composition 101

Composition is just the science of combination. It’s learning how to draw the viewer’s eye exactly where you want it to go, in and through your artwork. With tattooing, composition is probably the most important aspect of the work.

Flow and antiflow are key to both the success of a tattoo, and the wearer’s appreciation of your work.

When you start putting together a tattoo drawing, the very first and most important thing you should think about is the structure of the body underneath it. Think about whether the area will distort, stretch, or bend, making the image look incorrect; about whether the image’s direction will fight the engineering of the musculature it will be tattooed on.

Guy Aitchison has some excellent diagrams of this principle in his book “Reinventing the Tattoo”, if you don’t already own this book I’d strongly suggest you get a copy. It’s available at his website, if you are a professional artist.

For example, let’s say you are doing a tattoo that is pretty common, a piece on the inside of the wearer’s forearm. from the knob of the wrist under the pinky, to the outside of the elbow, is a diagonal line of flow that represents the muscle structure underneath the skin. The force of the forearm muscle is made to curve this way so that you can turn your hand palm up or palm down. That is the biggest muscle in the area, and you can see it bulge up over the top of the elbow into the bicep. It’s an important part of the arm, this area, very visible.

So look at your own forearm on the inside. If you have a marker handy, draw a line from below your pinky by your wrist, to the outside/thumb side of your elbow ditch. There’s the basis of your flow.

Also this area is a long, thin oval (for most people). If you have paper, draw a long oval on it, with that diagonal line across it showing where that muscle goes. Now you have a compositional beginning. You know where you want their eye to move through the deisgn, and if you can convince their eye to follw that curved diagonal across the arm, you’ll have made that arm look more attractive.

Anton Lavey said that the basic most attractive shape to the human eye is the S curve. He was right. A looping double curve draws our eye in, seducing it gently, making us want to see more. Think of the classic two-handed s-curve of the old cartoons, which makes the silhouette of a voluptuous woman. This is the kind of seduction we want to unleash on the viewer’s eye.

It doesn’t matter what the subject of the tattoo will be, what colors, or anything at this point.


Composition is the science of combination- you’re going to combine the general shapes of the design into something attractive, that fits the form under it, in order to make a pleasing composition for the tattoo. You can plug any subject or object into a good composition and it will retain its strength.

If you want something very abrupt and masculine, try using a right angle instead of a curve. Squaring off curves within a composition makes it more jagged, more macho, more sudden and abrupt. The viewer’s eye will stop short at each corner, before comntinuing, so make sure there is something interesting there for it to rest on.

Leave some areas for the eye to rest. Cramming a wealth of detail into a piece just makes it confusing to look at- pick the important part of the composition, and do your high-impact detail there, and nowhere else. This way the person looking at the piece will be drawn right in to the most dramatic and awesome part of the tattoo, without feeling overwhelmed or confused.

I’ll post part two of this guide tomorrow!

originally published  Feb 2, 2008