Nail artists enjoy increased income and publicity by offering nail art to their clients, and find an outlet for their clients, and find an outlet for their artistic talent as well. In this three-part series, NAILS will show you how to get started doing nail art---how to shop for and evaluate products, where to find education, and how to do designs from the simple to the complex that you can sell to clients. Part I focuses on the tools you’ll need to get started, some simple designs, and how to begin marketing nail art to your clients.

Acquiring the tools to do basic nail art requires surprisingly little monetary outlay. All of the tools you need may be obtained from nail art products manufacturers and distributors and discount craft, hobby, and art supply stores. The biggest investment is the time you put into learning and doing nail art.

There is an unlimited number of nail art styles and designs and an unlimited source of art ideas. No two nail artists do quite the same art. Some nail artists are known for creating scenic art such as palm trees, beaches, or southwestern scenes. Others are known for creating miniature portraits, while others paint cartoon characters or sports figures. The secret to doing good art is sticking with what you find you’re good at and painting subjects that interest you.


Nail artists use acrylic water-based paints because they are non-toxic, readily available, easy to use, and wash off with water. These craft paints come in lots of colors and can also be used to paint ceramic, wood, miniatures, and clothing. Badger Airbrush (Franklin Park, III) markets a new craft and hobby acrylic water-based paint, Accuflex, that is permanent, and may not be removed with water or polish remover.

You can create custom colors by mixing available colors. Yolanda Hernandez, owner of Secrets Styling Salon in Clovis, Calif., buys paints in the primary colors, then combines them to create a custom color. “I put a drop of color on a piece of paper, add another color, then mix them and add more drops as I need,” she says. The great thing about mixing your own colors is that your look becomes unique. Your designs, even if they are copied straight from a Christmas card, are different enough from the original that you don’t get “cookie cutter” nail art.

Shanna Lutz, a nail art competition winner from Myrtle Beach, S.C., buys her paints from craft stores. “I originally purchased a nail art kit. If you don’t do a lot of nail art, the kit is a good idea because it will last a long time. But I go through so much paint that the kit would be too expensive. The craft store paint is very inexpensive, and the colors are more realistic---true to what I’m creating. I get the paint in squeeze bottles and mix colors or add a little water to get more shading.”

Any hobby or craft store probably carries acrylic paint. Karen Turner-Hensley, owner of Handmaidens in Fresno, Calif., likes craft store paints because she says the prices and choice are better. “The jars sold by nail art companies are too small. Also, I like to see what I’m buying.” Lynda Ward, owner of Nails by Lynda in Rare Accents in Palm Harbor, Fla., also purchases most of her paint at craft stores. She buys the paint in squeeze bottles. Occasionally, the craft store won’t have a specific color, and that’s where beauty supply stores come in handy, she says. “The paints at beauty supply stores are more expensive, and I haven’t found them to be superior, but you can find a greater variety of some colors, especially pastels.”


Some nail artists use regular nail polish instead of paint as a background for their nail art because it tends to dry faster than acrylic paint. If you plan on applying a lot of art on the nail that will eventually cover up the background color, you can apply a regular ridge filler or a clear base coat, as the first coat. Ward follows this procedure: “I apply a base coat, two coats of polish, the nail art, and a top coat.”

Most nail artists apply nail art over acrylic or artificial nails. If the art is being applied on artificial nails, just about any base coat will work. Says Turner-Hensley, “All my clients wear acrylics, and 98% of them wear nail art. I had clients that wore natural nails and I found that a base coat designed to help polish stay on natural nails longer made a big difference on how long their art lasted.” Ward uses a dehydrator on natural nails and a natural nail polish adhesion promoter as well.

Lutz doesn’t like to use a base coat or polish before she applies nail art. “I sometimes actually rough up the nail before I apply the art ( I do art on acrylic nails). Polish makes the brush bristles spread apart and the paint bead up.”

The top coat you choose can make a difference in how well the nail art holds up. Many nail artists use a cured top coat because they say it protects the nail art longer than a regular top coat. Says Turner-Hensley, “I’ve used the same two types of top coats, a UV-cured and a quick-dry, for the past two years because they work. I’ve tried others, but they don’t hold up to wear and they dry too slow.”

Ward uses a heat-cured top coat because it sets up fast (before the client has a chance to mess up the art) and it leaves the nails very shiny. Donnie Clark, a nail art competitor from Jacksonville, Fla., says to watch out for top coats that can yellow the nail art. “I’ve used some regular clear polishes over nail art and thjey have changed the color of the srt. The whites turn yellow. I use a quick-dry polish because it dries fast, it leaves the art super shiny, and it dries with a regular light bulb, which is convenient furing competitions.”

Sheryl Macauley, a nail art competitor and nail artist at The Nail Resort in Bakersfield, Calif., uses a heart-cured top coat over her nail art. “The cost and quality is right. If your art is all the way to the edges of the nail, be sure to apply the top coat over and under the nail to cover the art completely or you’ll get shrinkage when the top coat cures. If the art is just on the center of the nail, you usually don’t have to worry about shrinkage,” she says.


Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced nail artist, you’ll probably only use two nail art brushes: a striper and a detail. A detail brush has short bristles and can be used for creating fine lines, stripes, and dots, as well as “drawing” color across the nail to fill in areas. Artists use a striper brush for making line drawings.

Though natural-bride brushes (sable is considered the best) cost more, they will save you money in  the long run because they work better and last longer than nylon brushes. Explains Turner-Hensley, “The sable hairs carry the paint. Nylon pulls paint off the nail instead of putting it on.”

