Have you ever come across a tech whose nail art belongs in galleries? Do you ever wonder how they came to possess such skill? Or what else they’re capable of creating? We talked to six techs with a passion for art so fiery, it transcends the nail industry. From tattooing to oil painting, these artists-turned-manicurists (and vice versa!) have done it all.
San Bernardino, Calif.
While 21-year-old Yire Castillo has only been doing nails for two years, he’s already landed a full-time position as a star educator with Kupa. Art is his specialty and biggest passion.
Ever since Castillo was a child, he’d find self-expression through painting and clothing, and he was fascinated with surrealist artwork.
A self-proclaimed fashionista, Castillo thought he wanted to become a clothing designer. He learned how to sew by working for his family in the garment industry and eventually made his own articles of clothing. But in high school, his focus shifted to visual arts as he learned water colors, sketching, cartooning, color theory, design, and photography.
Castillo picked up what he could in school, but the rest of his knowledge is self-taught. He relied on books and how-to videos and has always been pretty handy with creative projects.
Determined to become a professional painter, Castillo went on to study art in college. But to pay his way, he worked as a cashier at his aunt’s salon, which led him down an unanticipated path. His aunt would practice nail art techniques when business was slow. This piqued Castillo’s interest; he eventually went on to shadow his aunt in a few of her classes.
“All the other students were always like ‘whoa, you’ve done this before,’” he says. “I hadn’t, but it came really easily to me and I enjoyed doing it.”
Soon after, he got his nail license and believes it’s his background in fine arts that led to his swift success. “I’ve only been doing nails for two years, but I’m able to compete alongside veterans,” he says. “Because of art school, I feel like I have a different view on nails. I’m a perfectionist. I like to give something my all and if it doesn’t look good, I re-do it until I figure out what was wrong.”
Although art comes naturally to him, he says he will never stop taking classes. “At the beginning of my career I took so many nail classes and sometimes right after the class, I kept practicing what I learned for hours because I didn’t want to forget,” he says.
The first time Castillo ever competed professionally, he won third place. His specialty is hand-painted 3-D nail art.
“Practice makes perfect,” says Castillo. “Whether it’s nail art or fine art, that mentality doesn’t change. Even though my oil painting and surrealist art are hobbies now, I still practice all the time.”
St. Louis, Mo.
From sculpted 3-D dragons to hand-painted portraits, Vu Nguyen’s nail designs are works of fine art. Over the last decade, he’s gained international recognition, collecting a handful of first- and second-place prizes from competitions such as ISSE Long Beach and London’s Nailympics. But part of his success in this arena is due to the many different artistic hats he wears outside the world of nails.
Nguyen comes from a family of artists, so his interest in drawing and painting developed naturally as soon as he could hold a pencil. His mother enrolled him in art classes by the age of nine and after high school he was accepted into Cal Arts’ undergraduate fine arts program.
But Nguyen left before graduating to pursue a unique apprenticeship in tattoo art. He learned the ropes from a skilled classmate and eventually landed a full-time position at a local tattooing studio.
Soon after, however, Nguyen’s mother decided to enroll in nail school and pleaded with him to come along for the ride. “She didn’t like my tattooing,” he says. At first he’d just try class assignments for fun, but it wasn’t long before his talent turned heads. He ended up graduating alongside his mom.
After about two years in the salon, Nguyen discovered nail art through magazines and was instantly hooked. “Nail art is quick,” he says. “It’s a small canvas that doesn’t take as long to do as a tattoo or a painting. And I could be creative without worrying about my marks being permanent.”
Tattooing and fine art both gave Nguyen the background in composition needed for his complicated nail designs. He even merged worlds, creating a tattoo-like manicure for NAILS’ November 2008 cover.
“With my nail art I do a rough sketch, like I would a tattoo or a painting, and then break it down into what layers I need to polish on first,” he says.
Although nails are Nguyen’s main profession, he still makes his personal artwork a priority. “I like everything from oil painting to airbrushing, but I mostly work on canvas and do pencil drawings or sketches,” he says. “As for tattooing, I only do that once in a while now, mostly just for friends and family.”
