Tattoo Shading Techniques and Tips: A Beginner's Guide

Written by: Pete
Last Updated:

tattoo shading

Nailing down your shading techniques is essential to becoming a professional and respected tattoo artist in the industry. Regardless of your tattoo style, shading is a skill that you should invest time into learning. Our guide helps you better understand how shading works for tattooing, and tips to master this method.

Related: How To Color Like A Tattoo Like A Pro

Some Basic Insights

Shading takes a lot of time to perfect. Often, people discover that ink heals lighter than they intended and doesn’t produce the same impactful shaded design. There are specific needles that are necessary for shading, and there are a multitude of movements and techniques to help you achieve certain types of shading. In addition to all this, artists must learn how to create their own gray wash in order to achieve certain shade levels.

When it comes to proper design, there are a few tips you should follow:

  • Always begin with lining and outline and then move to shading.
  • Shading should be done from darkest to lightest coloring; complete black work first and then follow with shading.
  • Light shading will not hold and won’t appear as intended. Always remember that black ink heals significantly lighter (around 30%) so the same must be kept in mind for your shading.
  • If you aren’t performing the right movements with the needles you are using, your shading could appear blunt rather than feathered.
  • Shading can sometimes appear patchy or uneven upon healing. This can occur when the tattoo artist uses very large circles creating a lot of free space between the strokes, the needle was moved too quickly not allowing the ink to be deposited, or your needle was not angled correctly when you were tattooing.

For the best needles, check out our buying guide with our top recommendations: Best Tattoo Needles

Shading Techniques - Start Shading!

There are three primary techniques that tattoo artists use for shading.

  • Whip Shading - This is when you move the needle in a pulling up and out motion that creates a stroke that starts dark and moves to a lighter gradient. You put the needle to the skin, drag it across, and then “whip” or flick the machine away from the skin.
  • Pendulum Shading - Using this technique, you rock the gun back and forth in a pendulum motion that distributes ink at an angle. It gives you a dark mark in the center and lighter gradients outside it. If you use this technique in multiple directions, it creates a crosshatch effect that looks like a gradient of shading when healed.
  • Packing - This is when you “pack in” the ink to the skin using tight oval motions to fill in the space. If the circles are too large, your shading will heal patchy.

It’s important that you focus on one area when you are shading in order to prevent blunt or inconsistent healing. Always expand upon and complete one area before moving to another.

An alternative but less common way to shade is by using stipple shading which is a pointillism technique. This fills in the space with small dots of various pressure, achieving various levels of shading.

Practice Your Shading Techniques

Learning how to adapt to pressure to achieve certain shading results is the key to being successful in shading your tattoos.

  • Practice with Pencil or Paint - Paint, especially watercolor, allows you to practice brush pressure and shading methods. The same can be done with charcoal pencils and working on your stroke techniques.
  • Practice on Pig Skin or Artificial Skin - Pig skin is most akin to human flesh, but it comes with a bit of smell and could make some artists uncomfortable. If that’s the case, get your hands on some artificial skin. Regardless of what you are using, you should practice and perfect your understanding of pressure and needle techniques to nail down your shading before moving onto tattooing clients.
  • Consider Shadow and Light - The only way to learn how to properly shade is to learn about light sources and how they develop shadows in imagery. The shadow or shading should be the same for the entire piece because the light source needs to be consistent.
  • Shade with Complementary Colors - If you are shading on a colored piece, you need to use darked or complementary colors to shade the piece, something that works well with the outline and makes for a smooth transition from lining to the design.

Choose the Appropriate Sized Needles

Shading requires the right needle stroked the appropriate way. The needles most often used for shading include Shader needles (Round or Line), or Magnum needles which pack in more color over a larger diameter. The smaller the diameter, the better the needle is for small detail shading. Shorter strokes with these needles allow for you to build up the shading in layers, while longer strokes pack in more ink more quickly.

Learn more about Tattoo Needle Sizes & Types

Use the Correct Tattoo Machine Setting

Soft shading requires a slower voltage and thereby a slower needle speed. A faster speed means you have to work more quickly and thus achieve a darker shading. When doing pointillism shading, the machine runs at an extremely fast speed and your hand should move at the same pace.

Check out our buying guide for the best tattoo machines

Plan the Tattoo

When you are designing the tattoo for your client, be sure to highlight to them where you intend to put shading and how deep you intend that shading to be. Shading can be darkened at a later date but blacks cannot truly be lightened, so it’s important to note these gradients in the design.

Making Your Own Gray Wash

Gray wash is a dilution of standard black ink that allows you to achieve different gradients of shading in a design. It is especially valuable for artists who only work with black in. Remember that gray wash will heal 30% lighter, so pack in the color if necessary.

To create gray wash, you mix black ink with witch hazel. Dilution is up to you, but most artists use ⅓ black ink with ⅔ witch hazel, or 50/50 black ink and witch hazel to achieve two specific gradients.

Additional Tattoo Shading Tips

  • After outlining, you should take a break before moving onto the shading. Some artists do the outline in one session and do shading in a second session.
  • Prepare your gray washes ahead of the session.
  • Always wipe the skin after you’ve worked it, removing excess ink and giving you a better perception of how much was deposited.
  • Use Vaseline when shading to help prevent any mixing of colors in your design and to hydrate the skin.
  • If you plan to use the same needle on a lighter shade, be sure to wipe your needles clean between each gradient.

Our Final Thoughts

Like every design skill for tattooing, learning to shade takes a lot of practice and commitment. The most important thing to consider is the weight you are distributing to the needle as you tattoo, and how this influences the depositing of ink in the skin, thus achieving different shade gradients. Remember that if you’re ever having difficulty with shading, sometimes all it takes is choosing a new needle to work with that makes the process easier for you.

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