Designing a tattoo brings some unique challenges. However, it can be really rewarding, especially if it for you. The first problem is that the design has to fit on a surface that isn’t flat. This will make it look different. The canvas isn’t white paper either. Skin stretches and changes color through our lives and you do need to consider this.
As well as my own expertise you will see below I have included an in depth quote from one of our ‘Industry Experts’. This gives you a balanced article that reaches beyond personal opinions.
To begin you need to choose the subject of the design. Because the tattoo will be with you forever you should choose something that is meaningful to you. Sometimes an idea that seems funny at the time is just plain embarrassing after a year or two.
Log any ideas you have in a journal so they don’t get forgotten. You can make notes at the side of the pictures about what you like about them and how you think they could be better.
Something else to consider is the cultural meaning of the tattoo and of tattoos in general. Like it or not, in some countries tattoos are still taboo for both cultural or religious reasons.
In Japan they are viewed with mistrust because of their link to organised crime. Many Muslim cultures look down on them as religiously unclean. Other cultures have a rich heritage of tribal tattooing and so tattoos are much more acceptable. However, they may have important symbolic meanings so do some research and don’t take anything for granted.
In reality most western countries the attitude falls somewhere between these two extremes. They can be seen as a badge of honour celebrating individuality, but also as a fashion statement. They can be a way of identifying like-minded people and reinforcing cultural bonds between people too. Especially in a world where people often struggle to embrace the tribal cultures we all came from.
Collect reference material
Search the internet for pictures and photos of the sort of thing you want. Look at different styles too. Both art styles and tattooing styles can affect the way a tattoo design looks completely.
Eventually you will end up with multiple images of the subject you want and multiple examples of tattoo and drawing styles that you like.
Don’t worry too much about the final design yet. Just collect as many different examples as you can. Even if you cant draw very well yourself, there are plenty of art programs out there that can help you create the final tattoo design.
Create a scrapbook or journal of all the pictures you have collected to help you design a tattoo. This helps keep them together and you can put them in the exact order you want. Remember to look at different styles as well as subjects.
It will help if you have a scanner and printer, but it can be done completely on a computer if that is what you find easiest.
Using an art program on a computer
You may wonder if you can design a tattoo if you can’t draw. It is possible, anyone can learn to draw a tattoo design. It may take time and effort to learn, but if you can use a computer it can get a lot easier. There is a free art program anyone can use at https://www.getpaint.net/ which I find great. It’s free open source software and is easy to use. It has some fantastic plug ins too. The program can easily transform colors or swap color designs to black and white. It also has a line drawing plug in that can help you to create the stencil for the tattoo artist.
Sometimes stretching a design or using one of the various distortion plug-ins can help you shape it as you want to. Adjusting the contrast or altering the ‘levels’ adjustment can create some fantastic effects. You can use the ‘Hue’ adjustment to quickly look at various color combinations too. Just spend some time learning how the program works and how to get the most from using it.
Cutting and pasting ideas together is also made really easy. You really don’t have to be a great artist to design a great tattoo.
Some people even pay a freelance designer to help with the design work, but in most cases this isn’t necessary. When it comes to creating the final artwork the tattooist will help. A freelance artist will rarely understand the needs of the tattoo artist unless they have spent a lot of time researching the subject and working in the industry.
Work with a good tattoo artist
You will need to work with the tattoo artist. They will help you decide what will work best. Find a good tattoo artist and listen to the advice they give you. They have experience and will know how well a picture will work as a tattoo design. Always choose a licenced tattoo studio to ensure health and hygiene regulations are followed.
You may find a picture of the subject you want in the design but want a slightly different view of it. It might be that you find the perfect picture but want it tattooed in a different style. A good tattoo artist will help you create the image in a way that it will work as a tattoo.
