Q) I have been tattooing for about 15 years and I am well-known in my area. I do well and I am also a High School Art teacher of 23 years. Unfortunately my shading does not have a smooth transitioning look to it. I see others and it is beautiful. I am stuck in the midwest with two jobs and a sick wife, and cannot tavel and learn as my peers do. I have tried a variety of different solutions....i am not there. Can you help me through this forum?
A) To get really specific, I'd need to see a picture of your work to really know what it needs. But here are some good general guidelines for keeping it smooth:
1) Spread magnums! If you are trying to get smooth shading with round shaders or stacked mags, the odds are stacked against you. Spread mags are ideal because they have the widest spaces between the needles, making it easier to work the skin more like an airbrush and less like a fat marker. One nice thing about spread mags is that because of the large spread between needles, the hole pattern they make in the skin is fairly diffuse. This allows you to work the skin a few passes in a session, making it easier to achieve a smooth gradation without creating trauma.
2) Smooth hand movements. With a spread magnum you want to work in smooth overlapping oval hand movements, keeping these motions tighter and more concentrated in areas you want the shading darker, and quicker and larger in areas you want lighter shading. Imagine these hand movements being used with a really dull pencil on paper... in fact, shading with a dull pencil or colored pencil is good practice for shading with a magnum. Keep the skin tight, keep your motions smooth and even, and your healed results should look smooth. You can read more about specific hand motions in the technical chapters of my book Reinventing The Tattoo.
3) Washes where necessary. Whether you are shading with black or with color, dipping occasionally into water to dilute the ink is a good way to smooth out your blends. Washes can be worked a bit more than undiluted pigment, allowing for a more evenly distributed hole pattern in the skin, making for the smoothest gradients. You'll want to use undiluted pigment in the darker parts of your gradients, with more dilution where the shading is lighter and possibly some highly diluted pigment in areas where the gradient fades out into skin.
4) Follow-through with the liner. Once you are done with your magnum shading, try going back with a small round- ideally, in a slower running machine than a basic fast liner- and working the shading through the tight spaces, along the edges and outlines, etc. You can also use it to smooth out any small holes you see in the shading in a surgical manner. This sort of a "tightening" pass is not strictly about shading, but also addresses edge crispness, detail etc. in a way that leads to a smoother and more developed overall look.
5) Make sure your shading strategy is strong to begin with. You need enough drawing skills to understand where and when to use long, high-contrast gradients in the piece in order to separate the elements. Often tattooers don't have enough of an understanding of shading, and end up using small tentative areas of shading throughout the piece in fairly equal amounts. There should be some elements with deep gradients and others with only light shading- and there is no rule for determining this... you just need to have enough artistic vision to know. That takes a lot of drawing experience... and many tattooers have way more experience with needles than with pencils. It should be the other way around... and for all the best artists in the industry, it generally is. You can't skip the drawing education and just focus on tattooing technique... the two are inseparable when it comes to creating clean, smooth work.