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COLOR THEORY FOR TATTOOISTS

Russ Abbott

The purpose of this e-book is to introduce the basic concepts and terminology that we use to discuss color
in the art world and then to share some insights into how we might apply these concepts to tattooing.
Tattooers today are creating visually stunning works of art in human No matter what your preferred style of tattooing may be, there are
skin. Due to a worldwide surge in popularity and education, the certain to be aspects of traditional color theory that can apply to your
artistic medium of tattooing is spawning an incredibly diverse range process. You may already be using more color theory than you know,
of stylistic genres. While some of the top tattooers in the field are because color theory is simply a codified system that attempts to
classically trained artists in other mediums, the vast majority of categorize and explain what we naturally see and feel about imagery.
tattooers have found that tattooing itself has been the catalyst for So as you go through this material, try not to worry too much about
their personal artistic growth. Therefore, it is quite common that memorizing the exact terminology. Instead, focus on understanding
fundamentals of what is considered basic art theory have gone the ideas that can apply to your work right now. Wherever you are in
unmentioned in the normal learning processes of the tattooing craft. your progression as a tattooer, you should be able to fine-tune your
understanding of color and empower your creative process with a
little bit of theory.

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Hue
A Hue is defined as a pure color – one that has not been mixed with black
or white. We are familiar with the basic hue families even if we don’t know
it. They have names like red, blue, green, orange, and so on.

The basic color wheel is a circular diagram that arranges the 12 basic
hues in a ring. The primary colors yellow, red, and blue are indicated by the
triangle shape in the center. These three primary colors can all be mixed
with one another to create approximate versions of the other colors on the
wheel. For example, mixing yellow and red creates orange, mixing red and
blue creates violet, and mixing yellow and blue creates green. It should be
noted that although a very expansive palette can be mixed using only the
Primary colors (yellow, red, and blue) the resulting colors may not always
be the most attractive versions of the desired hue. Usually, the best
practice in tattooing is to use pigments that are derived from a wider
selection of colors than just the primaries. At a minimum, I’d suggest
stocking bottles of each of the 12 basic hues on the color wheel as well as
ample amounts of black and white. It’s also a good idea to have a bottle of
gray and a small selection of earthy browns and ochres on hand. Primary hues (yellow, red, blue)
Secondary hues (orange, violet, and green)
Tertiary hues (yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet,
blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green)

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Tints, Tones, and Shades
White
As we look at the basic color wheel, it’s obvious that this simple diagram Tint
does not fully represent the complete range of possible colors. But keep in
mind, each of the 12 basic hues can be expanded to include all of the tints,
tones, and shades that can be achieved by mixing with white, gray, and
Color Tone
black. So nested within each of the 12 spaces on the color wheel, we
actually find a huge range of possible mixtures. For example, red can be Gray
mixed with white to create pink.

Each of the 12 basic hues from the color wheel can be expanded into tints,
tones, and shades. A tint is created by adding white, a tone is the result of
adding gray, and a shade is achieved by adding black. Shade

Black

Now that we have added the possibility of mixing white, gray, and black
with our 12 basic hues, a much wider gamut of colors is achievable. The
resulting mixtures are never as intense as the basic hues that we started
with, but the colors of the natural world around us are almost always found
somewhere in the vast expanse of color space. As children we learned the
basic hues, albeit sometimes the color names were different. But if you’ve
ever tried to paint a realistic landscape, or tattooed a color portrait, you
know that the real magic is often in our ability to see and record more
subtle variations of the basic crayon sets we were given as children.

Here we have expanded the basic color wheel


to show the tints and shades.

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Value
Pure white is the lightest color and black is the darkest color visible. If we QUIZ: The value scale gives us the values in percentages of grays.
mix black and white together, we can achieve a full range of gray values. But every possible color in existence has a value associated with
The value scale represents darkness and lightness in a linear form with it. Test your understanding of value. Match the swatches below up
black on one end, white on the other end, and a graduating scale of grays with the appropriate value on the value scale.
in between. When we say “value” we are referring to how dark or light a
given color appears to be.

