How To Shade Tattoos: Techniques, Preparing, And Step-By-Step Guide

by Tori Jones
How To Shade Tattoo

armed with a needle, a sense of humor, and an unhealthy obsession with all things ink. Now, before we delve into the fascinating universe of tattoo shading, a quick heads-up about what you’re in for. By the end of this little tattoo tête-à-tête, you’ll know how shading can make your tattoo go from ‘yeah, it’s cool’ to ‘wow, that’s incredible.

How To Shade Tattoo
@Julia Giacomini Via Unsplash – Want your tattoo to look brighter? Try tattoo balm 

Tattoo shading, my friends, is a time-honored craft that traces its roots back to the early days of tattoo artistry. You see, ancient tattoo artists quickly realized that a tattoo could be more than just a set of lines – it could tell a story, evoke emotions, and create a sense of depth and realism. And guess what was the secret weapon? You got it, shading!

Shading was—and remains—an instrumental technique that shapes the aesthetics and symbolism of tattoos, adding that oomph factor that sets great tattoos apart. Influenced by various artistic movements and cultures across time, shading techniques have evolved, but their purpose remains the same—to give life and dimension to tattoos. Remember, a well-shaded tattoo isn’t just an image on skin; it’s a piece of living, breathing art that moves and ages with you.

Now, don’t worry. We’re not going all history professor on you. This is just a quick dive into the roots of our beloved shading techniques before we get into the juicy bits. So, stay with me, folks. By the end of this rollercoaster ride, you’ll have enough shading know-how to impress even the snootiest of tattoo connoisseurs. Get ready to see tattoos in a whole new light—or should I say, shadow?


Packing, friends, is like that trustworthy, no-nonsense buddy you can always rely on. Mainly used for filling solid color areas, packing involves wielding your magnum or round shader like a magic wand at a 45-degree angle, making small, tight circular motions. It’s all about control here.

How To Shade Tattoo
@José Pinto Via Unsplash – Want your tattoo to look brighter? Try tattoo balm 

Whip Shading

Next, we have the elegant Whip Shading technique. It’s like that eccentric artist friend, versatile and expressive. Perfect for creating sketch-like impressions of animals, flowers, or anything really, it can make a tattoo look like a pencil drawing came to life on your skin. Your tattoo machine is your quill here, moving in quick, curved lines, lightening the pressure as you move. I remember the first time I tried it, my hand was shaking, my brow was sweating, but when I finally nailed it, the feeling was beyond words.

How To Shade Tattoo
@Allef Vinicius Via Unsplash – Want your tattoo to look brighter? Try tattoo balm 

Brush Shading

Ever dreamed of making portraits that feel almost alive? Brush Shading is your answer. Using a long taper needle, the technique involves gentle pendulum movements, dipping in and out of the skin. This one’s all about the soft blending, folks, like a paintbrush caressing a canvas.

Stipple Shading

How To Shade Tattoo
@José Pinto Via Unsplash – Want your tattoo to look brighter? Try tattoo balm 

Lastly, we’ve got Stipple Shading. Ever stared at a pointillist painting and wondered how it would look as a tattoo? This technique creates a stippled, dotted effect that can add a unique texture to your piece. The secret? The right voltage, needle (typically a 3 round liner with a long taper), and the speed of your hand movements. It’s like a dance between your hand and the machine, creating a rhythm of dots on the skin.

Tattoo shading practice methods

For those dipping their toes in these waters, I can’t stress enough: Practice! Start with paper and pencils or paints, get a feel for the movements, the speed, the distribution of shadows. And when you’re ready to try on a more realistic canvas, you can’t beat fake skin or pigskin.

Choosing The Correct Needle

How To Shade Tattoo
@José Pinto Via Unsplash – Want your tattoo to look brighter? Try tattoo balm 

Alright, now, before you go wild with the shading, preparation is crucial. Needle selection can make or break your design. For shading, round tattoo needles and magnum needles are your go-to choices. Round liners for intricate shading and fill-ins, round shaders for transitions and coloring, and magnums for color packing, shading, and large areas.

Setting Up A Tattoo Machine For Shading

Next, let’s talk about setting up your tattoo machine for shading. A distance of about 2 mm between the armature bar and the contact screw is optimal. And remember, you want the buzz of your machine to sound a bit deeper than when it’s tuned for lining.

Creating A Sketch

Sketch creation is the heart of your piece, the blueprint from which your masterpiece will emerge. Put thought into the shadows, their transitions, their intensity. If it’s a colored piece, select your shades thoughtfully.

How To Shade Tattoo
@GRAHAM MANSFIELD Via Unsplash – Want your tattoo to look brighter? Try tattoo balm 

Tattoo Shading Tips & Mistakes To Avoid

Finally, some tips to ace the shading process: Outline first and take a break before you start shading. Have your gloves on, instruments sterile, and needles ready. Prepare the skin, set up your machine, and keep Vaseline at hand to protect and lubricate the skin, especially when working with multiple shades. And remember, clean your needles as you move to lighter areas, it’s all about getting that desired result.

Remember, shading is an art, a dance between shadow and light. Practice it, love it, and you’ll bring your tattoo work to life like never before. Trust me, when you see the depth and volume your shading brings to your work, it’s a feeling like no other. Happy inking, my friends!

