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Making a Tribal Tattoo Inspired Animal

Updated on June 19, 2013

Tribal Tattoos By Tara Prince



My first experience with creating tribal tattoos was when I was a junior in high school. One of my characters happened to have a black tattoo of a polar bear down the entirety of her back, but I couldn't find anything online that worked for what I wanted, so I decided to make my own.

The bear tattoo, was a trial and error experience. I have never formally studied design and so I was doing most everything by guesswork, but this is the method I have come up with to create a tribal tattoo. I have only ever drawn animals in this style, but I suppose it would probably work for other things as well.

Hopefully you find this helpful.

What You'll Need

In each step I will try to give you some alternate means of doing the steps for a traditional approach, but I usually work with Photoshop CS6.

Digital Method:

  • Photoshop Creative Suite, GIMP, or a similar program with a curved line or pen tool
  • Reference photos
  • Patience and time

Traditional Method:

  • Tracing paper or a light box
  • Reference photos
  • Patience and time

Aside from that, it's fairly simple!

This is the reference photo I used of my ferret Captain.  I apologize for the poor quality of my phone camera.
This is the reference photo I used of my ferret Captain. I apologize for the poor quality of my phone camera.

1. Find a Reference

For some of you this step may not even be necessary, but for those of us who don't intimately know the anatomy of an animal, it's an important step.

You can use a picture of your pet, or find one online (though be sure that the photo is for free use, you don't want to infringe copyright or anything). Free stock image sites often have pictures, and google has a function which allows you to limit your search results to those with the appropriate use policy. Just be sure to always double check and give credit where necessary!

Don't feel confined to one picture, either, you can use different pieces and combine things to you liking. You may want to use one photo for the body and another for the head, for example. Photoshopping pictures together can bring some interesting possibilities for unique poses as well as mythical creatures.

I usually sketch in a light blue to make it easier when I am drawing over it.
I usually sketch in a light blue to make it easier when I am drawing over it.

2. Sketch Your Animal

If you are doing this on the computer, I suggest using a color which is light enough that it will be easy to see your black lines later on but dark enough that you can still keep track of them. If you are doing it by hand, use a dark pencil or thin black marker.

This part is basically just to make sure you have the proportions and positioning the way you want it and to serve as a blueprint of the final image.

Be sure when you sketch to keep in mind the contours of the body which will make the design retain the form of the animal once you are finished. This sketch should not be overly detailed but should contain the primary features and markings you wish to include.

3. Draw the Design

Over the top of your sketch (a new layer on photoshop, or using tracing paper or a light box traditionally) draw the designs you want. On Photoshop CS6 I like to use the pen tool with the fill function on. If the program you use doesn't have this feature, you can create the outline of each shape and fill it in. In the past I have also used Manga Studio to create empty lines and then printed them to fill in manually with a black marker, though this requires more cleanup if you want to transfer it back to digital form.

This part still takes a lot of guesswork and attempts, but if you keep in mind the form you have created with the sketch and watch the flow of the shapes, it usually turns out all right.

IMPORTANT: Remember, the design might be black ink, but keep in mind your use of negative (or white) space. Sometimes less is more!

Easy as pie!
Easy as pie! | Source

4. Finish

Now that that's done, all you have to do is clean up any lines that might not have turned out exactly right, get rid of your sketch underneath and voilĂ !

Questions, comments, suggestions:

If you have any questions or need clarification, let me know. The next time I am doing a tribal tattoo, I will try to record the process so you can see how I go about actually drawing the designs. For now, though, if you need more details, just leave a comment and I will get back to you as soon as I can.


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