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If you have any familiarity with the Bible, then you probably are familiar with the book of Genesis. If you are really paying attention to what is going on over the first few pages, you will notice that it isn’t just a before and after story. There is a point where the words “God spoke” bridge the gap between what was nothing and what became something. Be it light from the darkness or separating the heavens, you will see that the instigating action is speech.
During my undergraduate studies I took way too many philosophy classes. One of these courses looked at this part of the bible in terms of the use of language. God spoke, used language, which had power. If memory serves me correctly, later on in the Old Testament, pronunciation of the word “Shibboleth” is used to distinguish identity among one of two groups. The conquering group would ask fleeing people, who were otherwise indistinguishable, to say the word. If it was pronounced in the context of an enemy dialect, they were put to death on the spot. In short, language has always been used to both show power and identity.
So what does this have to do with tattooing? More than you would think. If you have been enjoying the first of the new fireside episodes from the Venetian Tattoo Gathering, then hopefully you have already checked out episode 103 with David Kassan. This segment not only discusses David’s approach to painting in a way that is totally relevant to tattooing from his discussion on layering color to building texture, but it also discusses all of this in a way that shows a very specific use of design language. The basic vocabulary he is using is all related to general elements of design and basic principles of style, all of which can and should be used interchangeably between painting and tattooing.
We all know how pretentious people with those nice big college vocabularies can seem. Don’t confuse pretentious twenty dollar words with a specialized technical vocabulary. Mastery of the language of a craft is synonymous with mastery of the craft itself. Quite often, if you have two people who can do roughly the same quality of work, it will be the more articulate person who can discuss these clearly with a client who gets the business. Just as God uses language to show his power, your language shows a certain power within your craft that goes beyond the craft itself. Just as the word “shibboleth” was used to show identity, the use of specific vocabulary can show your identity among the initiated.
Whether you like to draw or paint as a means of expression beyond your tattooing, you are an artist. You have to be. You won’t survive in the tattoo industry if you aren’t. Does that mean you have to have a formal art school education? No, but it does help more than you will know. So, because I’m a nice guy, I’m going to give you a quick rundown of specific terms that you should be familiar with in order to talk about your artwork intelligently with both clients and other artists, be it tattoos or paintings. You will probably notice that most of these are used throughout our body of work here on the Tattoo Improvement Network. If you are seasoned, consider it a review. If you are just starting out, consider it a basic foundation that you can grow beyond what I’m giving you here. Enjoy.
Part I: design elements
How you discuss color is extremely important. At the very least, you should be able to show an understanding of the difference between warm and cool colors. However, understanding basic color theory is essential to every artist’s survival. You should know the difference between contrasting colors verses complementary colors. Discussing values, tints and shades as well as saturation are all also important. Just as an added extra, I would suggest getting a little familiar with color symbolism and cultural relevance of specific colors.
Note: contrast doesn’t just have to be in relation to color. It can apply to the difference in values between light and dark or black and white.
Check out some of Jake’s color tutorials:
or more on contrasting
Don’t just think of shapes in terms of geometry. This is how space is defined by borders. Know the difference between mechanical and organic.
In painting, this is quite commonly a tangible thing. You can build texture with techniques like layering. Think about tattooing in the same way. How do you create texture in shapes? Are you making soft textures? Think of the difference that an old school shading creates in relation to a stippled tattoo.
Use of space is what creates dimension. For tattooers, it is especially important to understand the difference between positive and negative space and how to use both effectively.
The easiest way to explain form is in how you combine your shapes and all the other elements listed to create dimension.
Principles of Design:
this can basically be used to describe the way you use your elements together to create a good composition.
Unity or Harmony
This is how the elements are combined. In tattooing, this can be brought on by repetition of elements to create rhythm. It can also be brought about by how you play two elements off each other. A common example of this would be tattoos that have a combination of text and image together.
This can apply to any of the elements, but shape is a big aspect of balance in tattooing and painting. Do you have large shapes and small shapes in balance together? Common mistakes that can throw a composition off balance are large shapes that overpower small shapes in a focused area. This also goes for dark colors that overpower light colors in the placement. When used well, it can create tension between elements.
This is exactly what you probably think it is, size in relation to placement and subject matter.
This is the use of any number of methods to create a focus point or draw the eye of the viewer to any number of elements above the rest of the composition.
I’ve already mentioned the use of color as well as lights and darks to create contrast. Other methods such as big against small, thick against thin, or mechanical against organic can all be used to contrast each other. Just think in terms of dramatic differences between two opposites.
Line quality and weight deal with thickness or thinness of a line. Remember that thick lines push forward and thin lines push back. Lines can be hard and technical. Lines can be loose and curvy or sensual. How you approach lines defines how you approach tattooing in general.
Remember, when you up your game and force yourself to grow, you up the game for everyone and the art form in general. Game on.
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