5 Fundamentals of Tattooing

Tattooing is a skill that’s been around for centuries, but it’s still something of a mystery to most people. To understand what makes a good tattoo, you need to understand the fundamentals of art as well as the core elements of tattooing.

Mike Millirones, Tattoo Artist
Mike M.

First, let’s take a look at the 5 elements of art.

Elements of Art

  • Line. 
  • Shape. 
  • Color
  • Form
  • Texture
These may look familiar, the basic elements of art are taught in most art classes in school. They analyze different components of a work of art. These elements are present in nearly every piece of art, in some form or fashion.
Next, let’s take a look at the 5 fundamentals of tattooing.

Fundamentals of Tattooing

  • Lining 
  • Shading
  • Contrast
  • Color Blending
  • Saturation
Noticeably, there is some overlap between the art and tattoo fundamentals. Understandable, since tattooing is definitely an art form. However, there are key differences specific to tattooing that describe how the elements of art apply to the world of tattooing.


Lining is the process of outlining a tattoo. The outline defines the image, creates the shape, and forms the structure of a tattoo. It’s important for those lines to be consistent, smooth, and clean for the tattoo to look its best.

Tattoo artists use specific needles for lining, with the design often dictating the size. Lining needles are usually a circular grouping with a needle in the center. This pattern produces a dense, defined imprint in the skin, exactly what you want for a bold outline.

The outline starts with a stencil. Read how a tattoo stencil is developed from your idea here.


Jesus Portrait Tattoo
Dillon R.

Shading uses different tones of ink to make an image appear three-dimensional or create contrast. This fundamental can be done with any type of tattoo, but is most commonly seen in black and gray tattoos. It’s also possible to use other colors of ink for shading purposes.

Also, shading is used to give the illusion that a tattooed object has depth; it’s closely tied to contrast, which you can read about below.

Realism tattoos rely on the highlights and shadows of an image. Tattoo artists use shading to convey these light and dark areas. Amazing hyper-realism tattoos are produced when the artist has attention to detail and a firm understanding of how the light plays off of the subject!


Contrast is the difference between light and dark areas within a tattoo. Good contrast creates depth in a tattoo, making it easier for your eyes to zero in on what you want them to see. This tattoo fundamental emphasizes certain elements of a piece, or creates hierarchy between different parts.

Contrast isn’t always black and white, however. Varying shades of grey or even full colors can create contrast. Also, the type of contrast depends on the style of artwork. Traditional tattoos or new school designs will have more clean cut contrast; different colors are separated by the outline and are more commonly solid colors.

Alternatively, realism tattoos typically don’t use a solid black outline. Realistic tattoo designs are comprised of many varying levels of contrast to create a smooth, life-like appearance.

Color Blending

Matt C.

Color blending is the process of using varying saturations to create a smooth transition between colors. Additionally, blending creates gradients, fades and other effects in your work. This fundamental is important for both color and black/gray work.

Most tattoo styles incorporate some type of blending, which is why it’s an important fundamental of tattooing. Great blending work takes a tattoo to the next level if executed well!


Finally, saturation is the purity of color. It’s also a measure of how much a color is diluted with white or black.

When it comes to tattooing, saturation refers to the density of ink applied to the skin. The more needle punctures in a given area, the more saturated your resulting colors will be.

Frequently, a design requires full saturation; you want as much color as possible when the goal is a solid color. Other times an artist will use blend different levels of saturation to create contrast. See how it all ties together?

All Caught Up?

Hopefully, this guide has given you a better understanding of the fundamentals of tattooing. Tattooing is an extremely rewarding and creative art form, but it’s important to remember that it also requires practice and patience.

Ready to see how these fundamentals come together for your next tattoo? Head over to the link below to get things rolling!

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