Rising Flamingo Tawny Lantern Spearmint Baby


Red Pink Yellow Blue

100% 90% 80% 70% 60% 50% 40% 30% 20% 10% 0%

Value Scale

Baby Blue-40%
ANSWERS: Rising Red-70%, Flamingo Pink-50%, Tawny-70%, Lantern Yellow-20%, Spearmint-60%,

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Saturation
So we now have a few terms that we can use to describe colors. We have NOTE: Confusingly, saturation is also a term used by tattooers and collectors to
the 12 basic hues on the color wheel and we have the value scale to describe the quality of ink coverage in a tattoo. For example: “Hey bro, your
remind us that colors exist within a range of dark to light. There is one color saturation is mind-blowing! I don’t know how you get it that solid.”
more critical consideration that we, as artists, need to make about the Please keep in mind that in conversations about color theory, saturation has
colors that we choose. Let’s go back to the color wheel and pick our a slightly different meaning.
favorite hue from the basic 12. I’ll go with red for mine. That basic primary
red is a really bold color. In fact, the version of red that we see on the color
wheel represents red in it’s most intense form. If we add white, gray, or
black to that red, we will be subtracting some intensity or “saturation” with QUIZ: Each of the basic hues has a value at which it is the most
the resulting mixture becoming more dull than the red we started with. intense or “saturated”. At what value does red appear to be the
Saturation is the term we use to describe how intense or dull a given most saturated?
color appears to be.

100%
100% 90%
90% 80%
80% 70%
70% 60%
60% 50%
50% 40%
40% 30%
30% 20%
20% 10%
10% 0%
0%

Red Value Scale

ANSWER: The center square.

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Complimentary Colors
Let’s revisit the basic color wheel for a moment to focus on complimentary We talked about mixing any of the 12 basic hues with white, gray, and
colors. There are many tools that the artist can use to draw the viewer’s black to alter their value and saturation. It’s important to note that this
eye to a specific part of a design. Many of these tools are various forms of approach is not always the best method for achieving the color we desire.
contrast, or rather, careful arrangements of extremes. Contrast can The problem with this simplistic approach is that mixing with black or
manifest itself in artwork in several ways, but when it comes to color, white can also cause a shift in the hue of the color that we started with.
complimentary colors are the ultimate form of contrast. Complimentary Often, the best solution is to mix complimentary colors together. When you
pairs of color are arranged directly across from one another on the color do this, the resulting mixture will be less saturated than the two pure
wheel. The compliment of red is green. Red and green are as far apart from colors you started with. As you continue to adjust the mixture, at some
one another as they can possible be. When the artist arranges a pair of point, you will achieve a grayish, muted color that doesn’t exactly look like
complimentary colors next to each other, the result is generally an area of either of the colors you started with. This is a unique property of
the composition that is eye-catching and attractive. complimentary colors and I would encourage you to try it for yourself and
get familiar with all of the unique colors that can be mixed between the
pairs of complimentary colors.

Complimentary pairs are found located across from one another on the color wheel.
They include red & green, yellow & violet, and blue & orange.

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Warm vs Cool
There is one last key bit of information encoded in the basic color wheel.
If we draw a line through the color wheel from yellow-green to red-violet, QUIZ: Choose which colors are warmer and cooler from the
we divide the wheel into two halves. Orange is considered the warmest following swatches.
color and blue is considered the coolest color. Warm colors are said to
“advance” or draw the eye and cool colors are said to “recede” or rather, to
attract less attention. Due to the tendency of warm colors to be their most
saturated at comparatively lighter values, this phenomenon of attraction Tangerine Burnt Electric Antique Graffiti Bermuda
Orange Raspberry Fuchsia Green Blue
could be attributed more to contrast than any real scientific reasoning. At
it’s core, the traditional thinking on warm and cool colors is confusing and
hotly contested by more modern theorists who are far more educated
than I on the subject.

To boil it down to some points that I can stand behind and to offer my
fellow tattooists a few digestible nuggets, here are what I think are the
most important considerations about warm vs. cool:

In the case of landscapes or deep scenery situations, atmospheric


conditions tend to cause colors to cool as they recede.

When comparing two individual colors, one will always be warmer or


cooler than the other. Subtle manipulations of warm and cool can help R M
the artist in rendering the effects of light on a subject.
WA OL
Colors in shadows tend to be cooler than colors in the light. CO
Direct sunlight, flames, and incandescent lighting tend towards warm.
The surfaces of objects that are facing those light sources will tend to be
warmer than surfaces facing away from the light source.

