughts

Remember that like any other skill in tattooing, learning how to color like a pro takes practice and patience. Try out different needles and techniques on artificial skin or pig skin before moving onto clients. Nothing looks more terrible and unprofessional than patchy coloring, so this is definitely something you want to master before trying to tattoo yourself or someone else.

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