Why Tattoo Composition Matters

The process of designing a tattoo can be one of the most exciting parts of getting a new piece of body art. From choosing the subject matter to selecting an exact style, there is a lot of consideration that goes into creating a custom tattoo – with one of the biggest considerations being composition.

What is Composition?

In art, the term composition refers to how all of the visual elements are arranged within a finished piece of artwork. Composition is not the subject matter of the art, but rather how the subject matter is portrayed and positioned.

Composition is essentially a layout. All the elements and details of the subject matter are fit within a given space and how they are arranged can have significant effects on the overall appearance and mood of the artwork.

For example, a commonly known method for creating a balanced composition is by using the Rule of Thirds.

The Rule of Thirds creates balance by dividing a visual space into thirds both vertically and horizontally. The subject matter of the artwork is then placed on one of the intersections of the dividing lines. This technique is most commonly seen in photography projects but can be applied to tattoos as well.

By employing the Rule of Thirds, an artist is effectively using their composition to create a more visually appealing and interesting piece of art.

Composition is an incredibly important aspect of every tattoo design. As with any piece of artwork, a tattoo should be designed to fit the shape of the space it is being created on – in this case, on the skin. From defining shapes and images with linework to creating balance or symmetry, composition greatly affects the overall appearance of each tattoo you get!

When designing a tattoo, it is essential to be mindful of how the composition will affect the final result. In this article, we will cover the basics of composition and how it ties the elements of art together to create balanced and beautiful tattoos.

The Elements and Principles of Design

The elements and principles of design are the individual components that make up a completed composition.

Rather than simply sitting down and drawing whatever comes to mind, an artist can employ these elements and principles to create more precise designs and more thoughtful pieces of art.

The elements of design are the actual building blocks used to create a visual design. They are as follows:

  • Point: A point is a basic component of design that serves as a single mark. It can be used by itself or as a point of connection for the other elements.
  • Line: Lines are used for connecting points in space. They can go in every direction and vary in width to create different dimensions and layers.
  • Shape: Shapes are two-dimensional and defined by a close outer perimeter. This outer perimeter can be either a defined or implied line. Shapes can be geometric, abstract, or organic.
  • Form: Form is what results after point, line, and shape have been used to create a defined image. The form is generally the subject matter of the artwork; there can also be several forms within a piece of art.
  • Color: Colors refer to the different hues, values, and saturation of colors that can be used throughout a composition. They help with everything from setting the mood and tone of the artwork to helping to define elements of the foreground or background.
  • Texture: Texture is created through the physical or visual qualities of the surface a piece of artwork is created on. Skin, for instance, gives tattoos a distinctive texture compared to drawings on paper.
  • Space: Space refers to the area that surrounds the subject matter and forms in a piece of art. Space can also be used to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface.

While the elements are the actual visual components of a composition, the principles of design are how the elements can be combined, organized, and arranged. The principles of design include:

  • Balance: Balance is how the elements within an artwork create a sense of equilibrium throughout the composition. There are three main types of balance:
  • Symmetrical Balance: In symmetrical balance, the visual weight will be equally distributed on across either the horizontal or vertical axis at the center of the piece.
  • Asymmetrical Balance: With asymmetrical balance, the visual weight is not equally distributed, causing one area of the artwork to hold more weight than the others.
  • Radial Balance: Radial balance occurs when the visual elements have been evenly distributed around a central point of focus. Mandala designs are a great example of this kind of balance.
  • Emphasis: Emphasis is created when the elements are arranged to draw attention to a central focal point within an artwork.
  • Movement: Movement refers to the visual flow of the elements and how they are arranged to guide the viewer’s eye around the entire composition.
  • Unity and Harmony: Unity and harmony are achieved through different patterns and repetitions. Unity refers to how similar or dissimilar the elements are, while harmony describes the rhythm and alignment of the elements.
  • Scale and Proportion: Scale and proportion have to do with how large the subject matter is compared to the space around it.
  • Contrast: Contrast, like unity, deals with how similar or dissimilar elements are to one another and how that can direct the viewer’s eye to points of focus. Contrast is commonly achieved with color and shape in particular.

Why Does Composition Matter in Tattooing?

Though not done on the traditional canvas, tattoos are just as much a work of art as any painting or drawing.

Tattoo designs have two layers of composition – the composition of the design on a two-dimensional surface and how that composition changes when placed on the three-dimensional surface of the skin.

In the book Tattoo: The Exotic Art of Skin Decoration, author Michelle Delio states:

“Tattoos have a power and magic all their own. They decorate the body but they also enhance the soul.”

A well-designed composition for a tattoo can make all the difference in how visually effective and powerful a final tattoo comes out to be.

