Tattoo Shading Techniques and Tips

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 10, 2020
    Last Updated: February 6, 2021

Whether you’re a seasoned tattoo artist or a beginner, learning to shade can improve your tattooing technique and make the body art you provide to your customers unique. It is a skill that not every tattoo artist knows how to do correctly and well. 

While you cannot expect to turn pro as a tattoo shader overnight, learning about shading and how it works can pique your interest and help you decide whether to pursue this skill and make it part of your tattooing repertoire. 

We walk you through the reasons you may want to learn and use shading methods, and how to use and apply them.


Shading is an art. Learning in a classroom, reading a book, or watching videos will not give you the confidence or experience you need to become good at the technique. Actual hands-on experience will. 

It is a skill you acquire through practice. In fact, your peers may judge your work solely on how well you shade. When you master your shading skill, it allows you to be more creative, and it helps make your art distinctive. You can also use the technique to hide errors and perform cover-ups.

Some Basic Insights

Shading works for various reasons. Check out these essential tips before you start practicing. 

  • Outline first, then add shading. You must do all black work first before adding any color. The spectrum of tattooing runs from dark to light. Black, then the darkest color, then the lightest color last. If you do not do it this way, dark colors combine with the light colors in the pores the machine has made previously, and an ugly mess results. Remember: do all the black work first, then when the outline is done, the shading follows.
  • If you shade too lightly, the shading won’t stand out. If it is not feathered correctly, it appears blunt, and the shading seems to end abruptly. This is known as “deadheading” and is not desirable. 
  • Some tattoo artists use black shading exclusively. The reason that a tattoo is rendered only in black with no color is the sole way to show the tattoo. They feel that adding color does not add to the design. This is often born out, especially with single-needle tattoos. Black-only tattoos develop a patina with age. If you retouch the tattoo with additional black ink in a few years, it produces a unique quality that no other method produces. 

Practice with Pencil or Paint

Shade a drawing or painted piece to get the feel of actual tattoo shading. Practice pressure. Pressing lightly versus pressing hard creates substantially different effects. Practice various strokes, which prepares you to tattoo various types of artwork. 

If you’re really new to tattooing, you may want to consider taking an art class to learn basic drawing techniques that you can apply to your tattooing. 

Practice on a Pork Belly

A pig’s skin and flesh are quite similar to a human’s, making it great for practicing shading. You can buy a pork belly at your local grocery store or purchase one online. 

Working on a pork belly gives you the feel of the pressure and strokes you should use, without being concerned about making mistakes on a customer.

Choose the Appropriate Sized Needles 

The various shader needles create different effects. Bigger needles produce softer shades. The smaller ones concentrate colors and produce a harder look. For shading, make sure your needle protrudes not more than .039 of an inch (1mm). 

Use the Correct Tattoo Machine Setting 

For softer shading that you can build on, select a slower speed. A faster speed produces darker shading. Regulate the speed to create the type, depth, and look of shading that you need to achieve the look your customer wants.

Plan the Tattoo

Crucial to success is planning the tattoo based on the customer’s desires. Discuss in detail what your customer wants, including shading. If she or he says they will leave it up to you, to protect the relationship from any misunderstandings, plan out the details anyway. Create a sketch for the benefit of you and your client.

Consider Shadow and Light

Plan for these elements for each tattoo you are creating. Shading is an art, as well as a technique. 

Consult with your client about a theoretical light source of the tattoo, bearing these points in mind:

  • The theoretical source of light should be the same for all the shading you are doing on the piece. You want the shadow to be congruous; for example, if the top portion of a skull is light, the bottom part will be darker.
  • If you are employing colors, shade with colors that complement. Go to your color chart and choose a color that complements the one you chose for lining. This makes the tattoo a standout. 

Rev-Up Your Tattoo Machine

Be sure you are using an appropriately-configured machine, for the tattoo and for shading. Choose a needle size and type that fits the work you’re doing. 

Regulate the power supply speed. Experienced tattoo artists use a slower speed for shading versus the one they use for lining. 

After you have done your lining, it’s best to leave some time before you begin shading. Scheduling a separate appointment is wise because this gives you a break and allows your client to think further about where s/he wants to shade and how it should look.

Using petroleum jelly throughout the tattoo sitting lubricates and protects the client’s skin. Use it as many times as needed. 

Start Shading

Prepare the surface by first cleaning it using antibacterial soap and water. This is especially necessary if you have previously completed the lining. Remove any sticky spots, grease, or stenciling that can inhibit your shading practice. 

Begin in the middle of the part you are shading. Work your way out in a circular movement. Keep in mind you are going to use more pressure on the dark areas compared to the light ones. This requires a “feel” to the technique, so you have to practice. Remember: A circular movement is more gentle on skin than moving back and forth.

You’ll need to wipe away any excess ink as you shade. Remove it so you can see your work more easily. If you see any inconsistencies, fix them by altering the shading. Dab up any ink that remains after you have completed the tattoo as well.

Adjust your technique’s weight to alter the shading’s depth. Your brushwork needs to be from heavy to light. Add additional pressure to create the dark area; reduce the pressure as you shift to the light area. Make the transition from dark to light smooth. You do not want the gradient to appear obvious. 

Dilute the ink as you need to. This will create natural gradients. To dilute black pigment into gray, dip the needle into distilled water. This allows you to avoid changing needles as you make your way through the tattoo. 

As you are applying ink, angle the needle in a circular movement. This blends the tattoo’s tones effectively because it applies ink in various amounts, adding to the shading effort. 

You can also vary the amount of the ink in the mouth of the needle as needed. This is less efficient time-wise. Nevertheless, you can use this method if you are not comfortable with your skill in producing a good gradient, by controlling the pressure you are applying with the needle. Think of it as another option.

To make sure the darker ink is completely out of the needle prior to shading the lighter parts of the design, clean your needles as you progress. Not cleaning needles can do serious damage to your shading. 

Using these methods and techniques with dexterity and patience produces the beautiful, unique shading that you and your customer envisioned.


Shading is a skill and an art. It is a skill that requires learning through knowledge and hands-on experience. After you absorb basic techniques, it requires practice, determination, and patience to become a confident, pro shader. 

It is also an art that allows you greater creativity and leeway in creating beautiful tattooing that can set you and your creative endeavors apart from the crowd. Add these shading techniques and tips to your tattooing skills so you can add more beauty and inspiration to your customers’ tattoo visions, and for your greater success as a tattoo artist. 


How do you shade using different colored inks?

Use the dark hues of the color you’ve chosen for shading where you need it and the light hues for highlights.

Is it OK when fine lines appear with new shading?

Yes. This simply indicates that the ink is drying. Caution: If you attempt to smooth the lines out, it will damage the tattoo.

Can you attain a gold-colored tattoo with shading?

Yes, you can. You may also add hints of bronze for a distinctive appearance.

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