Indirect sunlight and moonlight tends to appear cooler than direct sunlight.
Bermuda Blue
ANSWERS: Warm - Tangerine, Burnt Orange. Cool - Electric Raspberry, Antique Fuchsia, Graffiti Green,

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THE ABBOTT COLOR WHEEL
With each passing year, we are gaining a better understanding of tattoo
pigment technology. Pigment manufacturers are competing against one ABBOTT COLOR WHEEL MONOCHROMATIC
another to bring us a wider range of ready-made color options. The range COMPLETE PRINTED KIT
COMPLIMENTARY
of available colors to tattooist’s is on a steady trend towards overwhelming.
ANALOGOUS
It was with this ever-expanding tattoo ink selection in mind, that I set out
SPLIT
to create a color wheel that could organize my entire ink cabinet into a COMPLIMENTARY

single, easy-to-read color chart. Using the basic color wheel combined PRINTED
COLOR WHEEL
with a value scale as the background, I carefully arranged the entire line of
TRIADIC
colors from Eternal Ink (my tattoo ink brand of choice) by hue and value.
With the removable wall decal of the Abbott Color Wheel hanging by my
workstation, I can now quickly and easily choose the appropriate ink color
for a given situation. REMOVABLE
WALL DECAL

To make the Abbott Color Wheel even more useful to the tattooist’s
VINYL STICKER
work-flow, I developed a system of “gamut masks”. By masking, or
covering sections of the color wheel, a set of various color schemes can be
viewed instantly. The assortment of gamut masks included with the
Abbott Color Wheel show the artist and the client how a chosen set of
colors work together. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Abbott Color
Receive 20% OFF any Abbott Color Wheel product
Wheel is it’s potential to provide a framework for choosing colors that by entering the code ACW20 at checkout.
work well together while inspiring innovation and creativity. Limit 1 per customer.

www.tattoosmart.com

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COLOR SCHEMES
I’d like to walk you through the basic color schemes that form the basis for
the gamut masks included with the Abbott Color Wheel. Of course, you
don’t need to have my color wheel to use these concepts in your artwork
and tattoos. These are all concepts that existed in the world of traditional
color theory long before I co-opted them for the Abbott Color Wheel.

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Monochromatic
A monochromatic color scheme is created by using a single hue with any
or all of it’s tints, tones, and shades. Monochromatic color schemes are
the simplest color scheme available. When working in monochromatic, the
artist’s choices about value and saturation become increasingly
important. Notice in the snake and dagger illustration that I’ve been
careful to include a range of values and saturation to help separate the
various elements in the design.

Here’s how the Abbott Color Wheel looks with the monochromatic gamut
mask.

MONOCHROMATIC

COMPLIMENTARY

ANALOGOUS

SPLIT
COMPLIMENTARY

TRIADIC

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Analogous
An analogous color scheme uses any three colors that are side by side on
the color wheel. In addition, all of the tints, tones, and shades of those three
basic hues can be included. You might think that it would be difficult to use
such a limited palette in a tattoo project. But, if you take a look at the snake
and dagger illustration, notice how a desaturated blue-violet stands in for
the greens that you might normally expect in the leaves. This is a great
example of how choosing a color scheme and sticking to it can yield
interesting and unexpected results.

Here’s how the Abbott Color Wheel looks with the analogous gamut mask.

MONOCHROMATIC

COMPLIMENTARY

ANALOGOUS

SPLIT
COMPLIMENTARY

TRIADIC

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Complimentary
A complimentary color scheme includes any two complimentary hues as
well as a selection of their tints, tones, and shades. Complimentary color
schemes can provide intense color contrast. In the snake and dagger
illustration below, I’ve used only two basic hues, but with variations in
value and saturation, we still have a diverse range of colors to work with.

Here’s how the Abbott Color Wheel looks with the complimentary gamut
mask.

MONOCHROMATIC

COMPLIMENTARY

ANALOGOUS

SPLIT
COMPLIMENTARY

TRIADIC

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Split Complimentary
A split complimentary color scheme combines any three hues that
are analogous (side-by-side) along with a complimentary color. Split
complimentary color schemes provide the artist with a wider range of
choices than a complimentary color scheme. In the snake and dagger
illustration below, I’ve been sure to select colors with a wide range of value
and saturation.

Here’s how the Abbott Color Wheel looks with the split-complimentary
gamut mask.

MONOCHROMATIC

COMPLIMENTARY

ANALOGOUS

SPLIT
COMPLIMENTARY

TRIADIC

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Triadic
A triadic color scheme uses any three hues that are equidistant from one
another on the color wheel. Of course, as always, we are free to use all of
the tints, tones, and shades of these three hues that we want. The primary
colors red, yellow, and blue are a great example of a triadic color scheme.
You may also choose the secondary colors for an alternate triad of green,
orange, and violet. Triads are as far apart from one another as any three
colors can be so, like compliments, they provide a lot of color contrast. In
the snake and dagger illustration below, I’ve used the primary colors to
create a pretty bright and bold traditional feeling color scheme.