The best way to examine how composition comes to play in tattooing is to look at examples:

Example A: Using Line and Shape to Create a Rhythmic Tattoo

In this tattoo design, courtesy of Seyi Ariyo, the composition has been spread out over the entirety of the arm to create a sleeve tattoo. The primary elements being used in this tattoo are lines and shapes. The organic and curving lines of the section around the elbow contrast with the geometric and angular black shapes surrounding them.

Additionally, the entire tattoo’s composition fits the natural curves and musculature of the arm. This could not be achieved without consideration for composition during the tattoo design process.

Example B: Using Asymmetry, Scale, and Proportion to Create Beautiful Tattoos

In this tattoo, courtesy of Jasmin Chew, the design utilizes asymmetrical balance that allows for two distinct focal points: the flower and the dragon. Using scale and proportion, the design can portray the dragon as smaller and more delicate than it may have otherwise appeared.

This tattoo design utilizes lines for the creation of movement, primarily within the petals of the flowers and around the body of the dragon. Through these composition choices, the dragon is given the illusion of flying downwards rather than being a stagnant 2-D form.

Example C: Color and Contrast Work Together to Make Bold Tattoos


This tattoo design, courtesy of Ashley Byrd, makes use primarily of color and contrast within its composition. The high contrast of the overall composition is achieved by the use of blue and orange as the main colors, which are complementary colors on the color wheel.

The contrast, paired with the bright hue and value of the colors, makes for a tattoo with a bold composition that still maintains a strong visual balance due to equal use of the two colors.

How Composition Affects Mood

The attention to detail within a tattoo’s composition will become apparent in how good a tattoo looks once it is on the skin. However, the composition can have even greater effects than just how the final tattoo appears visually.

Using the elements and principles of design, a composition can be made to portray a specific mood, theme, or feeling.

For instance, a perfectly symmetrical tattoo design may inspire feelings of calmness and serenity, even if the tattoo has a high level of detail. Comparatively, a tattoo design that uses high levels of contrast, sharp or jagged lines, and asymmetrical balance will be more likely to instill feelings of excitement or even fear.

The composition of tattoos ultimately has a major impact on not only their appearance but also on the impression they give off when viewed by others.

Paying special attention to the mood of your tattoo designs is especially important if you want to keep a cohesive theme between all of your different tattoos!

How Does an Artist Think About Composition?

Every artist’s process is different, so no two artists are likely to approach composition in the same way.

For artists designing a tattoo, several parameters must be determined before the designing process can begin. These include:

  • What subject matter has been requested by the client?
  • How big of a tattoo does the client plan to get?
  • Where on the client’s body will the design be going?
  • Are there any bodily elements, such as scars, that may interfere with the design?
  • What budget is the client working with?

In some cases, an artist designing a tattoo may have total freedom to design what they want, while in other cases the client will have highly specific details and elements they want to be included. Either way, the artist must pay close attention to how the final composition turns out.

How Artists Plan a Composition for a Tattoo

As mentioned, every artist is different in how they plan compositions. Regardless of what order they do things in, however, there are a few key stages to the tattoo design process. They are as follows:

  • Determining the Subject Matter or Focal Point: A key component of creating a strong composition for a tattoo is clear communication between the artist and the client. During this initial stage, the artist will mainly ask questions to help determine what style, theme, and mood a client is trying to achieve with their final tattoo, as well as determining what subject matter will be the focal point of the tattoo.
  • Portraying the Subject Matter with Line, Shape, and Form: At this stage is when the artist will begin applying the elements of design to create their artistic interpretation of the subject matter. Depending on the client’s desires, they may aim to use the elements to create a hyper-realistic image or a more abstract or graphic design.
  • Arranging the Elements: When a tattoo artist begins arranging the visual elements to be included in a tattoo, they must take into consideration the size and shape of the skin where the art will be applied. This can affect where the elements need to be placed to remain effective components of the composition.
  • Choosing a Type of Balance: The type of balance used in a tattoo design can have a major effect on the flow and movement of the design. Both symmetrical and asymmetrical balance can create strong compositions for tattoos – it comes down to the artist choosing the correct one for the given subject matter.
  • Working with Scale and Proportion: While a tattoo artist’s dream may be to tattoo every inch of a person’s body with one design, the reality of most tattoos is that they come in a much wider range of sizes. The size the client desires will have an impact on what level of detail can be included within the design.
Arm Being Tattooed Closeup

Composition on Paper vs. on Skin

Image courtesy of Allef Vinicius
These days, tattoo artists have devised all sorts of methods and tools for achieving even the most complex designs. This has made it possible to create designs in all styles from all sorts of combinations of design elements and principles.

