Hey guys! Welcome to my blog.

People have been asking me to make an article about full-color tattoo composition for a while… So, here we go! Lower arm front piece, done in one session. Of course, designed in front of the customer on a very same day…  Everybody knows that I don’t draw sketches for my tattoos, and you guys will understand WHY when you read this post.

Start from the end… This is the final result. I will show you how I got there “in a few easy steps”…. ya.. Right…

Nick Morte Tattoo Blog - Owl Tattoo

Just a few hours before that (well, 10 hours before that) this guy had an idea of some kind of “Owl Tattoo”, possibly with a pocket watch. Maybe in colour…

Let me tell you something folks. Owl is the most popular “custom tattoo motive” right now. And very soon it’s gonna be as “bad taste” as Dia De Los Muertos chicks, tribals and praying hands. Of course it does not mean that we, artists have to say “No” to owls… But, let’s face it, it’s not easy to make an outstanding owl tattoo when everybody got a goddamn Owl with the pocket watch… But. This tattoo MUST worth all these hours of pain after all. And our task is not to make just another owl tattoo, we gotta make a bloody awesome piece that will still look good when everybody is sick and tired with amount of owls around.

So I suggest to “lift the bird up”, fade it into background to avoid the lame straight pose. If you have noticed, owls have a pretty large body with nothing but grey/brown feathers that looks like an old stump with two eyes when they sit straight. But first of all we need to figure out what will be the secondary object. Cause I’m not doing another goddamn pocket watch again. So… I suggest human skull as a secondary object.

What else, right?


Allright. Step one – reference. I’m happy to have this beautiful skull in the shop, I know it’s hard to find a good skull (or even good replica) nowadays, but, there are a few decent ones around, if you wanna be original, the worst thing you can do is to Google for it… Or steal this picture from my blog… ;-)

I know that tattoo will be pretty colourful, so I use my working lamp and a turquoise plastic folder as a reflector to give it a hint of cold colour at the bottom. You don’t need  much equipment for it. This one is taken on iPhone4, no filters.


I know there’ll be a lot of freehand drawing on this one, so stencil is pretty simple. I will change the top of the skull from straight cut into cracks, but now I’m drawing it “as it is”, just in case.


As you see, I pay most attention to outer line and sharp edges. This will be the “linework” the rest is shading, and those sketchy lines are there just to help me get the shape right.


Yeah! We fond the Owl! Apparently, I have no pet owl or taxidermy one either, so, yes, this is from one of the online photo-archive sites. What!?!? At least half of the design is mine! :-)


It may seem that my stencils are pretty rough and a bit sketchy. They they are. I use em mostly to get a correct proportions.


Sweet! Stencils are ready, thank you Baby Jesus for termo-copier. My drawn-over-the-print  stencils by some reason always happen to be wrong size, so I draw lines on light table and then re-size them, using copy machine.


Ok, that was the easy part. Now we gotta figure out how to connect these two parts, in the same time keeping the focus on the Owl.


It’s actually easier than it seems. This placement is not giving us too many different options, so we gonna use the good-old cheap trick. Pointers! Basically, those objects that I draw on the upper part of the design (leafs and feathers) are nothing but pointing arrows, saying: “Look over there! It’s a Fucking OWL! See!?!?” Primitive human psychology. Our eye will always consider a circle or round shape as a primary object. So, here we go, exactly where arrows show, we got big ‘n round Owl face, with huge round eyes! Seriously, you could draw Adolf Hitler riding Sarah Palin on the background  and NO ONE will see it before looking at the owl’s face. Psychology, uh? :-)


Same trick allows us to separate the skull form owl face. Now, no matter how colourful the skull is going to be, it won’t take too much attention from the bird. Also, I’m going to make some leafs on the background, but quite light, not too detailed, behind the owl. It will give us more air in the picture and keep the composition interesting.


As you see, I have also made the skull cracked to avoid straight lines and drew some nice branches on the top of the skull. Those branches will not only separate the bird from the skull, but also will build a nice “almost ornamental” detail that will bring more movement into this composition. Don’t forget to move the arm (leg/neck/ass… your “canvas of the day”) it’s important to see your drawing moving with the skin, it must look good and make sense in any position.

Nick Morte Tattoo Blog - Owl Tattoo "All Set"

So, tell me now, how ON EARTH would I be able to sketch it on the paper so my customer “can see how it’s going to look like”???

Just for a record: by this point I have probably spent about 3 hours with the customer, designing, drawing, erasing and drawing all over again, and I’m not charging anything for this. I charge only for tattooing time.

But if would be doing the same amount of work at home, it would coast you a FEW non-refundable thousands. And, eventually, we would probably have to re-draw it on appointment date anyway. Questions? ;-)

Nick Morte Tattoo Blog - Owl Tattoo "All Set"

Alright! Let the BUZZ begin! I usually use 2 liners, one thick and another one thin. The number of needles depends on a band, they all are different. It could be 7RS and tight 7RL, or 11RL and thick 5RL… Whatever, really.  i’m not a tattoo nerd, I use Chinese pre-made needles.

And, you may hate me for that, but i’m often doing double lines to make em look thicker. It works for me, so why not?

Nick Morte Tattoo Blog - Owl Tattoo "All Set"

Ok, lining is done. I’m pretty fast, so I can continue with colour. If you see that skin is red, swollen and “unhappy”, stop and do the colouring next time. Do not overwork the skin.


I start from the bottom and move from darker to lighter colour. Black, grey and earthy tones are first. Some of them are meant to be “under colour”. I will go over with medium and light colours later.

But, Ok, stop here for a second.


Honestly, I have never used the colour wheel in my work or studies, but it’s a very useful thing, especially if you are not sure about the colour balance in your work. This one is very primitive, but it will give you a very simple idea of choosing a background colour for objects. If you want it bright, of course…

Well, there are only 3 primary colours there: Red, Blue and Yellow. With hundreds of secondary colours in between. I won’t torture you with colour theory too much today, but  I guess it is something every artist should learn by heart and be able to use everyday.


Right here i’m building a strong contrast using complimentary colours of different tones next to each other. Seriously, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please go buy yourself a “Colour Theory For Beginners” book in the nearest shopping mall.


Look! It’s burning!!! Oh, wait, it’s just an orange colour next to earthy grey (with hints of purple… and shit) on a green background! And somehow, the cold background looks like it’s behind, and not around the skull.

I know, it sounds way too simple in a theory… Yes, it does, and in practice it is most certainly not. But hey, we are talking about composition today, have some patience… We’ll talk about the colour very soon.


Done with the skull! Happy with the colour, added a little bit of white, not too much, just enough to make it look “alive”….


Ok, the rest is boring, and you must be tired of all my bullshit by now… We are skipping “step by step” owl, I just gonna show you some important details to make sure you did not waste your time reading this. Alright! On the above picture:

1. We managed to get a nice direction and give the composition some  movement using a leaf and feathers. As you see, I did not really go too far into details on feathers. I could be a nerd and do it, but I’m not. Maybe next time.

2. We got the focus point – the Owl face. It’s detailed and eye catchy. Background is filled with quite light leafs, but not as shapeless and blurry as most “realistic tattooers” do. And, believe or not, it won’t disappear when tattoo is healed! Hehehe :-)

3. The composition “breaks” at the lower part when the skull pops up and shines with unholy lights. But, somehow, it’s still an “Owl Tattoo”, not a Skull Tattoo…

Funny, uh?


Hope it wasn’t too much information for you guys :-)

Hope I did not offend too many people this time, haha.

Thanks for reading!