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A Guide to Tattoo Color Theory for the Tattoo Beginner

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Last Update on December 20th 2023 By TPS

Tattoo artists use color not simply as a decorative element, but as a language that evokes feelings and conveys the message they want to tell with the tattoo they're creating for their client. Whether you're just starting out or already have years of experience under your belt, learning about color theory will help you become a better tattoo artist.

In this guide to tattoo color theory, we'll unlock and introduce the magic of color for the tattoo beginner. We will be exploring the principles and techniques that will help you create vibrant and visually striking tattoos. From the psychology behind colors to understanding complementary and analogous color schemes, we'll delve into the ways you can use color to evoke specific moods, add depth and dimension, and breathe life into your tattoo designs.


We'll also explore the importance of color theory in tattoo aftercare, highlighting the ways as a beginner you will need to learn so that you can preserve and enhance the vibrancy of your tattoos over time.

Whether you're a tattoo beginner, a tattoo artist or someone interested in getting a tattoo, this guide will equip you with the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions and create truly exceptional tattoo art. So, let's get into the detail of color!

Table of Contents

Setting the scene - Tattoo Color Theory

The Importance of Color in Tattoo Design

Working with the Color Wheel Explained

Color Theory Techniques in Tattoo Application

Mixing tattoo Ink to achieve different hues

What color do you tattoo first?

Understanding Skin Undertones in Tattooing

The Psychology of Color in Tattooing

Embracing Color as a Tattoo Artist

The Final Thought: Embracing the Power of Color in Tattoo Art

Setting the scene - Tattoo Color Theory

Personal Insights into the World of Tattoo Color Theory

I have the honor of personally witnessing the transformational impact of color in tattoo design as a tattoo artist. I've discovered over the years that color is a language that can convey a lot to both the individual getting the tattoo and those who are admiring it. It's not just a pretty design element. Every shade and tint has a distinct emotional significance of its own. For instance, intense and passionate colors like red can be conveyed, whereas calming and peaceful colors like blue can. You can set the tone of the tattoo by the color choice you use. These experiences have led me to realize how crucial it is to comprehend tattoo color theory when tattooing.

Journey into the Depths of Tattoo Color Theory

Early on in my career, tattoo color theory was not something I considered. I thought all you needed was the 4 or 5 colors you were to use on a tattoo and that was it. I remember as my mentor introduced me and I started learning about the power of complementary and analogous color schemes and delving into the complexities of the color wheel. Throughout the learning process, there were numerous "aha" moments as well as some eye-opening mistakes. Trial and error has given me a better grasp of how colors interact and impact one another. Especially if you're new to tattooing, I wanted to share these experiences with you to give you the confidence that while it seems like another language now, you to will be able to navigate the exciting world of tattoo design and color in your wanting to put in the work to learn.

Adding a Personal Touch to Your Tattoo Designs

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a tattoo artist is the opportunity to create meaningful art that resonates with my clients. Understanding color theory has allowed me to tailor tattoo designs to their individual stories and emotions. Whether it's a vibrant burst of colors symbolizing joy or a subdued palette conveying introspection, color choices matter. As you embark on your own journey into tattooing, remember that your color choices can breathe life into your creations and leave a lasting impact on the people you tattoo. Embrace color theory not just as a tool but as a means to infuse your art with personal significance.

The Importance of Color in Tattoo Design

When it comes to tattoo design, color plays a crucial role in capturing attention, conveying meaning, and enhancing the overall aesthetic appeal. Color has the power to evoke emotions, create visual impact, and make a tattoo design stand out from the crowd. By understanding the psychology of color and its impact on the viewer, you can harness its potential to create tattoos that leave a lasting impression.

Understanding the Color Wheel and Basic Color Terminology

Understanding the color wheel and some basic color vocabulary is crucial for making good use of color in tattoo design. The color wheel is a diagram that illustrates the connections between various hues. The system has three levels of colors—primary, secondary, and tertiary—that can be mixed to provide infinite color possibilities. Get to know the color wheel so you can make educated judgments while picking out tattoo ink colors.

A color wheel like the illustration can be used to assist your learning as a tattoo beginner.

Color Wheel- Makes Tattoo Color Theory easy with color matching

Color Symbolism in Tattooing

Colors have symbolic meanings that vary across different cultures and contexts. In tattooing, color symbolism can add depth and layers of meaning to a design. For example, red is often associated with passion and love, while blue represents calmness and tranquility. Understanding the symbolic meanings of different colors can help you create tattoos that resonate with your clients on a deeper level.