However, no matter how advanced tattoo instruments become, there is still the challenge of designing a composition that looks good not only on a two-dimensional surface but on the three-dimensional surface of the skin as well.

When creating a design that is intended for use as a tattoo, the artist must consider which parts or elements of the composition may wrap around the body. The natural curvature and musculature of the human body do not result in many perfectly flat surfaces, so almost all tattoos will be changed in some way once they are applied to the skin.

As such, in a tattoo composition, the artist will want to ensure that the focal point of the design will not become obscured by curves, folds, or bends in the skin.

The Art of Tattooing: Applying the Elements of Art to Tattoos

Norman Collins – better known as Sailor Jerry – made waves in the tattoo industry in the mid-1990s with the creation of his signature sailor tattoos. He famously said of his style:

“I don’t have a single design that can’t be improved on; every so often I get the urge to ‘renew’ to keep ahead of the tattoo masters!”

Tattooing is an art form in its own right alongside all the other more traditional forms of artistic expression. The beauty of tattoo designs is that there is no one style or type of composition that is considered the “correct” type of tattoo.

Tattoo compositions open up a whole world of possibilities when it comes to body art. Each artist brings a different style and skill set to the table to provide tattoo lovers with a wide range of styles and artists to choose from.

The Many Styles of Tattoos

Whether you are looking to get a single tattoo or continue a growing collection of body art, it is important to know what kinds of style options are at your fingertips.

Tattooing has been continuously evolving over the decades to result in the widespread practice and art form that it has become today. As a result, there are all kinds of different styles of tattooing to choose from.

While there are more styles than can be feasibly discussed here, we will cover 10 of the main and most commonly seen styles to help you better decide which style best fits your ideal tattoo composition.

Here are 10 tattoo styles you should consider:

  • Classic Americana/Traditional: This is the classic western style tattoo associated with traditional American tattoo culture. The style uses bold colors and lines – common designs in this style include roses and portraits of women.
  • Traditional Japanese/Irezumi: This style is traditional to Japan but has become highly popularized in western cultures as well. It is often based on old folklore and features rich colors and wave-like or smoke-like patterns.
  • New School: The new school style came about in the late 80s and 90s and is defined by a vibrant and cartoonish aesthetic.
  • Blackwork: As the name suggests, Blackwork tattoos are focused on creating compositions using solely black lines, shapes, and forms. There is typically no shading and large areas of solid black involved in blackwork designs.
  • Realism: The realism style is designed to imitate reality as closely as possible with highly detailed colors, shapes, and linework. This style is used most often for human and animal portraits, though can also be used for any actual object such as roses or compasses for instance.
  • Surrealism: Surrealism uses the same techniques as realism to imitate reality, but includes details and elements that are not true representations of the physical world.
  • Neo-Traditional: Neo-traditional tattoos combine elements of both traditional tattoo styles with the more evolved use of colors and blending seen within new school and realism tattoos. This results in smooth a luscious colors that still maintain the graphic appearance of traditional tattoos.
  • Geometric/Sacred Geometry: Geometric tattoo designs make use of straight lines and angular shapes to create balanced and detailed designs. Sometimes these tattoos are random and abstract, but the style can be used to create graphic and abstract images of animals, people, plants, and more.
  • Illustrative: Illustrative style tattoos combine elements of many different styles to create images that tell a story or fit within a narrative theme. These tattoos tend to be highly detailed and utilize lots of linework.
  • Linework + Stick’n’Poke: Linework, single needle, and stick’n’poke tattoos have become highly popularized over the past decade. They are often very simple, using only a few lines to define forms and shapes within an image.

The Role of Individual Preference

The truth is, there is no one correct answer to how a tattoo should be composed.

While there are certainly tattoo compositions that are better designed than others, the composition will ultimately vary depending on what you – the client – want your body art to look like.

The art of tattooing has continued to evolve with new styles and artists popping up every day. While the tattoo styles mentioned above certainly come with their histories and merits that give them value, there is also no harm in bringing your creativity and ingenuity to a tattoo design as well.

When working to create your ideal tattoo design, you should always consider your personal preferences. These preferences can include:

  • Your favorite colors
  • Your original concepts
  • How much detail vs. how much simplicity you like
  • What kind of line thickness you prefer
  • How the design will look with pre-existing or future tattoos
  • How Separate Tattoos can Create Their Own Composition Together

Some people like to get large tattoos that form sleeves, cover legs, or cover other areas of the body and are cohesive throughout.

Tattooed Woman with glasses and crossed arms

However, other people may prefer to curate a collection of small to medium-sized tattoos that do not necessarily have a cohesive flow or design.

