How to Color a Tattoo Like a Pro

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 15, 2020
    Last Updated: February 6, 2021

Coloring a tattoo is a fairly simple process once you’ve moved out of the linework’s precision. There are a few key rules you should always apply and practice when coloring a tattoo. Luckily, whether you’re coloring a tattoo black and grey or every color of the rainbow, the technique is pretty much the same.

Setting Up your Tattoo Machine for Coloring – Needles

It is pretty important that you, as the artist, understand the basics of tattooing before applying ink on to someone’s skin. Always use a new needle each time to ensure that the tattoo is done in the most sanitary way possible. Make sure when you change your needle that you are setting up for the tattoo’s correct area. Using the right tattoo needle is crucial to ensuring the best color in your work. 

Round Tattoo Needles

Round tattoo needles are simply needles that are soldered around a central area in round patterns. They are generally identified as lines or shaders (RL= round liner, RS= round shader).

When you are coloring or shading a tattoo, you will want to use round shaders because they are a great option for color filling and the basic shading you need. Depending on the thickness you prefer and the amount of color-packing you want to accomplish, you will need to choose the right configuration. For example, if the needle is labeled 9RS, it has nine needles placed in a circle. 

Magnum Needles

These are the most common choice of needles for shading. They usually have a longer taper than round shader needles. Magnum needles are able to produce a lot of ink on the skin, which makes them a great choice for large color areas. They require fewer passes over an area, which means less skin trauma. There are a few different kinds of Magnum Needles.

Weaved Magnum

These are soldered like a flat needle, but are done so on alternating sides of the needle in a pyramid-type pattern. This gives them the ability to cover much more area. 

Stacked Magnum

These needles have two rows of needles that are on both sides of the bar. They are much closer together than Weaved Magnum needles. This allows for tighter color packing. 

Round/Curved Magnum

Round Magnums are put together, so the tips of the needles arch together at the center. The idea is that the rounded edge will conform to the skin better, which allows for better dispersion of the ink and less damage to the skin. 

Blending and Mixing Tattoo Ink for Color Application

There are times when the ink in your collection cannot provide you with the right shade you need. It is not realistic to have access to every color that has ever existed. However, tattoo ink can be mixed and blended to be made darker and lighter in order to achieve the correct shade. The only major rule to mixing tattoo ink is that the tools used to mix are 100% sterile. 

Making the Ink Darker

Any ink color can be made darker by adding a bit of black to it. Try to carefully add just one drop of black ink at a time, so you do not overdo it. Thoroughly blend the black to the color to test it before adding more drops. 

Making the Ink Lighter

This is basically the opposite concept of making ink darker. Add white one drop at a time to make your ink lighter. Another aspect of lightening ink is to add a bit of distilled water if the method works with your ink. Follow the same one-drop-at-a-time method as you did with the black until you have reached the desired shade. 

Making a Different Color

If you do not have a needed color, you can mix two colors together to create it. Follow the same guidelines as you did to lighten and darken the ink until you have reached the desired color.  

Coloring a Tattoo

When applying color to a tattoo, there are some relatively easy steps that need to be followed. 

Preparing to Add Color

Once you have selected your needles and set up your colors, you need to get your machine ready to tattoo. There are a few differences when you set up your machine for color/shading vs. lining. 

You want to set up your machine to hit the skin in a more direct manner in order to pack in solid colors and obtain the desired whips. If you are layering black and grey, you will want to prepare your machine to make shallow strokes. 

The machine’s speed will vary depending on where on the body you are going to be applying the tattoo. Generally, running colors on a tattoo will require a slower speed than the lining. It is mostly about feeling out what you like best. 

Since you have already done the outline, the area should have been cleaned with soap and water. Doing this helps get rid of any excess ink and stencil marks that may have been left behind. It also helps rid the skin of any leftover residue that could impact the way the color looks. 

Black vs. Color

For the most part, black and color will be applied in the same way. When packing black, you want to run the ink in assertively and consistently. When layering in color, you will need to run your machine at a lower level in order to achieve smooth blending and leave a nice edge for the next layer of color to be added. 


When you apply color to a tattoo, it is best to use a small circular motion with the machine a little bit at a time. If you maintain a consistent pace, a lot of the area will be covered quickly. Ensure that each little circle slightly overlaps the last one until the area is covered. You want to try to get this done in no more than two sweeps, if possible. 

Do not press too hard into the skin or stay in one area for too long. Doing this will cause a lot of trauma to the skin and can lead to scabs or scars. Always keep the machine moving while the needles are in contact with the skin. Get the color right in the first pass, so it looks better and requires fewer holes in the skin. The color will not be any brighter if you try to overpack it into the skin. 

Clean and Edit as you go

Puddles of ink get all over the skin as you add to a tattoo, therefore, take the time to carefully wipe away excess ink and blood. You do not want to ruin the tattoo by accidentally coloring over the outline.

If the area is supposed to be a solid color, yet the skin is showing through, correct it right away. You probably need to make smaller circles and cover smaller areas at a time. Slow down a bit and inspect your work. 

Make sure that you thoroughly clean the tube and needles of your machine every time you switch to a new shade or color. Not doing this will lead to sloppy and muddied mixes.

Final Thoughts

Adding color to a tattoo is arguably the most rewarding part of the process. Once you have moved past the outline, it is time to see your vision come to life in front of you, thus ensure you know how to add color the correct way.

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