Some artwork can get too detailed or complex to make a good tattoo. This can become even more of an issue if the design needs shrinking. Designs that are too dark can quickly become unrecognisable if they aren’t done well too. Working with the artist means he can advise you before you make mistakes that cost you time reworking the design.
Collecting together as many images as you can will help you get the final tattoo design right. You can thin down the choices as you progress.
Different designs will fit different places on the body
If you know the place you want the tattoo then you need a design that will fit that place on the body. If you are set on a particular design it may be that it will only fit well in certain places.
You may want a slender long stemmed rose tattoo for example. This sort of design works really well on the arms and legs. Whereas a tattoo for across the back of your shoulders will need to be wider than it is long. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a tattoo design of long stemmed roses across your shoulders but it will need to be done right. Perhaps with a pair of rose stems spreading out from the middle.
Different body types suit different tattoos
Now I am not one to stereotype but sometimes things just don’t work easily. If you have someone with very slim arms then doing a bold tribal design filling the arm up is going to mean it is harder to make it look good.
In a similar way it can be more difficult to get a delicate fine line tattoo design to look good on someone who is very stocky. It isn’t always a case of just making things bigger or smaller. Getting the proportions right will make a good tattoo look great.
Getting the size right
This might sound simple but as I have said above, getting the proportions right isn’t always as straightforward as you might think.
It may be that you have a picture that is too long for the area you want tattooed. If you have a printer it should be fairly easy to print the picture off smaller. When you do you may find that the bit of the tattoo you wanted to be the primary focus isn’t in the place you wanted anymore.
If we use our long stemmed rose example again. It may be that by shrinking the design that the flowers of the rose become too small to fit well. It might be better to just shorten the stem slightly instead and leave the flowers the same size.
Settle on a budget
This is something you do need to consider. If you want a large colorful tattoo design it will cost more. If your budget won’t stretch enough then you need to decide whether to have a smaller tattoo design, or if you should simply save up for longer.
Some tattoo artists work on an hourly rate while others will be happy to work to a fixed price. Cost can be deceiving, but a good tattooist will be honest. Some tattoo artists work much faster than others. If a tattooist works slowly on an hourly rate things can mount up quickly.
What about color?
The first decision here is do I have the design in color or done as a black and grey tattoo design? Some tattoo designs just look better in color, whereas others are more striking when done in black and grey.
Personal choice is always the most important factor. If you want a black and grey tattoo then find an artist that specialises in them. They may want a fairly simple stencil but a very detailed picture to work from. Each artist will work slightly differently but most will want some sort of simplified line drawing to work from or use as a stencil.
If you are using color then there are other choices. Do you want a traditional block color design or do you want shaded colors? You might prefer the watercolor tattoo effect that became more popular in recent years instead.
Remember, all tattoos will fade and spread over time. Even the best tattoo artist cant stop our skin replacing itself. Think about what the tattoo will look like in ten or twenty years. If it will need re-coloring then it will get darker so if you start with a dark design, when it is re-colored it will get even darker.
You may want bold fairground style colors, but you may prefer pastels. Whatever intensity of color you want you will also need to think about the color palette that you use.
Understanding and using Color Theory
Color theory can give you some great ways to help create the right color balance in the tattoo design. Using a color wheel will help you identify colors that will work well together. Using the right primary color with its corresponding complementary secondary color will create a very striking contrast in the final tattoo.
Understanding color temperature will also help you choose the right colors. You can make a blue look warmer but it will never look truly warm. In the same way you can have cooler reds, but they will always warm up a design overall.
Another recent trend is the use of white ink for the whole tattoo. This gives a very unusual effect and is easily covered if necessary. You can also get U.V. Activated glow in the dark ink. So in daylight it is barely visible but when seen at night under Ultraviolet light is shines brightly.
Our Expert’s Opinion
“Designing a tattoo that will live on someone’s body forever is quite the pressure. You can’t just break it down as simply as you could when drawing something else. When starting a “tattoo” design there are a lot of things you have to take into consideration in order to design a “great” tattoo.”
