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How to Design, Draw and Sell Your Tattoo Flash Art

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A custom back/shoulderblade tattoo design
Mark Storm/Flickr
Flash is the term used for pre-drawn images that are specifically designed for the purpose of tattooing. You’ll usually see hundreds of flash drawings inside tattoo shops, either on the wall or in big books. Many artists prefer doing custom work, but flash is still very useful in helping clients narrow down what kind of tattoo they want. The magazine simply called “Flash” puts out 6 issues a year of nothing but drawings and tattoo designs, and it’s a highly successful publication. People love to peruse flash art, even if they have no intention of getting a tattoo!

Now, anyone can draw some pictures and try to sell them, but that method isn’t going to get you very far. There’s a standard that tattoo artists look for when buying flash, so this article will teach you what that standard is and how to make your drawings marketable. The first thing you need to accept before starting any kind of personal business is that “it takes money to make money.” There will be some investment involved if you really want to do this right and have a better chance at success. But before you worry about any of that, you need the following three things:

  1. Excellent Drawing Skills
    You obviously can’t make money selling an inferior product. Just because your friends think you draw really good doesn’t mean you do – think of all the crazy people who show up for American Idol auditions because their friends told them they’re wonderful singers, only to embarrass themselves when they sound more like a dying seagull.

    If you really want a fair, objective opinion of your art, ask an art teacher, a tattoo artist, or you can even email me for constructive criticism. And if you send your art to me, do be prepared for criticism, even if you’re really good. I don’t believe anyone doesn’t have room for improvement, including myself!

  2. Unique Ideas & Perspective
    Your friends may think your roses and skulls are da bomb, but tattoo artists have seen a million of them. If you want to sell your art, it’s got to be truly unique. The best way to find out what’s already been done is to spend a considerable amount of time perusing flash art yourself. Then take a look at some of the recent art being featured in magazines and see what direction the industry is going in, and jump ahead of it. Staying current is good – rising above the current trend and breaking out in a new and exciting way is much better.

  3. An Understanding of Tattoo Designs
    Not all drawings can be translated into a tattoo. As tattoos age, they spread out; lines become thicker and softer, which can create a real mess if the image was too busy to begin with. On the other hand, a design with hardly any lines and just a lot of shading and color doesn’t work well for flash, either – yes, it would look good as a tattoo, but there isn’t much point to flash art if it’s basically open space with no pre-defined shape; the artist may as well just do a custom piece from scratch. The image should be well defined and the detail should be just enough to create a dynamic picture without cramming thin lines together.

With those three basic requirements in mind, you’re ready to begin drawing tattoo flash. Now is when you need to invest some money in quality materials.

Medium – Typically, the standard size for flash sheets is 11x14. A smooth but heavy drawing paper that comes in individual sheets (not spiral bound or punctured) will give you a good foundation for your art.

Media – Quality drawing pencils, markers and coloring pencils are the standard for most flash artists. Colored markers don’t usually allow for blending and shading the way pencils do. Prismacolor makes some of the best colored pencils that are highly favored by flash artists. Fine point markers in black, blue, or red are typically only used for outlines. Sharpie makes excellent fine point, permanent markers that work great for this purpose. You’ll also need a good eraser that doesn’t tear up your paper – plastic and vinyl erasers are much more effective than rubber. Other supplies you may need will depend on your style and preferences, but those are the basics.

Mapping
Before you start putting your drawings on your professional sheets, you need to plan them out on regular paper. Know exactly what you’re going to put on the sheet and where you’re going to put it by sketching your ideas first and having a solid plan laid out. Once you’ve mapped out a plan, you can create your actual flash sheet.

Some flash pages contain several images that all share a common theme like vintage, new school, skulls, or animals. You can create your flash sheets with a theme or without – it’s not required, but you don’t want such a random mixture that it’s confusing to look at. Think of the entire flash sheet as a compilation of multiple images that all work together to create a single unit. The more pleasing to the eyes your flash is as a whole, the more likely it will sell. Flash sheets are typically sold in sets, not individual sheets, so you’ll want to create at least four full sheets of flash to put together as a set. I’ve seen sets as large as ten sheets, but keeping the number a little smaller (and therefore keeping the price of the set more reasonable) will make your flash more attractive to artists on a budget. I wouldn’t recommend going over six sheets per set.

Include Outline Sheets
Lay out your designs in pencil first, then go over the outlines in thin marker, making sure all of the outlines are clean and crisp. Stop! Do not color anything in yet! You will want to be able to offer outlines with your flash sheets, as they make them more useful and valuable to the tattoo artist. Before you do any coloring or shading, take your outlines to a printer and have them scanned for printing. You don’t necessarily have to print them just yet, but at least have the scans made so you can make the prints on demand.

Once you’ve done that, you can begin your shading and coloring. The more dynamic and eye-catching you make them, the better. Then scan the colored pages for printing as well.

Once you’re ready to start selling, you’ll want to print and laminate at least one full set so you can show it to prospective buyers.

Selling Your Flash
Before you can sell your art, you have to establish a price. How much your art is worth will depend on how good it is and how much return an artist can expect to get on it by having it in their shop. I recommend starting a little high – let’s say $15 per sheet with outlines, so a five sheet set would go for $75.00. That’s pretty good for a new and unknown artist. If it sells at that price, great. If it doesn’t, offer a discount and see if that grabs the buyer. If you go extremely low and still can’t sell your flash, chances are it’s just not unique enough or good enough. That’s a tough reality many artists have to face – just brush yourself off and make your next set even better!

There are several ways you can go about reaching potential buyers for your art. You can post it on the internet, send out mailers to tattoo shops, or visit tattoo shops personally. I think putting your art on the internet is the best and fastest way to reach a lot of people without investing a lot of time or money, but there’s one caveat to posting your art on the web—the risk of someone stealing it.

Protecting Your Art
There are a few ways to protect your art from being stolen and copied, and I recommend applying all of them. First of all, only upload small, low-resolution images to the web page. Just enough for potential buyers to be able to see what you have to offer without providing a clear image that can be copied by thieves. In addition to low-res images, make sure you have a transparent watermark on the images that covers as much of the image as possible, making it impossible for someone to post your art on another page and claim it as their own. Finally, disable the ability to “right click” on images, so there won’t be an option to copy or save the image onto another computer. Granted, there are ways around these precautions if someone is really determined to steal your art, but the more inconvenient you make it for them to do so, the better the odds are that they won’t bother.

Collecting Payment & Shipping
If you need to collect payment for your flash set online or someone wants to pay by credit card, Paypal is the best way I know of to accept those payments. The ability for your patrons to rate their transactions with you will also boost confidence in future buyers, providing you are a reliable seller.

Flash sets for studio use should be printed on high quality, glossy paper and/or laminated. You can usually just print them as you receive the orders, so you don’t have to have hundreds of pages sitting around waiting for a buyer. There’s too much risk something might happen to damage them. When shipping your flash, it’s important that the pages don’t become bent or crinkled in transit. Sandwich the flash set between two thin pieces of cardboard in a large, flat envelope and mark the package as being delicate. Be quick to mail out the product once it’s been paid for. All of these things may seem inconsequential, but you want to build a solid reputation for being a professional as well as an artist. Working well with your buyers will make them more likely to be responsive when you’re next flash set is ready to sell! Good luck!

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