Choosing the Right Colors for Your Tattoo

Selecting the right colors for a tattoo is crucial in achieving the desired effect. Different colors have different properties, such as warm or cool undertones, which can dramatically impact the overall look and feel of a tattoo. By considering factors such as skin tone. I will cover this off further down in the guide, personal preference and the design's intended message, you need to ensure that the colors you choose complement each other and enhance the final result.

Using the color wheel effectively in tattooing can greatly enhance your artwork. Here are some tips for beginner tattooists:

  1. Complementary Colors for Contrast: Colors that complement each other are positioned on opposite sides of the color wheel, like red and green, or blue and orange. By incorporating complementary colors into your tattoos, you can achieve captivating contrast and elevate the visual impact of your designs.

  2. Analogous Color Schemes: Analogous colors reside in close proximity on the color wheel, such as red, orange, and yellow. These shades produce a sense of harmony and unity within designs Consider using them for shading and blending in your tattoos.

  3. Understanding Warm and Cool Tones: Warm Colors such as (reds, oranges, yellows) or cool (blues, greens, purples) can assist in positioning. Use warm colors to bring elements forward and cool colors to push elements back in your tattoo designs. Consider this when placing colors on different parts of the tattoo to create depth and dimension.

  4. Color Intensity and Saturation: Adjusting the intensity of a color (how bright or dull it is) can influence the mood of your tattoo. Highly saturated colors can create a bold and vibrant look, while desaturated colors offer a more subtle appearance.

  5. Neutral Grays for Balance: Utilize neutral gray tones to balance out vibrant colors. Mixing gray with a color can create a muted version, perfect for shading and achieving gradients.

  6. Color Mixing Mastery: Practice mixing different colors to achieve the shades you want. Tattoo pigments might look different on skin compared to the palette, so experimenting is key. See below for more detail as there are also some things you need to consider.

  7. Skin Undertones: Be mindful of your client's skin undertones (cool, warm, neutral) when selecting colors. Certain colors might look different on various undertones which we will go into more detail shortly.

  8. Test on Paper First: Before applying a color to the skin, test it on paper to see how it looks when applied. This can save time and prevent unwanted surprises.

  9. Consistency in Color Theory: As you gain experience, maintaining consistency in your color choices and combinations will help you develop a signature style.


Color theory in tattooing is a skill that improves over time with practice and observation. Study the work of experienced artists, experiment with colors, and be open to learning from your mistakes to refine your color wheel techniques. There are many books you can refer to see how others use color to create their stunning tattoos.

Working with the Color Wheel Explained

As mentioned in the previous section, understanding the color wheel is fundamental to creating captivating and harmonious color combinations. The color wheel is a visual representation of the relationships between colors and is divided into three main categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Let's go a little deeper into each of these categories and explore how they can be harnessed to enhance your tattoo designs.

Primary Colors

Primary colors are the building blocks of the color wheel, and they cannot be created by mixing other colors. In traditional color theory, the primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. These colors are essential because all other colors are derived from them. When used in your tattoo designs, primary colors can serve as the foundation for creating a wide range of hues and shades. Understanding the primary colors is the first step in mastering color theory.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are created by mixing two primary colors together. When you combine equal parts of two primary colors, you get the following secondary colors:

  • Green: Mixing yellow and blue together creates green. In tattooing, green is often associated with nature, growth, and freshness. It can be used for elements like leaves, trees, and floral designs.

  • Orange: Combining red and yellow results in orange. Orange is a warm and vibrant color often chosen to convey feelings of energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. It can be used to add vitality to your tattoo compositions.

  • Purple: Mixing red and blue together produces purple. Purple is a color associated with mystery, spirituality, and luxury. In tattoos, it can be used to create a sense of depth and add an air of intrigue to your designs.

Secondary colors are versatile because they offer a balance between the primary colors from which they are derived. They can be applied to bring contrast and vibrancy to your tattoos.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are the intermediate colors that result from mixing a primary color with a neighboring secondary color. Tertiary colors bridge the gap between primary and secondary colors and provide a broad spectrum of shades. Some examples of tertiary colors include:

  • Red-Orange: A mix of red and orange.

  • Yellow-Orange: A blend of yellow and orange.

  • Yellow-Green: Combining yellow and green.

  • Blue-Green: Mixing blue and green.

  • Blue-Purple: A fusion of blue and purple.

  • Red-Purple: Combining red and purple.

Tertiary colors are especially valuable for creating nuanced and intricate tattoo designs. They allow you to add subtlety and depth to your work by providing a range of colors that are neither too primary nor too secondary in nature.