“There are some important things you need to focus on. First, you need to look at the body of the client. You have to consider the shape and the size of the tattoo and make it fit their body properly. The size and placement should guide the tattoo design, from the detail, to the shape and composition. All of these greatly affect the final design.”
“You also need to look at the type of skin they have. All skin is different based on the age of the client, the location of the tattoo and how they have taken care of their skin. Once you understand the type of skin and placement, you have to consider the skin tone or complexion of the client too. All skin colors have a different look and even tanning has an effect. There are a few simple ways to understand what colors are in their complexion. “
“With lighter caucasion skin tones there isn’t much to worry about when it comes to undertones. However, if they tan, you need to analyze the colors and undertones in their tanned skin. For darker complexions there is much more variety. You primarily have yellow and red undertones that affect the darkness or lightness of the skins color. Be sure to recognize this it will help you pick the right colors for their skin. Different areas of the body have different tones too. For example, the upper arms, chest and inner forearm can have a lighter tone than the outer forearm.”
“Now you understand the Size, Location and Colors you will use and you can start to design the tattoo. Know what you are trying to draw. Research this subject matter. Find good examples of the subject matter related to your idea. You can explore a variety of references by searching realistic versions of the subject matter, drawings of the subject and even other tattoos.”
“Once you find some good reference material, you can see what a realistic version looks like. Study the main characteristics. Look at drawings and see how artists rendered them in different ways. One of the best references for good tattoo designs is “Tattoo Flash”.There is no better reference than designs that were specifically drawn for tattooing. Do yourself a favour and use good tattoo reference material.”
“Now you can approach the drawing with better knowledge to start your design.
You want to create something unique, so be sure to use the reference as a guide. Dont directly copy the design unless of course that is what the customer wants.”
“Use a template of the space/body part you are trying to tattoo. This means you can compose it to fit your client’s body exactly. There are a few ways to get this template. One, you can take measurements and a photo of the space on your client. Two, you can trace the shape on a piece of paper, You can also use templates made by professional tattooers from our company Tattoo Space. We have created a collection of every body part for tattooing that you can download. “Body Maps” is the perfect tool for designing tattoos and understanding composition,placement and size for your tattoos.”
“Now you have designed the tattoo and it fits the template, you need to test it in real life to make sure it’s not over-detailed or doesn’t fit correctly. When your client comes in you can print the design to see how it fits. If it seems to fit well, you can do one last test and create a “stencil” to see exactly how it lays on their body.”
“If you see any issues you can remove the stencil and make the necessary changes. The usual problems are size, too much small detail, or some sort of minor composition issue. Make the changes, reapply the stencil and repeat this until it’s perfect. Even if it takes 15 times and 3 hours, remember, this person is going to wear this for the rest of their life. Don’t forget how important that is.”
Whether you are designing a tattoo for yourself, for a friend, or to try and sell, it can be a rewarding task. Spending time designing something special and then seeing it immortalised as a tattoo is an exciting experience. Few things can be such a total vote of confidence in your artistic ability.
One thing you you should consider is, don’t rush anything. The tattoo is for life. When you have finished each stage of the design make copies and put them around your room. Maybe you could set the picture as the wallpaper on your phone for a while. If you start to question if it is the right tattoo design, chances are it isn’t.
You may see little bits you want to try and rework in the tattoo design, but make sure you are happy with the design itself. You will be wearing the design for the rest of your life, so be sure it is what you want. Changing the design or colors is much easier to do before the tattoo is done than it will be afterwards that is for sure.
There are a few things you should always remember. It won’t always go right and you will make many mistakes. Don’t be discouraged. Just try to learn from each mistake and take your time. Secondly, if anyone says you can’t do it, ignore the comment or better still, use it as motivation. Prove them wrong by putting the effort in to do it well as you can. You won’t regret any effort you put in if the tattoo is right when it is finished.