It’s fair to say that the tattoo community has a love/hate relationship with Photoshop. On one hand, the pics of your finished tattoos might not look accurate without balancing the color a little to account for lighting, glare, etc. On the other hand, if you polish it up a little too much, you'll end up on Tattooed Truth Fairy’s Instagram.
Is there a place for Photoshop in tattooing? What are the pros and cons? Should it only be used for reference before the tattoo, or is it ok to use on the photos of the finished product? While the world around us is modernizing at rapid speeds and all tools are accessible with the click of a button, are the days of putting pencil to paper coming to an end?
Just as every profession goes through changes, inevitably there are some that try to keep up while others are more resistant to them. As a graphic designer, I have been so captivated by the ways that tattoo artists have adopted a different medium in graphic design and digital illustration to "draw" up their work and create their own custom reference. The key is making sure that reference is obtainable in your work. There is always an undo button in photoshop whereas it is different from tattooing of course. Though Photoshop is a new tool for artists and I'm seeing tons more of it being used, I still and will always appreciate drawing from reference over everything. That is a craft just as is tattooing and it should never go unnoticed nor should the steps in becoming a tattoo artist not be lost.
There was one cardinal rule when I first began doing graphic design work for a tattoo product company: don't alter the artist's work - no saturating the image, sharpening it, or “correcting” it in any way. Five years later, I have noticed that a lot of people are breaking that rule. Something you should keep in mind is that Photoshop was originally created to fix any irregularities in photography. I think the topic of touching up work is completely subjective and there is a fine line between correcting an image so that it’s truly accurate versus creating an unrealistic representation of one's work. There have been plenty of tattoo artists accused of crushing those blacks, peaking their whites, and saturating all colors digitally, which has led to plenty of wars on social media with artists calling each other out. Personally, I'm not a fan of any of that, as I prefer the direct approach of contacting someone privately, especially when one’s integrity is at stake, but I digress.
With all that said, it’s best to avoid unpleasant situations that can stem from. I'm going to cover the four most common uses of Photoshop in tattooing, how it can and should be used to help push your own brand and create consistency in your work, and areas to steer clear of entirely so that your work won’t be called into question.
Creating a logo can be tough and is a topic that I’d be happy to cover at length in another blog. For now, let’s go over form, function, and some general best practices of watermarking your tattoo photos with an already completed logo. In the age of social media, watermarks are the best way to stamp your name on your work that could potentially be shared with thousands of people. When you place your watermark on a photo, do not make it the size of your tattoo or place it over it, as it’s obnoxious, distracting for the people that are trying to appreciate your work. Instead, make your logo a more subtle, yet legible, size, and place it in a part of the photo that would be very difficult to crop out.
2. Blurring background or adding interesting backgrounds:
Thom Bulman is known for tattooing goofy game and comic book characters in his own interpretation. He takes a photo on a black background, cuts out the tattoo in Photoshop and adds the original character art to the background while lowering the opacity for the tattoo to be seen. I've seen some other New School Artists add this technique. While it is very fun to do and sets your work apart from others, it’s easy to overdo it and end up with a background that is too busy and distracts from your work. Again, the biggest focus is the tattoo itself. If you feel like you have created a distraction in the background from your photo, then you can use the blur tool in photoshop to dial it back a bit.
3. Simple photo editing:
As I’ve already mentioned, this is a touchy subject. Photoshop is meant for editing an image in order to obtain the perfect representation of it. This includes brightness/contrast, color balancing, hue/saturation and exposure. It’s a useful tool because, let's face it, tattoo artists aren't photographers, but they still need their work to be presented as professionally as possible. If you’re going to use it, my advice is to do so minimally, and with extreme caution. It is very easy to have the little devil on your shoulder whispering gently to bump that contrast up just a little more or saturate those colors to make them really stand out. Don’t do it. It’s not worth risking your integrity.
You don't have to learn tons in Photoshop to create your own reference by merging more than one image (e.g. a skull and a lady). Basic beginner knowledge will help you do that. Like I said previously, I have enjoyed watching some artists really get into Photoshop and use it to create some great pieces. It keeps you from piecing together images on the skin and helps to design an image that flows properly. Even something as simple as taking a photo of the client's skin, placing it into Photoshop, and compositing right over it is a simple, yet effective, way to end up with a well-balanced, perfectly sized design.