Tattoo Outlines and Linework

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 10, 2020
    Last Updated: November 11, 2020

Outlining and linework are two of the most critical and intricate aspects of a good tattoo and are considered tattooing fundamentals. Outlining a tattoo takes careful attention and concentration. An outline done well will confidently show off your professionalism and highlights that you have a solid foundation.

This takes time and careful consideration to ensure you leave your client with the best work possible.


Selecting the Perfect Needle for Outlining a Tattoo

Before you can apply ink to skin, you need to know which needles are best for outlining a tattoo. There are many different kinds of tattoo needles, and they all have other functions that depend on the line and work needed. 

Round Tattoo Needles

Round tattoo needles are simply needles that have soldering around a central area in round patterns. They usually carry the label of liner or shader (RL= round liner, RS = round shader). Round lines are great for technical parts, such as small lines and details, because they are packed very tightly. 

When you want to accomplish more thick and bold outlines (like the ones you may see in Japanese style tattoos), you may want to consider using a loose round liner. 

Flat Tattoo Needles

Needles that are stacked together in a straight line are commonly referred to as flat tattoo needles. They are the go-to option for outlining. Flat tattoo needles give the tattoo a more clear, defined line with a single stroke. They can also be used to fill in color, though they are handiest for line work. 

When reading about or buying flat tattoo needles, they will have the abbreviation FL (flat lines) and FS (flat shader). The number that coincides with the needle name refers to how many needles are in that piece. For example, 3FL means that there are three flat liner tattoo needles in that cartridge. 

Creating the Stencil: The Foundation for Perfect Outlines

Using a stencil when placing a tattoo on the skin is the best way to ensure that the design will go on with the best possible precision and detail. How a stencil looks on the skin will directly show in the final produced result. Every stencil is used to create a go-to template, but getting the perfect stencil requires specific methods. 

Thermal Fax vs. Hectograph Carbon Paper

The most important piece of a tattoo stencil is that it sets you up to create crisp, clean lines when applied to the skin. The clearer the outline, the easier the tattoo is to complete without hesitation or confusion. Once the sketch is complete, it is time to bring the stencil to life to apply it to the subject. 

There are two top choices when it comes to a method of putting a stencil together. Hectograph carbon transfer paper allows you to turn your design into a stencil right away. Thermal Fax paper is applied and activated by heat. These methods allow you to create the design directly on the paper without duplicating the design. Both options are great for creating a solid base for the tattoo. It just comes down to personal preference from there. 

It is important to note that the option to freehand draw the stencil directly onto the skin is never out of the question. This is much harder to do, but some of the most experienced and seasoned artists can accomplish the task beautifully. Freehand drawing shows complete trust in your work and the ability to create smooth, clean lines.

Transferring the Stencil to Skin

Assuming you are not freehanding the entire tattoo, once you are satisfied with your stencil, it is time to place it on the skin. This is crucial to ensure that the tattoo stencil will provide a clear and easy to use foundation. 

You want to make sure that you use a good transfer solution with a quick drying time to keep the transfer time quick and clean. This also helps to avoid smudging throughout the tattoo application process. You will continuously be wiping away blood and ink, so your transfer solution must be able to hold up to that to keep the lines visible. Take the time to figure out which stencil transfer solution is best for you. 

How to Outline a Tattoo

Here’s a step-by-step guide to outlining your next piece.

Prepare the Skin

Before anything else is done, you need to prepare the skin for a tattoo. To do this, you will want to shave the area to make sure it is entirely free of any hair. Once this is done, you will want to add a sterile lubricant or antiseptic spray to allow the stencil to hold to the skin. After this, you will apply the stencil to the area and be ready to move on to the application. 

Prep the Machine and Fill the Machine Reservoir with Black Ink

The first “real” step in outlining a tattoo is to fill the machine reservoir with black ink. The proper way to do this is with the machine turned off. Lightly place or dip the tattoo machine’s tip into an ink cap full of black ink. Be very careful not to touch the tip to any surface or the cap. This will fill the end of the tube up. Note that ink supply will not last very long and requires frequent dips back into the cap. 

Once you have dipped your machine in ink, run your machine above a paper towel to test the ink. If your machine spurts or spills any ink out, stop and make some adjustments. Typically, making small adjustments to the bands will solve this problem. 

Hold The Machine Properly

You must hold the machine correctly if you are to get solid lines in your tattoo. It is best to hold the gun at a bit of an angle, much like you would a pencil. You should always keep your machine either forward or sideways. When done in the direction, needles have a bit of backward pressure placed on them against the skin, which helps the needle stay in the bottom of the tube with the ink. 

Apply the First Lines

Start at the bottom of the tattoo, or the area with the most gravity pull. This is important because blood, sweat, and ink may run down and can smudge other areas of your stencil as the process continues. This is also going to prevent stencil removal when you wipe the area between drags. 

To apply the line, press the needle tip against the skin and pull your hand along the line. Remember not to move the tattoo gun with only your fingers and leave your hand in place. Applying even and consistent pressure throughout the linework is the only way to ensure even lines take place. 

Tattoo application is easiest (and ideal) on tight skin. This is up to the artist to do as you are responsible for pulling the area tight as you work. As the needle makes contact with the skin, the machine should sound subdued. This is referred to as “choking down.” If it does not sound this way, the machine is probably too fast and needs to be slowed down a bit. 

Continue the Process Until Lines are Complete

To start, it is best to choose a few less critical lines near the bottom of the tattoo to give you and the client a chance to warm up to the tattoo’s feeling. As you move on, go over each line slowly to cut down the number of times it will need to be gone over. 

The way a needle goes into the skin is basically like tattooing a lot of tiny dots very close to each other. So, if you go too fast during this, there will be gaps and inconsistencies that will require multiple passes over the same line. 

As you complete each line, pull the needle up and away from the skin. At the same time, take the pressure off the footswitch to turn off the machine. After you have done this, wipe away any excess ink and blood from the area with a paper towel to clearly see your work. You will continue this process until all of the linework for the tattoo is complete. 

Finishing the Outline

When you have finished the outline, give the tattoo a good soap wash and wipe it gently with a clean towel. Go over your work carefully to make sure that there are no spots that may require touching up. Look for disconnected lines or small forgotten spots and correct them. Now is the time to ensure solid work, since it’s tougher to fix outlining mistakes after you’ve started applying color.

You are done with the outline! Rewash the tattooed area and cover it with vaseline. It is time to turn off your machine and allow yourself and the client to take a bit of a break. Dispose of everything you just used and clean up your station. It is time to get prepped and ready for the shading and coloring of the tattoo.