Creating Harmonious and Contrasting Combinations

Now that you understand the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, let's explore how to use them to create harmonious or contrasting color combinations in your tattoo designs.

  • Harmonious Combinations: Harmonious color combinations are visually pleasing and can evoke a sense of balance and unity in your tattoos. One way to achieve harmony is by using analogous colors, which are colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel. For example, combining blue, blue-green, and green in a tattoo can create a tranquil and aesthetically pleasing composition. These colors naturally blend and harmonize with each other.

  • Contrasting Combinations: Contrasting color combinations create visual impact and can make certain elements of your tattoo stand out. To achieve contrast, look to complementary colors, which are located directly opposite each other on the color wheel. For instance, pairing red with green or yellow with purple can create a striking effect. The contrast between complementary colors can draw attention to specific elements in your tattoo, making them pop.

By understanding the relationships between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors on the color wheel, you can make informed decisions when selecting colors for your tattoos. Experimenting with these combinations will enable you to create tattoos that are not only visually appealing but also emotionally resonant. As a beginner tattooist, mastering the color wheel is a crucial step in your journey to becoming a skilled and artistic practitioner.

Tattoo Color Theory Techniques in Tattoo Application

Once you've selected the colors for your tattoo design, it's essential to apply them correctly to achieve the desired effect. Techniques such as shading, blending, and layering can be used to create depth, texture, and dimension. By understanding these techniques and practicing their application, you can elevate your tattooing skills and create visually stunning tattoos.

Popular Color Combinations in Tattoo Design

When you are thinking of a tattoo to create or have a template or drawing already created, think about how different color combinations that can assist with highlighting or call attention to certain areas of the tattoo. There are color combinations have stood the test of time and become popular choices in many tattoo design. With the classic black and grey of more Traditional to vibrant and eye-catching color palettes of Water Color or New School, there's a wide range of combinations to choose from. By exploring popular color combinations and understanding their visual impact, you can find inspiration for your own tattoo designs and create something truly unique.

Below are some suggestions for the tattoo beginner to start their journey of color exploration
  1. Classic Black and Grey: Start with a timeless favorite. Experiment with shading techniques to create depth and dimension using just black and varying shades of grey. Try this combination for sleek and sophisticated designs, such as portraits or geometric patterns.

  2. Bold and Vibrant: Combine contrasting colors to create a striking effect. Think fiery reds with deep blues or vivid purples with bright yellows. This combination works well for tattoos that demand attention, like fantasy-themed or illustrative designs.

  3. Nature-inspired Greens and Browns: Embrace the beauty of the natural world by blending earthy tones. Create landscapes, animals, or botanical motifs with a mix of greens and browns to evoke a sense of harmony and connection to nature.

  4. Oceanic Blues and Turquoises: Capture the serenity of the sea with shades of blue and turquoise. This combination is perfect for aquatic themes, underwater scenes, or anything that embodies a sense of calmness and fluidity.

  5. Monochromatic Grey Scale: Explore the grayscale spectrum by incorporating various shades of grey. This versatile palette works well for a wide range of designs, from delicate patterns to intricate linework.

  6. Pastel Dreams: Experiment with soft pastel hues like pale pinks, mint greens, and light purples. These colors create a gentle and dreamy vibe, ideal for tattoos with a delicate touch or ethereal subjects like fairies or dreamcatchers.

  7. Warm Earth Tones: Combine warm colors like deep oranges, rich browns, and warm yellows for a cozy and comforting effect. This palette lends itself well to tattoos with themes of autumn, nostalgia, or cultural elements.

  8. Contrasting Neutrals: Pair neutrals like black, white, and grey with a single vibrant color to create a focal point. The contrast draws attention to specific elements in the design and works exceptionally well with minimalist or symbolic tattoos.

  9. High-Contrast Black and Red: Create drama and intensity by using bold red accents against a black background. This combination is perfect for tattoos that convey strength, power, or passion.

  10. Harmonious Earth and Sky: Combine serene blues of the sky with earthy greens and browns for a balanced and harmonious design. Use this palette to depict scenes that bridge the gap between the earth and the heavens, such as landscapes or celestial-themed tattoos.


Experimenting with these popular color combinations will not only allow beginner tattooists to practice their techniques but also help them understand how different colors interact and evoke emotions in a tattoo design. As you experiment, pay attention to the way colors complement or contrast each other and how they contribute to the overall impact of the tattoo. A tool to assist you navigate is color wheel guide.

