By Dan Smith
I thought showing how I would attempt a tattoo from the reference stage to sketching, to completion, would be an interesting blog post for Tattoo Artist Magazine (TAM). As this is an industry magazine, and similar posts have been done on reference/inspiration and technique/execution, I know I am not "giving anything away" that isn't already out there, but mainly showing how I would do it...
I got asked to a traditional gorilla head with a baby's head in its mouth. The whole "something eating something" has definitely gotten more popular lately, but I feel there are some artists that jump to mind instantly that have been doing this a lot longer... and in my opinion, they are the go-to-guys for something like this. The two people who came to mind were Mario Desa (Pic 1 below) and Chad Koeplinger (Pic 2 below). We often get asked to do something that a more well-known artist has done, but I think the main objective is making whatever it is you get asked to do, your own.
Referencing artists that excel in a certain style will undoubtedly help achieve a better tattoo but designing something that ends up more "you-looking" than the referenced tattoo is the most important part of the process. The wheel has been spun a million times, but I think there are always avenues for originality.
The first step: I took a picture of a real gorilla. I like to always reference actual photos of the subject matter, even if you are putting a traditional twist that might not be so accurate on the design. There are key parts that matter. In this case I thought the heavy brow, the nose and the facial skin-meets-hair factor were key.
Here's the first sketch. Just rough size, mapping it all out. Figuring out the teeth (another important factor) and also trying to leave room for the head inside the mouth. I liked the one angry eyebrow from Mario's tattoo and also the ear and nose from Chad's. These were really the only details I thought about "adopting" for my design. This is where that line between inspiration and reproduction comes in. Make it yours!
Further along in the sketch... The main features such as the brow and the nose are now there. I thought the basic shape of the head was important too. The huge neck made it a little harder to make it seem bordered, as the tattoo was only around 6-inches, but this explains what I mean by incorporating real photo reference in to the design. The traditional style really leaves it quite open to do what you want, but sometimes that will be the downfall of what could be a good tattoo. There are always limits.
Once I added hair in the right places to the gorilla and the baby was chubby, weird/dead and kind of ugly enough (ha-ha) I was ready to make the line drawing.
The customer reminded me he actually asked for a skull in the mouth of the gorilla, not a baby! (If only they put that on TV!) I made the change after sketching a rough skull from the original size of the babies head. I left the top of the head open, as the teeth would be covering it and planned on adding cracks as if the gorilla was biting down on the skull.
I made the line drawing after I was happy with the complete design and began thinking about colors for the tattoo.
Obviously, what is always apparent in traditional tattoos is the amount of black, so sticking with a lot of black, especially in the hair, made total sense. If I don't have time to do a quick color study, I usually think about other colors throughout the course of the black shading. Sometimes even just black can end up changing a line drawing dramatically.
I wanted to stick to four colors and black. Anything more and it drifts away from the style he originally asked for. I know people say "just go for it" and "do your thing" but sometimes having that freedom means you get overwhelmed and start doing things you usually wouldn't. Best to keep it simple, keep it true. The outcome will be much better...
[Editor's note: Tattoo took two hours to complete]
Dan Smith is a tattooer and blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine and also stars on the TV show L.A. INK.
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