Nguyen works as an educator for OPI specializing in the Vietnamese market. His current favorite medium is gel, although he also enjoys mixed-media.
Celebrity manicurist Elsbeth Schuetz emits creativity. Aside from having a booming career in the nail industry, a certification in pastry arts, and professional calligraphy experience, she’s also a painter.
Ever since the first grade, she remembers surprising art teachers with her work. “Painting was always something I enjoyed, and I think for some people, it’s just a gift,” says Schuetz. “Ultimately inspiration comes from inside and my biggest strength is my imagination.”
Currently she’s working on a 3-foot-tall still-life oil painting, but she also enjoys figure painting and portraiture.
About 15 years ago, Schuetz considered leaving the nail industry, so she spent a summer at Disneyland drawing portraits for park-goers. She attended a rigorous training program and got both hourly pay and commission.
“But I couldn’t stand drawing on a time crunch and doing the same style over and over,” says Schuetz. “It was a great experience, but it made me realize how much I really love nails. I realized how much potential there is in this field to get paid to really let my creative ability flow.”
According to Schuetz, who has been in the industry since its early days, she can reproduce anything she sees and was one of the nail art pioneers.
“I can paint a portrait of Oprah or Obama on nails,” says Schuetz. “But a lot of times people think they are good only if they can do something like that, and it’s just not true. Everyone is their own artist and I always say, if you like impressionism and you’re a Monet, be a Monet.
Don’t try to be a Dali or a Van Gogh. Find your strength.” In recent years, Schuetz says she realizes the simplest designs can often be the most effective.
“Right now I’m wearing hot pink polish with white polka dots on my feet,” she says. “I get more compliments on that than my more elaborate designs because it’s eye-catching. My toes are my business cards.”
Schuetz prefers flat nail art and uses every medium from acrylic paints to regular polish. She is noticing a trend toward gel art and texture and grabs inspiration from everything around her.
“I just put in light wooden floors in my house and I thought, wouldn’t that be nice on nails,” she says.
Schuetz leads teaching sessions in the industry and does nails for celebrities and photo shoots. She attends fine art classes regularly, which aids both her personal paintings and her nail art.
Hamilton, New Jersey
Alice Crammer is a full-time nail tech and part-time freelance artist. She creates about three to four large-scale commissioned paintings per year — most of them are acrylic portraits.
“A lot of my art clients tend to be my nail clients too,” says Crammer. “I bring my paintings into the salon and that gets them interested. I’ve done everything from family portraits to a painting of the family pet.”
Crammer does pen sketches as well — something she can practice more regularly. A lot of clients come to her wanting tattoos, so she’ll sketch their ideas to life.
Currently, she’s creating a logo for a client who’s starting her own business as a children’s book writer. So far, wordof-mouth has been her biggest ally.
Nail art, she says, is another great way to promote her fine arts business. “Clients see my nail art and start to question me: ‘What else do you do besides nails?’”
When Crammer was getting her cosmetology license, she originally didn’t know she’d choose nails. “I was always a tomboy,” says Crammer. “But when I saw how much art is actually in nails, I got into it. There’s so much you can do.”
After graduating, both a client and a hairdresser at her current employer, Sydney Albert Salon and Spa, recommended her when they were looking for nail techs. “I didn’t search for my job, it searched for me,” says Crammer. “It was a sign I should go into nails.”
Crammer now enters contests — both in print and online — for her nails and her paintings regularly. “I think doing nails helps a lot with my painting, and vice versa. But doing nails every day is what really keeps me up to date. With art, it’s one of those things where if you don’t work on your skills all the time, you don’t stay good.”
When it comes to nail art, Crammer definitely has a type. “As long as it’s something detailed, I’m good,” she says. “I don’t like doing simple stuff like stripes and flowers. I like doing nails that become true talking piece for my clients.”
In her salon, Crammer is known for being able to do “the difficult stuff.” “I like being able to have a challenge at work,” she says. “I like when people come in with a random Instagram picture and ask, ‘Can you do this?’”
The most challenging thing Crammer says she has ever had to do was replicate photos of her client’s dog on her nails. Her favorite challenge was a Disney-inspired manicure for one of her clients. “The client has really long nails so I was able to get a lot of detail work in,” Crammer says. “I’m the most proud of that.”
