Tattooing is different than doing other artwork because you don’t have a defined border like with other artwork. There is no edge of the canvas. You have to think about the area of the body the design is going on and how to make the art flow with the body.
Then you can print out the picture using regular paper, not photo paper, so that it’s easy to draw on. You can do a small, quick design of the tattoo on the photo to help set the flow and general design, then refer back to that as you draw the design on the tracing paper that you used to measure the space you’re going to fill on the body. Start with a quick, rough, loose sketch to begin the process.
Trying to get the design perfect with the first draft is nearly impossible and tends to make the art look stiff. Start loose, and then tighten it up as you go to get all the details worked out. Use tracing paper in layers to refine your sketch. That way it just gets more and more refined and you don’t have a ton of erasing to do. If you feel you’ve started in the wrong direction, it is okay to just scrap the whole design and start over.
Make sure that you’re happy with your composition before you commit it to canvas, or a body. No amount of detailing, color or other tricks can hide a poor composition. A good composition is the foundation for any good piece of art.
Drawing a miniature of the design can be a useful tool in composition. It saves time and you can knock out several thumbnail sketches to decide if a design works or not. When designing a tattoo that covers a whole back, for instance, you can start by taking a picture of the person’s back. Then you can use a piece of tracing paper over the photo to get the exact shape, then enlarge it to a comfortable size for you to draw, but not so large that it’s overwhelming.
You can begin by doing the drawing about 8 ½” × 11” (20cm × 28cm). At this size you won’t be tempted to add a lot of unneeded detail that will just clutter up the composition when it’s full size. When that drawing is done to your satisfaction, you can enlarge it to the size it will be when applied as a tattoo, then refine the drawing and add detail as needed. You can also color the miniature to show your client how it will look with color, and to help figure that out for yourself, too.
When deciding where to place an image on the body, you have to determine where the shape of the design would fit best. For instance, a traditional pinup girl works best on a forearm or calf due to the fact the design is tall and narrow. You would not want to place it on the chest, as it would break the plane and look very awkward. Something rounder, like a heart design, would go better on one side of the chest.
If you’re using the whole chest area, a full wingspan eagle is really perfect for the area—that’s why it is such a timeless classic. Other birds also work well there, like a raven or an owl. It is key to match the shape of the design to the body part.