Here’s how the Abbott Color Wheel looks with the triadic gamut mask.

MONOCHROMATIC

COMPLIMENTARY

ANALOGOUS

SPLIT
COMPLIMENTARY

TRIADIC

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Tetradic
A tetradic color scheme uses two sets of complimentary colors. This is a
great formula for designs that require a larger number of hues. The
printed Abbott Color Wheel does not contain a gamut mask for tetradic,
but you can easily use a combination of any two complimentary gamut
masks to arrive at a tetradic color scheme.

Here’s how the Abbott Color Wheel looks with the tetradic gamut mask.

MONOCHROMATIC

2 x COMPLIMENTARY

ANALOGOUS

SPLIT
COMPLIMENTARY

TRIADIC

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DIGITAL COLOR WHEEL
The digital layered file version of the Abbott Color Wheel allows us the
opportunity to offer more gamut masks than what is available with the ABBOTT COLOR WHEEL MONOCHROMATIC

printed version. This file is for users of Adobe Photoshop or Clip Studio D I G I TA L L AY E R E D F I L E COMPLIMENTARY
Paint. By opening the .psd file in one of these programs, you will be able to
toggle on/off the visibility of each gamut mask and rotate the mask above ANALOGOUS

the color wheel. Visualizing color schemes in this way is a very quick and SPLIT
intuitive process. Advanced users may choose to design their own gamut COMPLIMENTARY

mask shapes to personalize their color palettes even more. TRIADIC

TETRADIC 1
Also, don’t miss our Digital Palettes featuring scientifically measured
swatches of an ever-growing list of tattoo ink brands. The swatch libraries TETRADIC 2

allow digital artists to make tattoo designs using the exact colors in their TETRADIC 3
ink collection.
HEMISPHERE

SOUTHERN ACCENT

Receive 20% OFF any Abbott Color Wheel product


by entering the code ACW20 at checkout.
Limit 1 per customer.

www.tattoosmart.com

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Additional Digital
Gamut Masks
MONOCHROMATIC MONOCHROMATIC

COMPLIMENTARY COMPLIMENTARY

ANALOGOUS ANALOGOUS

SPLIT SPLIT
COMPLIMENTARY COMPLIMENTARY

TRIADIC TRIADIC

TETRADIC 1 TETRADIC 1

TETRADIC 2 TETRADIC 2

TETRADIC 3 TETRADIC 3

HEMISPHERE HEMISPHERE

SOUTHERN ACCENT SOUTHERN ACCENT

MONOCHROMATIC MONOCHROMATIC

COMPLIMENTARY COMPLIMENTARY

ANALOGOUS ANALOGOUS

SPLIT SPLIT
COMPLIMENTARY COMPLIMENTARY

TRIADIC TRIADIC

TETRADIC 1 TETRADIC 1

TETRADIC 2 TETRADIC 2

TETRADIC 3 TETRADIC 3

HEMISPHERE HEMISPHERE

SOUTHERN ACCENT SOUTHERN ACCENT

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Digital Color Wheel
Continued
TECHNICAL NOTES: Toggle visibility of the layer, Click to select the layer of the
visible gamut mask, CMND-T/ CTRL-T (Transform to rotate the gamut mask).

TRANSFORM FRAME USED


TO ROTATE LAYER/MASK

LAYER VISIBILITY

LAYERS PALETTE IN PHOTOSHOP®

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CONCLUSION
Let’s review what we’ve covered.

Hue, value, and saturation are the three attributes of every color that the
artist should consider.

Tints, tones, and shades can be derived from each of the 12 basic hues by
mixing the hue with white, gray, or black.

Complimentary colors can also be mixed together to create semi-neutral


tones that are useful to the tattooist.

As we choose colors for situations involving depth and/or lighting, we may


need to consider the attributes of warm and cool.

Choosing a color scheme in advance can lead to new and exciting


outcomes in our work.

Copyright 2016 Russ Abbott All rights reserved www.tattoosmart.com


Eternal Ink is a trademark of Eternal Ink, Inc.

These images belong to Russ Abbott. You may print them and use them for tattoo, graphics, and craft applications.
Republication or reproduction by any graphic service, whether it be in a book, electronic, or in any other design source, is strictly prohibited.
Tattoo Smart LLC
755 Holcomb Bridge Road, Suite C
Roswell, GA 30076

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