Monday, March 12, 2007

Tattooing Darker Skintones

Black/Grey on light skintone

Black/grey on Med-Dark skintoneHaving a light olive complexion myself, and an even darker skinned daughter, I've given alot of thought and had some experience with tattooing color on a reasonable variety of skintones. Lately, as my client base has broadened, I have had the opportunity to work an even larger variety and ethnicity of clients and I believe it is a topic worth covering here. It is an interesting problem for a couple of reasons.

1st, as the artist, we must take into account that we're not painting or drawing. Tattoo pigment does not lay on top of the skin like any colored medium you apply to any other surface. Tattoo pigment is injected into the skin, therefor the colors, (even black) are going to be affected by the natural skin pigment.

2nd, and perhaps the bigger problem, is explaining to/convincing the client that has her heart set on colors if/why her color/style choices are unsuitable.

When considering what colors are suitable for a particular skintone the simplest mental formula to use is the darker the skin, the bolder the color. It is impossible to estimate the variety and range of skintones we might be dealing with, so if we use generalities, we will be dealing with:

Very Light (0% to 10% skin pigment)

Medium-Medium (50% skin pigment)

Dark-Dark (90% to 100% skin pigment)

If that sounds difficult, just imagine 3 shades each of Light, Medium and dark skin. Get it?? Of course there is a wide range in between each of those shades, and I doubt that either 0% or 100% skin pigments exist, but the percentage scale seems the best way to approach the problem. Another way to visualize was suggested to me by a wonderful ad for Mom's (Millennium) Inks in a recent trade journal. When considering colors to use imagine that the client's skin is a sheet of tinted semi-transparent plastic in the client's skintone. Imagine that plastic laying on top of your color choice. How does it look?? crisp and clear; unaffected?? (Lighter skintones) Or dark and muddy; muted?? (Darker skintones)

On very light skin a wide variety of colors will show through the healed dermis. It is possible to get crisp, clean colors in every gradient. On very dark skin it will be impossible to have any color at all show up with any reliability. I have found that even the black I use most often (Kuro Sumi) is not always reliable on very dark skin.

On the medium skintones choose golds over yellows; dark oranges,greens and blues over bright oranges, greens and blues; and watch out for magenta, purple, and pink. These colors are pretty much a crap shoot on medium skintones unless you are very accustomed to working with, and adjusting these colors to the particular skintone in question. On medium-dark skin, avoid them like the plague. Stay away from colors that are already kinda "muddy" like olive greens and yellow ochres. And what about white? White will usually show up in this pigment range if you are working with a reliable white (I use Starbrite, Moms opaque whites and Intenze Mixing white), and if you lay it in well. Keep in mind that on the darkest medium skintone, your white will appear less vivid and have less "pop" than you might like, but should still do the job.

On the darker skintones seriously consider black/grey work as a better choice not only for your artwork, but for the client's long term happiness with her piece. Absolutely avoid yellows, oranges, light and bright blues and greens, and white. Midrange colors like the pinks; muddy colors like purple, magenta, olive greens are a no-go, too. Red, green and sometimes blue are the only colors you can reliably use on the darker skintones. Remember that no matter how good color looks right after you do it, once the tattoo has healed and the pigment is fully integrated into the client's skin it will look muddy and dark in this skintone range.

Black/grey work is another area which is affected more than many artist's and clients understand when considering a style of tattoo on darker skintones. It has been my experience that the general rule the darker the skin, the bolder the color, holds true here as well. The darker the skintone, the more detail you will lose doing black/grey work. Consider bolder lines, darker shading but perhaps less shading. Leave more negative space. In the very darkest skin consider hard edge or tribal type work.

Now on to the hard part. A client walks in your door. Immediately you have an understanding of what will work for her in style and color, based on your perception of her skintone. What she wants is absolutely unsuitable for her skintone. What do you do?? How do you handle it?? How do you explain to her why her ideas are unsuitable in a way that she will understand and accept your professional opinion, rather than go find a less experienced or uncaring studio in which to get what she wants?? (And end up dissatisfied, but too late.)
I now use the Mom's Ink ad description (as above) to explain to the client the why and how of the inappropriateness of her original choices. I go on to animatedly describe my interpretation of her design and how perfect it will be and how much better it will look not only immediately, but through the years. Most clients will accede to my experience, as they are referrals from other clients, and have seen my work and come to me with a sort of built in trust. But what if she is still waffling - still has her heart set on her original ideas or something close to them? I show her what her choice will look like. If I have them (and I do; (they are in a small album all to themselves, and not on public display), I show the client some pics of tattoos that I did either before I knew better (admit it...we all have them) or at the insistence of a client. I let the client see how her color choices will look, when healed.
If that doesn't convince the client I have a decision to make. Will I do this tattoo?
But that, my friends and readers, is a topic for another article.

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