Maintaining and Preserving the Vibrancy of Colored Tattoos

After getting a colored tattoo, it's essential to take proper care to ensure its longevity and vibrancy. Factors such as sun exposure, skincare routines, and moisturization can affect how colors fade over time. By following a few simple aftercare tips and using products specifically designed for tattoo preservation, you can keep your colored tattoos looking fresh and vibrant for years to come.

Mixing tattoo Ink to achieve different hues

In order to create different hues, tattoo ink can be mixed. Tattoo artists frequently use this method because it enables them to mix a greater variety of colors than they could using pre-mixed inks. It's seen more in makeup tattooing than in traditional tattooing as many shades can be purchased. It is imperative to acknowledge that not every tattoo ink is interchangeable, and combining incompatible inks might lead to unforeseen or potentially hazardous outcomes. It is therefore advised that tattoo artists with experience exclusively mix their own ink.

There are several methods for combining tattoo ink. The use of a sterile ink mixer is one typical technique. This compact, portable tool was created especially for blending tattoo ink. To operate an ink mixer, just fill the mixing cup with the desired ink colors, then turn the mixer on. The inks will be blended together by the mixer until they are well combined.


A stir bar can also be used to combine tattoo ink. A tiny, magnetic bar called a stir bar is inserted into the ink cup. The ink will be mixed together when the stir bar is positioned on a magnetic stirrer and rotates. While it takes a little longer than using an ink mixer, this method works well when blending tiny amounts of ink.


It is crucial to test the ink on a small area of skin once it has been combined to ensure that it is the correct color and does not trigger any allergic reactions. To avoid it drying out or getting contaminated, it's also critical to preserve the blended ink in a dark, cool location.

What color do you tattoo first?

Many artists start with black and grayscale shading before adding color. This allows them to establish the structure, contrast, and depth of the tattoo. Black and gray are often used for outlining and creating shadows, which provide a foundation for the colors.

Some artists prefer to work on the background or negative space of the tattoo first, especially in larger pieces. This can help create a sense of balance and allow the main subject (the colored part) to pop.


The choice between working from light to dark or dark to light can vary. Some artists prefer to build up the colors gradually, starting with lighter shades and adding darker tones as needed. Like me, others might start with the darkest colors to establish contrast and then add lighter colors.

I follow a certain color sequence which I believe achieves the best tattoo end result for me. As mentioned, others may do the exact opposite as they prefer to build the darker colors. I choice to insert color in certain order as I believe its best to avoid dulling, clouding and mixing of colors. My approach as a general rule is to inserting color in the following order:

  1. Dark purple

  2. Blues

  3. Greens

  4. Light Purple

  5. Browns

  6. Reds

  7. Orange

  8. Yellow

  9. White


I make sure I wait a few moments between colors before starting the next color. This allows the colors to set and reduces the chances of clouding. And also make sure you use a lot of ointment on the skin during this process. This will help keep the colors from mixing on the skin, kind of like a barrier from color to color.

Understanding Skin Undertones in Tattooing

As a beginner tattooist, one of the key aspects to consider when selecting colors for your tattoos is understanding the client's skin undertones. Skin undertones play a significant role in how tattoo colors appear on the skin, and being able to identify and work with these undertones can greatly enhance the final result of your tattoo designs.


Identifying Skin Undertones

Skin undertones are the subtle hues beneath the surface of the skin, which can be categorized into three main groups: warm, cool, and neutral.

  • Warm Undertones: Skin with warm undertones has hints of yellow, peach, or gold. Warm-toned individuals tend to have veins that appear more greenish. When choosing colors for clients with warm undertones, it's advisable to opt for warmer shades, such as reds, oranges, yellows, and earthy tones like browns and warm greens. These colors harmonize well with warm undertones and appear vibrant and natural on the skin.

  • Cool Undertones: Skin with cool undertones has hints of blue, pink, or purple. Veins of individuals with cool undertones often appear bluish. Cool-toned clients should consider colors like blues, greens, purples, and cool-toned grays. These colors complement cool undertones, creating a visually pleasing contrast against the skin.

  • Neutral Undertones: Clients with neutral undertones have a balanced mix of warm and cool tones, making them versatile in terms of color choices. Neutral undertones allow for a broader spectrum of colors to work well, including both warm and cool shades. However, it's essential to consider the specific hues within the neutral undertone. For example, someone with a slightly warm-neutral undertone may look great with warm colors, while a slightly cool-neutral undertone may benefit from cooler shades.


Choosing Colors for Different Undertones

When consulting with your clients, take the time to assess their skin undertones. This can be done by observing the natural color of their veins, examining the overall complexion, and paying attention to any underlying tones in their skin. Additionally, asking clients about their preferences and considering the context of the tattoo design can guide your color choices.