The Rose Salon
When Kimber Thompson was eight years old, she was enrolled in an adult oil painting class.
“My mom said she had never seen a kid as young as me drawing,” Thompson says. “I didn’t write numbers or letters, I started with pictures from the get-go and I’ve always had a paintbrush in my hand.”
In 2000, she graduated from Idaho State University with a bachelor’s degree in art, emphasizing in drawing and photography. Her specialty is sketching the human form and her favorite mediums are charcoal and mixedmedia.
Her personal art collection is filled with intricately portrayed faces, eyes, and bodies.
In order to put herself through school, however, Thompson did nails. What started out as a playful activity among friends became her career.
“My best friend and I didn’t have any formal training in nails, but we’d put fake tips on each other for fun,” says Thompson. “The ones I put on her would stay on, but the ones she put on me wouldn’t, so I thought, ‘Maybe I have a knack for this.’”
When she graduated college, Thompson thought about teaching high school art, but she couldn’t get her mind off of nails.
“I just love doing nails,” says Thompson. “I love the challenges that I fill with different clients and it really is a very rewarding form of art.”
She enjoys creating nail designs, playing with color, and working with acrylics. “Because I started painting so young, having an acrylic brush in my hand is just natural,” she says. “When I was in art school, I learned how to be more open to art. Compositionally, I’m able to see what’s around me and translate that to the nails.
And I think my relationship with color has helped too. I can blend acrylics to match anything whether it’s your prom dress or your Halloween costume. It’s super fun to play with.”
Thompson believes the first step toward creating quality nail art is making sure the initial canvas (a.k.a. the structure of the nail) is good before painting on top of it.
“Make the nails perfect and then add the art,” says Thompson. “That’s what keeps me in business.”
She also advises learning from as many avenues as possible, whether it’s YouTube, magazines, or websites.
“Any aspiring nail artist would benefit from an introductory art class,” says Thompson. “They’ll learn shadowing, perspective, the color wheel — the basics that influence everything.”
Cosi Fan Tutte Nail Lounge
Laguna Beach, Calif.
Jae’ette Burneo, owner of Cosi Fan Tutte Nail Lounge in Laguna Beach, Calif., is a nail tech-turnedartist who discovered her talent two years ago with a box of Crayola water color paints.
“A friend of mine brought the paints over, so I just tried them out and I ended up creating this beautiful mermaid,” says Burneo. “I was shocked it was turning out so well, so I thought I’d try more.”
She started painting faces, fairies, and fashion sketches. She describes her style as whimsical and considers Amy Brown, a popular fantasy artist, a big inspiration.
“I’m similar to Amy Brown, but with more dramatic facial detail,” says Burneo. “I get more into the eyes and face — it’s the most important thing to me.”
Burneo has sold and given away quite a few of her paintings to different friends, family members, and fans who know about her work.
Since tapping into this talent, she has also been reading books on art theory but tries not to be too formal about her craft.
“I wouldn’t say I know how to paint properly — I don’t even know if I’m using the right paper or brushes, but it turns out great because I have a good eye and zero expectations,” says Burneo. “I draw what I see and not what I think I see.”
And for translating her art onto nails, Burneo values learning through the Internet. “Social media is really the most amazing tool of all,” she says. “I watch online tutorials, chime into different groups on Instagram, and look at hundreds of awesome nail designs daily.”
She recently hired nail artists (some she met through Instagram) with similar skills and interests. She now considers nail art both her specialty and the salon’s focus.
“I would say the salon really concentrates on marketing our nail art,” says Burneo. “We’ve had 1,700% growth since January from nail art. It’s awesome, addictive, and spreads by word of mouth like wildfire.”
She enjoys working with the clients, mainly ages 18 to 32, who enjoy nail art as a routine service rather than a special treat.
“Because nails aren’t permanent, people let you take risks and do fun, outlandish things,” says Burneo. “They’re up for anything!”
While Burneo doesn’t work with acrylics, she does incorporate some 3-D elements — like charms, beads, and glitter — into her nail art and uses both regular polish and gel-polish.