Joe @ Off the Map Tattoo: Small Ideas With BIG Results: the benefits of thumbnail sketches

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Today marks the beginning of a transformation. Wilson has come to me to receive a full backpiece of a Japanese inspired dragon with maple leaves. Aside from the obvious reason to be excited about this kind of project the first session is extra thrilling because of the exploration of the layout and the unfolding of the yet unseen tattoo design. For a while now, i've been drawing about 80% of my work directly on the skin, large scale tattooing especially. With the exception of geometric work. I do my best to leave all compositions and layout ideas as just thumbnail sketches. Thumbnails being no larger than around 5 inches and totally devoid of all details. They show the major forms of an image as well as how they will move across the body. For the client, these quick sketches act as tools to better explain my ideas and a foundation for them to build their ideas off of. Because each drawing is simple and created quickly, I'm able to detach from my ideas easier and hear my clients requests clearer. To me that is the most important aspect of using thumbnail sketches for large compositions. A backpiece comp. can take hours just to get proportions in place correctly, so if I do these drawings on paper, locked away in my studio without my client present, it becomes easy for me to lose track of the tattoo collectors vision/requests. Once I've discussed and shown my suggestions to Wilson as thumbnails however, we will be able to make any changes or additions in a matter of only minutes and we can then come to a common ground on what we BOTH think is best for his design.
From here I begin to draw the composition directly on the skin ensuring that every line conforms and curves to his exact shape. This process also allows me to stay open to improvements and alterations that I might have missed if I were using a stencil. The ability, for example, to have the client move to various positions, gives certainty that all angles of the tattoo look flattering to it's wearer in everyday life and not just when posing for a photo. After the composition is complete the client and I will AGAIN review the overall design and once approved, we officially will start the long journey ahead.
I've explored many processes and practices in my 11 years of tattooing and for now I confidently say this is the one for me. It places the client first and keeps me attentive to their needs. I love being an artist with an independent vision and voice. However, as a tattooer I'm being contracted to illustrate an idea for someone who can't do so on their own. If the client wants me to do “my own thing” with their idea that's great but, if not that's okay too… I need to be ready either way.