For some, having a completely random collection of tattoos may be ideal – for others, it may be preferable to choose at least a common theme, style, or shared element that ties all the individual tattoos together.

As your tattoo collection begins to grow, it is important to keep in mind how you want your body art to appear as a cohesive unit, not just as individual pieces.

How Color and Size Affect the Composition of Your Tattoo

As we have covered, color and scale are two of the main elements of design. These two elements may even have the biggest role to play when it comes to the final composition of a tattoo!

There are distinctive stylistic differences between tattoos that are full color versus those which are black and white. Many tattoo fanatics will often stick to one or the other – although having both types of tattoos is not unheard of either.

Color in Composition

While traditional tattoos may have had set ways in which color was used, nowadays tattoo artists use color in all sorts of ways.

A tattoo may be full color, or instead, it may have just hints of color here and there. The focal point of a black and white tattoo can be emphasized even further with a touch or line of color around it. Tattoos can even have areas of both solid black and solid color in bolder designs!

The reality of color in a composition is that it has a major impact on the overall mood and feeling of the piece of artwork. Using complementary colors can create a sense of contrast and a bolder aesthetic while using analogous colors will give a greater feeling of unity and harmony to the tattoo.

Though the meaning of colors can vary depending on culture, here are some of the typical meanings behind colors that are used in color theory to change the mood or feeling of a composition:

  • Red: Passion, intensity, or anger
  • Orange: Energy and vitality
  • Yellow: Happiness, joy, or hope
  • Green: Abundance, nature, or new beginnings
  • Blue: Calmness, cleansing, or sadness
  • Purple: Royalty, wealth, or creativity
  • Pink: Euphoric, child-like, or feminine
  • Black: Logic, mystery, or elegance
  • White: Innocence, purity, or serenity

Sizing and Placement

The level of detail and where a tattoo can be placed on the body can be drastically affected by the desired size of the design.

With large tattoos, a much greater stretch of skin must be committed but the design can feature a much higher level of detail and more color or shading. There is also, of course, much more than just composition to take into consideration if you are looking to get a large tattoo – such as time requirements and commitment to aftercare!

Small to medium size tattoos, comparatively, experience reductions in how much detail they can contain the smaller they go. However, these tattoos will heal much quicker and be easier to take care of after application.

The size of your tattoo ultimately comes down to how large a piece of body art you ideally want. Different placements will also result in different levels of pain during the tattooing process, which is an important consideration to keep in mind for those with a lower pain tolerance.

There are two main ways to go about handling sizing and placement of a composition: either design the composition first and choose the ideal size and placement after, or select the size and placement and have the artist design for that space accordingly.

Custom Tattoo Design is Here to Help

Here at Custom Tattoo Design, we recognize how important composition is when designing tattoos. Our team is comprised of professional artists who draw in a wide array of styles – from graphic and abstract to hyper-realistic.

We are committed not only to providing our clients with top-quality tattoo designs that go above and beyond their expectations, but we also strive to provide educational and design resources to help everyone to learn more about the art of tattooing.

Benefits of Working with Custom Tattoo Design

We offer a variety of features to make our services as ideal as possible for our clients. The benefits of working with us for your tattoo design needs include:

  • Unlimited revisions
  • Money-back guarantee
  • Fairly-priced designs based on size and complexity
  • A full range of sizes to choose from
  • Help with covering up and existing tattoo

Plus, at Custom Tattoo Design we have designed our process to be digitally-based and accessible to all, meaning you can work with us no matter where you live!

Get Started in 4 Simple Steps

  • Submit Your Tattoo Idea: You can submit your ideas through our Start My Design page – a brief description will be required.
  • Receive a Quote: After your idea has been reviewed, our team will send you a price quote based on the size and complexity of the piece – there is no obligation to buy at this step.
  • Work with a Professional Artist: If you are happy with the quote, your project will then be assigned to one of our professional artists who you will get to work with directly.
  • Receive Your Dream Design: After you and your artist have finalized the design, you will receive the final product to bring into a tattoo shop!

Final Thoughts

The composition of your tattoo designs is undeniably important!

It is through the combination of the many different elements and principles of design that a piece of artwork comes to have a definitive style and aesthetic. With tattoos, the process of creating a strong composition has an additional role of ensuring the finished piece looks good on the three-dimensional surface of your skin.

Whether you are getting your first tattoo, adding to an ongoing collection, or looking to cover up an old tattoo, Custom Tattoo Design can help you to achieve the design of your dreams. Our artists can help you to determine the best style, size, and details to create the ideal tattoo that will bring you joy for years to come.

Get in touch with our team today by submitting your design ideas and receive your free quote!

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