Here are some common mistakes to avoid when shading a tattoo:

  1. Rushing the Process: Like a fine wine, great shading takes time. If you try to rush it, you’ll end up with inconsistent shading, patchy spots, and generally sloppy work. Remember, patience is your best friend in this game.
  2. Not Understanding the Skin: Each client’s skin is unique and responds differently to the needle. If you don’t adjust your technique to match the skin type, you can cause unnecessary trauma, leading to poor healing and faded shading.
  3. Improper Needle Depth: Going too deep can cause scarring and blowouts, while staying too shallow can lead to patchy and uneven shading. The trick is to find that sweet spot where you’re depositing ink in the dermis, not the epidermis or subcutaneous layer.
  4. Poor Needle Angle: Maintaining a consistent angle is crucial. If your needle enters the skin at varying angles, you’ll end up with inconsistent and blotchy shading. Stick to a 45-degree angle for the best results.
  5. Incorrect Machine Speed: Just like Goldilocks, you’re looking for “just right.” Too slow, and you’ll risk overworking the skin and causing trauma. Too fast, and you risk not depositing enough ink. The ideal machine speed will vary depending on your style and the specifics of the tattoo, but a mid-range speed is typically a good starting point.
  6. Not Enough Contrast: Shading is all about creating contrast and depth. If you don’t vary your tones enough, your tattoo will look flat and dull. Don’t be afraid to go dark with your shading – it will lighten as it heals, and it’s essential for creating that 3D effect.

So there you have it – a crash course in what not to do. Keep these tips in your back pocket, and you’ll be avoiding these common shading mistakes like a pro! Happy inking!

What Is The Right Amount Of Pressure

Determining the right amount of pressure when shading is a dance between art and science, experience and intuition. It’s like learning the chords on a guitar; it takes practice, and once you’ve got it, you feel it more than you think it. Here’s the lowdown:

1. Understand the Skin: As I said earlier, every canvas—by which I mean skin—is different. Some skin types can take more pressure, while others need a gentler touch. It’s crucial to learn how to read the skin and adjust your pressure accordingly.

2. Listen to the Machine: Your tattoo machine is your partner in this dance, so listen to it. When you’re applying the right amount of pressure, your machine will run smoothly. If you’re pushing too hard, it’ll sound labored. If you’re not pressing hard enough, it’ll sound too high-pitched and whiny.

3. Watch the Ink: The way the ink goes into the skin can also guide your pressure. You’re looking for even dispersion without over-saturation. If the ink isn’t going in evenly, or if it’s pooling on the skin, adjust your pressure.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice: Nothing beats experience. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at gauging the right amount of pressure. Start practicing on synthetic skin or pig skin, then move on to simple designs on human skin under the guidance of a professional.

5. Less is More: When in doubt, go gentle. It’s better to make multiple passes with less pressure than to go too deep and risk damaging the skin.

So, there you have it. Remember, it’s all about feeling the rhythm, trusting your instincts, and dancing to the beat of your tattoo machine. Happy shading!

Aftercare Instructions For Heavily Shaded Tattoos

attoos with heavy shading require a tad more TLC during the healing process, and here’s why – the more ink in your skin, the more your body has to work to heal that area. That said, here are some specific aftercare tips for heavily shaded tattoos:

1. Keep it Clean: Washing your new tattoo is crucial, especially when it’s heavily shaded. Use a mild, fragrance-free soap and warm water to gently clean the area. Avoid scrubbing and pat dry with a clean towel.

2. Moisturize Wisely: You want to keep your tattoo moisturized but not overly so. Apply a thin layer of tattoo-specific ointment or unscented, hypoallergenic lotion. If your tattoo looks shiny or feels slippery, you’ve probably used too much.

3. No Picking or Scratching: This rule applies to all new tattoos, but especially so for heavily shaded ones. They might scab a little more and the itching can be a nightmare, but trust me, you don’t want to scratch or pick at it. Doing so can pull out the ink and leave you with a patchy, faded tattoo.

4. Hydrate and Nourish: Good healing comes from within. Keep your body hydrated and maintain a balanced diet to support your body’s healing process. If your body is well-nourished, it’s going to do a better job of healing that beautiful piece of art.

5. Avoid Sun Exposure: Sun is the mortal enemy of all tattoos, but heavily shaded ones can fade even faster if you’re not careful. Keep your tattoo covered and avoid direct sunlight. Once it’s healed, use a sunscreen with a high SPF whenever you’re out in the sun.

6. Follow Your Artist’s Instructions: Lastly, always follow the aftercare instructions provided by your tattoo artist. They know your tattoo best and can provide personalized advice.

Caring for a heavily shaded tattoo might feel like a full-time job, but remember, the better you care for your tattoo now, the better it will look in the long run. It’s worth the effort!


Now that we’ve journeyed through the shadowy labyrinth of tattoo shading, you’ve got the insider scoop on how to transform flat ink into dimensional art. But before you or your canvas dive in, remember, placement is key. Choose areas where skin changes and aging are less likely to distort your masterpiece – think upper arms, shoulders, or back. And remember, this is an art form, not a sale at your local department store. The cost will reflect the expertise, time, and materials needed, so save your pennies, because quality work is worth every cent. Yet, be aware, like any artistic endeavor, there are risks. Skin reactions, infections, or scarring are potential side effects. So, always consult with a professional and ensure your chosen artist adheres to stringent hygiene practices. Here’s to you, future shading mavens, armed with your new knowledge. Go forth, respect the craft, and add your own shade to the vibrant world of tattoo artistry. Happy shading!

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