Tips for Shading Color Tattoos 

| Fireside Technique | EP 14

When you see a color tattoo, you may not think much about the underlying value structure, but organizing the major dark and light shapes before getting into color is crucial for the tattoo to read well and last a long time in the skin

In this episode of Fireside Technique, we’re diving into the beginnings of a color sleeve by blocking in the dark and light shapes first. Hopefully you will pick up a few tricks and techniques that will provide a solid foundation for your tattoo before laying down any color at all.

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Video by Jake Meeks – 

Writing by Daniel Pushcarich - 

Topics: Tattoo Techniques, Shading, Color Tattoo, Fireside Techniques, 

Black Shading for Color Tattoos

“I’m not trying to overly render it, I’m just quickly going from dark to skin tone.”
- Jake Meeks

I always recommend starting your color work with bold, black shading. The goal at this stage is to just block in the shadow shapes to quickly define and separate the light and shadow forms. 

scumbling in black ink to create rocks

I’ll typically use this technique in larger pieces and allow the black time to heal so the area can be saturated with color in a follow up session. This stage is all about keeping it simple and working from general to specific.

Mixing Complementary Colors Instead of Gray 

To Mute Colors In Tattoos 

“You’re served a lot better by mixing a color with its complementary, or in with another color and creating those off hues, rather than just laying it directly over gray.”
- Jake Meeks

It’s beneficial to keep in mind that you don’t actually have to mix black, gray, or white into a color to mute it down. Considering that most ink manufacturers have so many shades and variations of different colors now that you’d probably be able to find any transitional or muted hue.

call back to a previous episode for mixing colors together

Another trick to consider is just mixing the colors you already have together. Mixing a complimentary is a more clean way to mute a color down. A little bit of purple into yellow, or green into red will give the colors a more natural appearance. 


For a more In depth look at this subject check out the deep dive page for:

Use this Color Trick in your Next Tattoo 

Creating Shapes with Pressure Variation 

As Tattoo Underpainting

“I’m varying my pressure a little bit as I go. Transitioning from dark to light, just enough to describe the form.”
- Jake Meeks

To get value transitions when shading the major shapes, I focus on hand movement and pressure used with the machine. Keeping the first passes light and soft will act as an underpainting for the rest of the tattoo and allow you to build up saturation gradually. 

picture of shading on arm tattoo

But again, this phase of the tattoo is all about staying loose and focusing only on describing the major forms.

Improvised Tattoo Shading 

To Define Shapes And Edges For Later

“ gray-wash lines were so light and there weren't enough of them so I'm kinda inventing some of these little guys as we go.”
- Jake Meeks

The best part of keeping the tattoo loose in these stages is that it allows you to iterate and test ideas. Working from broad, general shapes to more specific details is a great way to troubleshoot and make adjustments throughout the tattoo process.

improvising markings for the tattoo

You can see how I’m defining just a few smaller details to help guide myself later. Bumping up some edges to push contrast and help define different shapes apart from each other. Even though I’m adding these small adjustments now I’ll still come in at the very end with a liner and some black to give it that final contrast boost.

Make Your Machine Work For You

“I see too many people that draw a certain way then end up having to tattoo a different way… if your machine isn’t operating the way you naturally make marks, then correct the machine and not your marks.”
- Jake Meeks

Another thing to keep in mind is that your machine should be a natural extension of you and your natural mark making. If you are having to change the way you make a mark to suit how your machine is running, you need to correct the machine so that it is working for you. You’ll save a lot of time down the road with a properly running tattoo machine.

picture of tattoo machine with hands

Trying things out is the main thing. Everyone's preferences are different so just taking an opportunity to try different types/styles of machines, grips, cartridges, power supplies etc. Obviously you want to stay within your budget so it's not reasonable to just buy a bunch of machines and parts, but ask some of the people in your shop if you can try out their machine or set up.

If you work with coils and balance seems to be an issue maybe consider rotaries as there are so many fit and form options out there. If you want to stick to Coils then maybe consider taking a class on building/tuning your machine. Extracurricular learning is always a plus because it not only benefits you but it makes the clients experience better.


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Transcript can be found here. All Transcripts can be found here

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The Fireside Tattoo Network is home to the Fireside podcast, Fireside Technique video series and our Fireside Weekly blog.

The Fireside Tattoo podcast is hosted by veteran tattooer Jake Meeks, check out our episodes where we discuss, argue and wax philosophical, from tips for all levels of artists to trends in the tattoo world. Many guest artists have sat down for interviews and in-depth conversations and many more are planned…check back often!

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