A World of Lines - Colt Prehm

Published: 14 November, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 205, November, 2011

We featured Colt Prehm in an artist feature of his own a few issues back, so when he came to us asking if we thought people would be interested in an article from him on the subject of better drawing, we didn’t have to think too long.

Of interest to tattoo artists for sure – and speaking as one whose life is consumed by tattooing but has no interest in picking up the machines himself, I can safely say that it was mighty interesting to non-tattooers too. Hey – anything that has the potential to inspire is good in these pages, right? Over to you Colt…

In the tattoo community it seems there is not only a need but a desire for artists to learn more about drawing and painting in order to benefit their work. I have been receiving emails and requests from tattooists, asking for more in-depth information about colour theory and technical drawing which shows me that the tattoo community is ready to step up to the plate in order take the tattoo arts into a new arena and actually establish itself as a legitimate contemporary visual art. I have even had tattooists fly in for private drawing lessons which has been inspiring to me, seeing the effort these artists are willing to put in to raise the quality of their work.

I know that the tattoo artists and industry have advanced greatly in recent years and that artistic ability and expression are the underlying causes of this, but I feel there are some relatively simple visual art concepts that could greatly benefit any tattooist working today. I have been blessed with years of art training with several of the worlds’ top painters/ draftsmen, and feel a responsibility to share this information with the tattoo world of which I am a part. This will simply be a brief introduction into technical drawing concepts and I would encourage everyone to read more on the subject. There are great books out there discussing this topic, not least of which is The Artist’s Complete Guide to Figure Drawing by Anthony Ryder (tonyryder.com). If there are questions that I can help answer after you read this, feel free to write me directly as I would love to be of assistance.


It seems like common sense to say that if one is a tattoo artist, he or she should know how to draw. The problem is not that many people are self taught, but that without technical drawing training it can be difficult to figure out an efficient, effective way of making a drawing. Also, learning new artistic principles will only help to build better draftsmen and women and in turn, a more skilled tattoo community.

In order to discuss these drawing fundamentals I will be referencing progressing images of a flower tattoo study that I did recently.

Step 1

You can see that in this first stage of creating the drawing, the focus should be primarily on establishing the general shape and movement. This stage is technically called the ‘block in’. Notice that I did not start by drawing leaves or petals of the flower, but have stayed very abstract. Also the pencil marks are very light. If one makes the lines too dark in these early stages it can be difficult to erase them later in the drawing process. This is because the paper is damaged when one uses too much pressure, or as we like to call it in the tattoo community, being too ‘heavy handed’. A way to avoid making these heavy marks is to hold the pencil more toward the back than the front. Tony Ryder once told me that when I am drawing, I need to think of a pencil as a drawing tool and not as something to write with. This means that it must be treated like a tool. We need to hold it differently and, as with any good tool, it needs to be sharp. The duller a point of a drawing utensil becomes, the more likely we are to start pushing harder to make a mark. This is when the paper damage starts to happen. If in your drawing your work tends to get that shiny, glossy look in the shaded areas, this is why. Spend as much time as you can in this light, beginning stage of any drawing as it is an opportunity to experiment with the shape and composition before you become committed to the outline.

Step 2

As I progressed further into the drawing you will notice that I have begun to more accurately describe the contour of the flower. The contour is the line that contains the image, for example the outline of a tattoo can be generally thought of as a contour line. In this stage the lines are still very light. In any drawing you don’t want to put down dark lines until you are nearing the end of the drawing. You can see here too that the initial place where I had put in the lines for where the leaves were going to go has changed by being lowered. This is an example of how keeping soft lines allows for alterations. I will keep the original top ‘leaf’ lines as more slender, decorative leaves.

Step 3

In the third image of the flower the outline has been clearly established and is more specific. I’m now ready to begin shading.

Step 4

When shading either a drawing or a tattoo is it important to remember where the light source in the drawing is. This is going to tell you where the shadows and light should be. To help myself, I often draw directional lines to continually remind me of the light. In this sketch you can see them above the flower. Light is everything in drawing, painting or tattooing; it creates the experience of vision. We see things only because there is light falling on them; therefore it makes sense to learn about and study the way that light functions in order to create a better sense of it in our tattoos.

You’ll notice that near the top of the flower’s petals there is an area that I have started to darken down right next to the light part of the petal. In general in the visual arts, wherever there is the most contrast is where the focal point is going to be. It is the area of a tattoo or other piece of art that we want the viewer’s eye to be drawn to. Having a focal point in our work helps to keep the piece organized and makes tattoos or drawings more pleasant to view.

Also note that the darkest areas of the drawing are not in the actual flower itself and especially not in the lights of the flower. Work gets a ‘dirty’ feeling when the dark is dragged too far up into the light. The darkest parts of the lights should generally be lighter than the lightest parts of the darks… if that makes sense.

Step 5

In this final image of the flower sketch quite a bit has changed. First of all you can see that I did end up adding darker values to the flower. ‘Value’ is the term used to describe how light or dark something is. You will notice though that there has been control in the value structure. This means that there is a clear, logical separation between the lights and the darks. This is what creates the feeling of light in a drawing or tattoo. You can also, I think, see how the contrast of light and dark has more firmly established the focal point we just discussed. Our focus in the drawing is on the flower. Although there are other elements such as the leaves and stem; they have been used to support the ‘main event’ which is the petal part of the rose. I did allow a tiny bit of light to catch on the leaf of the flower as I thought this would create some more visual movement in the drawing. By that I mean the viewer has something to focus on other than just the white body of the flower.

Step 6

This is the tattoo created for which the drawing was used as a study. I sketched each of the three roses in the tattoo in the same manner used in the drawing. I decided not to put a shaded background in this tattoo, but the idea of the focal point remains. The darks and lights of the shaded flowers are creating it this time instead of the contrast between the foreground and background. This tattoo is healed and was done using a red-wash.

These stages and method of creating a drawing are not new. They have been utilised since at least the 17th century as a way of making visual art. To learn to draw in this way is to learn a practice that has been appreciated and passed down through the generations. In general in my own work, I draw and paint from observation which means that the people or things that I am drawing/painting are right in front of me to look at. I would encourage anyone who is trying to advance their drawing ability or understanding of colour to work from life as much as possible. It will be difficult in the beginning but the rewards from this type of work are huge and the process is enjoyable. What might be a good idea would be to set up a flower in the house, under a single light source (a lamp) and do a drawing using the basic steps we have discussed here.

The more time that we spend working from life, those skills will inevitably transfer over into our tattoos. I’ve included several images to show how the working from life and imagination directly correlate to one another. In my mind there is not a separation between my drawing, painting and tattoo work. Each of them are essentially a combination of drawing and colour theory. A good example may be the drawing and painting studies of the trees and landscapes that were used as a reference when creating the landscape half sleeve.

I feel that as tattooists and visual artists we must learn some technical aspects of the craft apart from tattooing such as drawing and colour theory. The improvement in the tattoo industry and community has been enormous in the past decades and by working together and sharing information with one another we take this art form into places yet undiscovered. I don’t believe in holding on to ‘secrets’ of the way that we do things.

The more we share with one another, the faster the industry as a whole is going to progress. As I mentioned at the start of the article, I want to be a resource for anyone who has questions or comments. You can reach me through my website, coltprehmart.com.

Prehm Studios

1550b #2,
Pacheco St.
Santa Fe,
NM. 87505.  
(515)451 7652.


Text & Photography: Colt Prehm