Working with Your Reference Photos
You Wanna Put My Art... Where?
A Harmonic Connection of Body and Soul
Change Over Time
Richard M. Powers, February 24, 1921 – March 9, 1996
You Wanna Put My Art... Where?Wombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
Ladies and gentlemen, by the time you read this, I'll have a tattoo the size of a... friggin'... really huge thing... on my right arm.
It's of a kingfisher, in the Haida native style. And yes, it hurt. A lot. (Four and a half hours in the chair. Left finger marks all over a buddy's wrists.)
Now, if you've been an artist around for awhile, there's a good chance you've probably been asked to do a tattoo commission, or to have an existing painting modified to become a tattoo.
And you know, this is kinda flattering. Somebody likes your art enough to put on their body permanently! For all time! Eternally! Indelibly!
... scared yet?
Yeah. It's flattering, but a tattoo commission can also be a little alarming, because... well... it's on their flesh For All Time!
And if you've been around a little too long, like some of us, you may have seen what happens when your art becomes a BAD tattoo.
And... well, it's just not pretty.
(I have two tattoos. I designed neither of them, although I did tweak both to fit. This is because if I designed my own tattoos, within a year I’d be thinking “I could do so much better!” It's like hanging your own art on the wall, when you're the wall, and you can't change it out if you happen to get something better. So I prefer other people's art on my skin, so that I don’t have to second-guess it.)
There's a couple things to keep in mind when designing a tattoo (and when getting one, for that matter).
The first is that no matter how good a design, they'll be going through a tattoo artist, who may make magic or may do terrible things. The execution is not in your hands. Do not, therefore, become insanely attached to the design.
The second is that it's not on your skin, so the customer is the final authority even more than usual. You can forget about it. However, even if you think that their tentacled camel is a stupid idea, the client may well believe that their totem is the tentacled camel, in which case just shut up and draw the suction cups with little hearts like they want. You don't have to wear the thing. Make them happy.
Corollary: if you're getting a tattoo on your skin, don't be too polite to ask for changes. You'll have to live with this forever. You don't like the toucan's eyebrows? FIX THEM NOW.
The third is that human skin is an imperfect canvas, and there are limits to what you can do with it. There are some tattoo artists who can execute very nice shading and gradients, but even at their best, they're not half the subtlety you can get in paint. Rely on good line work and solid color to carry your design if at all possible.
Bigger is often better. I realize this is weird to hear, particularly in this case, but too many tattoos that are unrelated and small tend to make the wearer look as if they’re covered in stickers. Large, bold tattoos tend to get away from that, but are a lot harder to conceal.
There's a limit to how thin line work can be. When I got my tattoo, there were some fine lines, and the art had to be scaled up significantly in order to get those fine lines. I expected that I’d be getting quite a large tattoo, but I hadn’t realized just HOW large. (I love it, mind you, but GODDAMN that hurt a lot.) So no single-pixel lines in the design!
Don't get fiddly. If you get too insane, it may have to be simplified for the artist to render it, and that may not come out well. Think strong design over intricacy. There are no do-overs.
Lastly -- and this is if you're GETTING the tattoo -- tip your tattoo artist. They often are renting space from the owners of the parlor and have to split the fees, so if they did a good job, be generous.
Now, you may find along the way that some of your art has appeared on a tattoo without your permission. Maybe they just e-mailed you when it was done, maybe you tripped over it on the Internet... maybe it wound up in a tattoo magazine... (I've heard of that happening once.)
What you do in this case is up to you. Me, I don't generally get worked up about it. It's not like they can sell that patch of skin, and while I’d like to have credit if a photo's out there... well, at least you know they did it because they REALLY like the art. And what are you gonna do -- require they get it surgically removed? You gotta pick your battles.
And yes, they hurt. Do not go up to someone with a cool tattoo and ask “Did that hurt?” The proper phrasing is “Wow, how much did that hurt?” Then they will happily tell you about the agony involved, or if they are particularly macho, shrug it off.
(Also, forget about getting sympathy from a doctor about a tetanus shot ever again, once you get ink. Pfff. It's not the same at all, but try to tell them that…)
Next month -- something else!
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