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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Tattoo Design

How to Draw a Group of Swallows in a Retro Tattoo Style

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial you will create a swallow in three different positions. We will be using ink liners to create bold lines, typical of American traditional tattooing, and watercolour inks to achieve a classic finish.

Swallows were traditionally used by sailors to indicate the great distances they had travelled. They symbolise 'return' as the bird will always return to nest at land, so sailors believed it guaranteed their safe return home and, should they die at sea, the bird would carry their soul to heaven. Now the swallow is a common and popular image in tattooing used by everyone.

If you're looking for some tattoo inspiration, you can check out the many tattoo vector designs over on GraphicRiver. 

Looking for tattoo fonts? Check out our recommendations in the following article:

What You'll Need

You will need the following equipment to complete this tutorial:

Supplies - pens and tracedown paper
supplies - watercolour ink
  • Tracing paper
  • Watercolour paper—I used fine grain, cold pressed paper, 300g/m
  • Tracedown graphite paper
  • B lead pencil—I use a mechanical pencil, lead size 0.7
  • Red coloured lead for mechanical pencil
  • Fine ink liner pen
  • Medium ink liner pen
  • Watercolour brush—I used a ProArte, Proleneplus, size 007
  • Dr PH Martin's radiant concentrated watercolour ink in black, antelope green, grass green, true blue, scarlet and sunset orange
  • Watercolour paint tray
  • Masking tape

1. Start With Some Sketches

Step 1

Interlock two ovals, one slightly smaller than the other and at the angle shown. This can be drawn roughly as it is only a starting point. I would use a lighter coloured pencil, in this case red, as we will be drawing over our initial sketches.

Interlock two ovals in red

Step 2

Now you need to add basic guide lines that will show where the eye, beak, wing position and tail will sit. The following pictures will give you three ideas, focusing on the wing position as this is the main area that changes the look of the swallow. I have flipped the basic image for two of the swallows as this will give flow of flight in the finished painting.

First sketch of swallow in flight
Second sketch of swallow in flight
Third sketch of swallow in flight

Step 3

Now we can start to give the swallow it's distinct, quirky shape. 

Using a graphite pencil, add the wing feathers, working from the tip of the guideline shape and reducing the size of the feathers until they join the body. Add a line that separates the wing edge and the feathers—I have chosen a simple shape that mirrors the shape of the top wing edge. Split the upper body from the lower by continuing the lower tail line throughout the body until it joins the lower wing. 

Swallow tails are typically wide and angular, so join the two tips with a continuous, swooping line. Finally, redefine the body shape, removing the obviously different oval shapes and making it one solid shape. These instructions apply to all three swallow designs.

First swallow with shape filled out
Second swallow with shape filled out
Third swallow with shape filled out

2. Transform Your Sketches Into a Complete Composition

Step 1

Using a new piece of tracing paper, transfer your swallow sketches to make a finished composition, omitting all the red pencil guidelines. At this stage you can be creative with your design and play around with the composition until you have the perfect flight formation for your design. 

Three swallows all in one design

Step 2

Cut the tracedown paper to a size that is slightly smaller than your watercolour paper. 

Place the tracedown paper, graphite side down, onto the watercolour paper. Put the tracing paper with your design on top and secure all three layers together using masking tape. This will stop your work moving while you transfer the design, helping you achieve a clean finish.

Remember to place your design sketch layer centrally on the top, so that it is transferred successfully to the watercolour paper.

all three layers together

The tracedown produces a soft image, so you can work on top without any risk of the graphite line showing through on your finished design.

Step 3

Take the medium ink liner and draw over the graphite lines.

Take the medium ink liner and draw over the graphite lines

3. Add Colour to Your Design

Step 1

Now we will add colour to the swallows and bring them to life. Put your watercolour inks into the separate compartments of the painting tray. I would recommend adding plain water to the compartment next to the black ink, as you will use this to dilute the black ink to achieve a smooth gradient where necessary in the design.

Add a solid line using undiluted black ink to the top of the feathered section of the wing. Now, using water to dilute the shade, apply smooth strokes. Start by slightly overlapping the original black and working your way down towards the edge of the feathers. Add more water as necessary to reach a smooth gradient from darker to lighter tones. 

Repeat this technique on the head and the body.

Swallows with solid lines added

Step 2

Complete all the black shading.

Swallows with black shading completed

Step 3

Using the blue watercolour ink overlay, colour onto the black section. Again use the same painting method as in step 1, working first with the concentrated shade and diluting it with water as you move your brush towards the lighter edges. This gives the swallow a lovely, glossy look to its body.

Swallows with blue watercolour ink overlay added

Step 4

Now add the red for the bright, vibrant underbelly of the swallow. I like to leave an unpainted circular section around the eye as I feel it gives an extra design feature.

Swallows with red colour added

Step 5

Finally add the yellow to the top edge of the wing and the beak to achieve your finished swallows that pay homage to the tattoo classics drawn by American Traditional artists such as Sailor Jerry.

Swallows with yellow added

Additions to Your Finished Swallows

You can leave the swallow as a singular illustration, but I think it can be fun to add elements to the design to give them an extra tattoo-style feel.

To one bird I have added a banner or scroll, in which you can add a name or wording of your choice, and to the other I have added a little flower and leaves. Within the flower I have used the fine ink liner as it makes it more interesting to apply different line widths within the details of the design. Here you can really expand your creativity and play around with different ideas, or use the reference I have shown.

Drawing and painting using the methods I have explained results in strong, bold colour images and, as you can see with the swallows, you can produce very differing images by making just slight alterations. I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial and have fun creating your own swallow designs.

Finished image of vintage tattoo style swallows
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