For warm undertones, consider using warm colors to enhance the skin's natural warmth and radiance. Warm shades can create a lively and vibrant tattoo that complements the client's complexion.

For cool undertones, opt for cooler colors that harmonize with the skin's underlying tones. Cool shades can provide a contrast that highlights the tattoo, adding depth and visual interest.

For neutral undertones, tailor your color choices based on the client's preferences and the specific hues within their neutral undertone. Experimenting with both warm and cool colors can help you find the perfect balance that enhances the tattoo and suits the client's skin tone.

By understanding skin undertones and selecting colors that work harmoniously with them, you can ensure that your tattoos not only look visually appealing but also seamlessly integrate with the client's natural skin tones. This attention to detail and consideration of individual undertones will elevate your tattooing skills. In time this will be a unconscious action you have developed and do as part of your preparation work with a new client.  

The Psychology of Color in Tattooing

The Psychology of Color in Tattooing delves into the fascinating realm of how colors can profoundly influence emotions and perceptions, making it a crucial aspect of tattoo design. Each color has a unique psychological impact, and harnessing this knowledge elevates tattooing to an art form that speaks to the soul. Warm colors such as reds and oranges ignite feelings of vitality, passion, and intensity, often chosen for tattoos symbolizing love, strength, or energy. On the other hand, cool colors like blues and greens instill a sense of tranquility, calmness, and even introspection. These hues are often selected for designs representing peace, growth, or serenity.

Tattoo artists who grasp the psychology of color can artfully intertwine these emotions with visual aesthetics. A vibrant red rose might not just be a symbol of love but a representation of fierce passion. A tranquil blue ocean wave can capture both a love for nature's serenity and the tranquility of a peaceful mind. By aligning color choices with the intended emotional resonance, tattooists can craft designs that tell stories beyond their visual appearance.

Psychology of color can artfully intertwine these emotions with visual aesthetics - Images:


Embracing Color as a Tattoo Artist

As a tattoo artist, studying color theory wasn't just about learning rules; it was about finding out how to express yourself in a way that is almost limitless. I learned that color is more than just a spectrum, it's a living force that gives skin life. There is a lot of useful information in books and guidelines and I highly recommend you read and source all of this information, but my own experiences have taught me that the real beauty of color comes out when you mix theory with your own artistic gut. If you want to make tattoos that speak to your soul, you have to go against the grain and try out different color schemes.​​

I think it's important to know the color wheel and many times its the best way to go, but I've also learnt that being creative really shines when you break some of the rules. The color wheel is a great way to organize things, and I really think you should learn it first, but once you do, don't be restricted by this. I want to encourage all tattoo artists, whether they are experienced or just starting out, to come up with their own color schemes and explore new areas. You can question common color schemes and go on a journey to find out more about yourself. Just make sure you practice on fake skin first, then try it out on a real person!

Once you have a good understanding of color and shading your next challenge will be Color realism tattoos. Colored realism tattoos represent a captivating fusion of artistic skill and technical precision in the realm of body art. This intricate tattooing style aims to replicate the vivid details of real-life subjects with remarkable accuracy. Tattoo artists specializing in colored realism masterfully employ a spectrum of vibrant hues and shading techniques to breathe life into their creations. From portraits capturing the nuanced expressions of individuals to nature-inspired designs mirroring the intricacies of flora and fauna, colored realism tattoos demand a keen eye for color theory and a meticulous approach to detail. The result is a stunning, lifelike masterpiece on the canvas of the skin, where each shade and contour contributes to a visual narrative that transcends the boundaries between art and reality.

The Final Thought:

Embracing the Power of Color in Tattoo Art


Tattoo Color Theory is a powerful tool in the world of tattooing. For the tattoo beginner, understanding the principles and techniques of color, tattoo artists can create visually stunning and emotionally impactful designs. Whether you're a tattoo beginner, an aspiring tattoo artist or someone interested in getting a tattoo, embracing the power of color will enable you to make informed choices and create tattoo art that truly stands out. So, don't be afraid to experiment with colors, explore different combinations, and unlock the magic of color in tattooing. Let your creativity shine and create tattoos that leave a lasting impression.

Setting the scene
The Importance of Color
Workig with thecolor wheel
Color Thery Techniques
Mixing tattoo Ink toacheve different hues
What color do youtatoo first
Understanding skin undertones in tattooing
The Physholog of color in tattooing
Embracing color as a tattoo artist
The final thought
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