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How to Tattoo: Drawing Exercises for Aspiring Tattoo Artists

Le Tigre has been an online writer for 10 years. Their articles often focus on tattoos and tattoo artists.

A woman with a colorful cupcake tattoo.

A woman with a colorful cupcake tattoo.

Start Thinking Like a Tattoo Artist

Many people think that tattooing is no different than drawing on skin, but that's not true. There are some important overlapping skills, but being a tattoo artist is not the same as being a sketch artist.

A good tattoo artist develops a strong eye for shape, color, and line work. I am going to give you some exercises that will help you regardless of the type of art you want to do.

How to Get Better at Tattooing

  1. Improve your understanding of line
  2. Get used to shape
  3. Pick up some markers
  4. Get comfortable with color
  5. Check out some tattoo books
  6. Design a tattoo for yourself
  7. Find someone to apprentice with
Drawing a series of clean lines with varying thicknesses is good tattoo practice.

Drawing a series of clean lines with varying thicknesses is good tattoo practice.

1. Improve Your Understanding of Line

Don't shade anything at first, just concentrate on making strong lines. Draw in pencil every day. Draw the things that are around you as exactly as possible. Tattoos are very much defined by the line, so get used to thinking about the things you draw as being made up of a collection of lines. Push yourself to draw increasingly complicated things, such as the pattern of brick on a building, wallpaper, or designs from clothing. Keep these drawings in a folder.

How to Practice Your Line for Tattooing

  1. Once you have 10–12 finished pencil line drawings, get a medium-tip pen.
  2. On a glass table or a window, place a clean sheet of paper over your drawing and ink all of your lines. You are trying to make your lines as clean (not wobbly) as possible.
  3. Compare your original pencil drawing with the inked version. You will notice that many of the intricate details bleed together.
  4. Repeat the pencil and ink process again. Over time, you will find that your choice of lines, your inking, and your ability to draw in strange positions will improve.

2. Get Used to Shape

Once you've mastered lines, move on to visualizing how those lines and shapes change when they are applied to a surface that isn't flat.

How to Practice Drawing 3D on the Body

  1. Start by using a coffee cup or some other curved container. Ink your drawings directly onto the surface of the cup with your medium-tip pen. Keep practicing until your lines are as good on a curved surface as they are on flat paper.
  2. After you feel comfortable with this, get some wide masking tape and tape a body part, placing each strip of tape right next to or slightly overlapping another strip to form a wide area to practice on. Then use a medium-tip pen to lay your lines down.
  3. Notice how the image looks from various angles and how the body part changes the appearance of the image.
  4. Continue this practice and observation of many different body parts—yours and friends'.

3. Pick Up Some Markers

Pick up a basic set of Prismacolor or Copic markers. These are some nice quality markers that you can use to practice more color combination and separation. Keep practicing until you can do an intricate pattern or picture on a coffee cup with clean lines.

4. Get Comfortable With Color

Getting a good sense of color for tattooing is going to be a major plus. Not only do you have to understand what a color will look like when it mixes with flesh tones, but you also need to get good at picking and separating colors.

How to Practice Tattoo Coloring Skills

The best way to get used to thinking about color separation is to do some collages.

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Read More from Tatring

  1. Get colored paper and draw a shape.
  2. Now create shadows for that shape by inking different colors on top of it. Notice how each layer changes the layers below it. I suggest starting with light colors and adding darker colors. Darks can cover lights, but getting rid of dark colors doesn't work very well.
  3. Once you have a good sense of how the colors interact, try refining your work by making those shapes and shadows separate pieces with as little overlap as possible.

5. Check Out Some Tattoo Books

Get some books that have lots of pictures of tattoos and flash. Look and see what color combinations other artists use. Use your inking skills to replicate the designs you see.

As you browse through hundreds of examples, you will see that the really amazing tattoos have great line work. That will be your most important skill.

6. Design a Tattoo For Yourself

You shouldn't be putting things on other people's bodies until you have first-hand experience of creating the design and being the canvas for it. Most tattooists start by practicing with the tattoo machine on fruit or fake skin, then on themselves, then on other people. For more information about how and where to practice, read So You Want to Start a Career in Tattooing: Here's How.

7. Find Someone to Apprentice With

In exchange for hands-on experience and information, as an apprentice, you are an assistant, so you will start by learning about all the things the shop does before you get to work on people. These are important skills to know, as you will probably spend more of your time cleaning up and setting up than you will inking. Start off by volunteering to do work for an artist you like to show him or her that you are dedicated and want to work for them.

Have Fun!

Listen and learn. Look at the flash on the wall and think about how you can make it unique. And most of all, be friendly—tattooing involves a lot of time dealing with people.

For more information, read Tattoo Apprenticeships: How to Get One and Why You Need It.

Good luck!


sagsr Tattoo on December 06, 2018:





joe on December 12, 2012:

Thanks for the info you greatly helped me out much appreciated

Jamie on March 17, 2010:

What do you think of the tattoo schools they have out there.

Adam on April 25, 2008:

I love Copic markers, they are the best I have ever used. Great hub!

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