Striper brushes have between one and five hairs. Because there are so few hairs, the striper doesn’t last as long as the detail. By taking great care of your brushes, you can make the detail last four to six months, and the striper three to four months.

For new design techniques you may want to try a fan brush. A fan brush is too large for detail, but it works great for watercolour effects and for clouds and trees. Another type of brush, the flat brush, is used for coating the entire nail with solid color for a background. Most craft stores don’t carry the super-mini-stripers or the single-hair stripers. Nail art supply companies specialize in the small, delicate brushes required for nail art, so they’re usually your best bet. They make stripers with a single hair that’s less than an inch long! If you can’t obtain what you need from a nail supply company, you can try to customize your craft-store brush by cutting off the extra hairs or shortening them, but you have to be careful. Small, fine brushes are needed simply because your canvas, the nail, is so small to begin with, and some intricate designs require the precision that can be achieved only with a single-hair brush.

Lutz likes the specialty brushes available from nail art supply companies. “I have one brush that is my favorite. It has longer bristles and a very fine point. I order it from a nail art company. I also have 14 other brushes because I do so much nail art and so many types of designs. A beginner can get away with just three, or even two brushes: a fine point, a striper, and maybe a fan or flat brush. If you buy a brush that isn’t right and try to customize it by cutting, the brush gets ruined because the bristles become blunt.”


Cleaning the paint from skin, brushes, and your work area should be extremely easy because the paint is water-based (it rinses off with water.) Hernandez uses brush cleaner from the same craft store she buys her paints from and dilutes a little of the cleaner with water.

To clean paint from around your client’s fingers you can wait for the finished nails to dry (about a half-hour) and then have the client wash her hands. At this point, the paint will wash off the skin with soap and water. Ward dips an orangewood stick in polish remover and cleans the cuticle area with it. Turner Hensley cleans the paint from the cuticle as you would clean up polish, with an orangewood stick with a little cotton wrapped around it, dipped in polish remover. But, as Hernandez says, “Good nail artists almost never get paint on a client’s skin because they’re so careful.” Don’t worry if you’re a beginner since no one will ever know what mess you made after it’s cleaned up.

It’s important to keep your nail art brushes clean so that they stay supple and long-lasting. Ward constantly dips her brushes in a container of water to keep them clean. “You can clean dried off paint with acetone, but it leaves your brush dry and stiff,” she says. Turner Hensley keeps a dish on her table that contains a little water and a sponge. She constantly wipes her brushes (horizontally) on the sponge to clean it. “I never swish my brushes in a container of water because I don’t want the bristles touching the bottom. I am very careful with my brushes,” she says.


When you’re a beginning nail artist, you may want to limit your designing to clients who will be patient and indulgent. You don’t want someone coming to you demanding you paint their pet lion on their nail when you can only do a few glitter designs. To promote your emerging talent and service, paint a few designs you’re very comfortable with on nail tips. Buy an inexpensive picture frame and tape the tips to a sheet of colored paper. Put it in the frame and hang it above your station. Allow clients to choose from the samples. As you become more expert, you can add more designs.

As your regular clients become familiar with the idea that you do nail art, they may ask you to do a design you haven’t done before. Ask the client to leave a sample of what she wants done and to return in a week. That will give you time to practice what she wants. Hernandez always asks her clients to bring in a picture or an object that will show her specifically what they want done.

Ward’s five-year-old son is in love with the television show “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”She says, “He bet me I couldn’t paint the Power Rangers. Well, I collected al his little toys and lined them up on the table. I just copied them carefully on the nail tips. It was hard and took about 45 minutes for each nail, but I did it. When I messed up, I just painted right over the messes.”

Nail art can be simple and take only 10 minutes for a full set, and it can be intricate and time-consuming and take several hours. Obviously, you don’t charge the same price for the two, but there’s a limit to the amount your clients are willing to pay. That’s why nail art prices range from $1-$10 per nail. Multiply how long the design takes by how much you think you should be making per hour. For example, if you think you should be making $30 an hour, charge $5 for a 10 minute nail.

To keep all your nail art supplies neat and organized, just about any organizer tray will work if it has compartments for the paint and brushes. Kaboodle kits, plastic organizer trays, cigar boxes, and metal toolboxes are great for holding nail art supplies.


If you have a desire to do nail art it may be because you are already naturally artistic. Those of you who aren’t, don’t despair. The designs that clients like best are also the most simple to achieve because clients usually want a very simple subtle, elegant look. For example, Ward explains two very simple designs that are very popular with clients: “Pick two colors of polish that will go well together. Paint half the nail on a diagonal with none color, and the other half with the other color. Then paint the diagonal line with a striper brush using  another color. Another design is to paint a corner of the nail (near the free edge) a solid color, lay striping tape on the diagonal line, and fill the paint in with a little glitter. A lot of clients don’t want big, complicated nail art.”

Lutz says palm trees, her specialty, are very simple, too. “I live by the beach, so palm trees are popular with clients. They’re easy to create, and all you need is a fine point brush and a couple of colors.”

Videos, books, and classes teaching how to create nail art designs abound in the nail industry. They contain many useful instructions on how to do simple to very intricate designs. However, it’s harder to find nail art classes that teach art theory (the effects of colors on each other, how to mix colors, how to choose the best colors, and how to create a pleasing scene). Hernandez says, “I’ve taken classes in flower arranging, oil painting, and color theory. Every one of those classes helped me with my nail art. Then, you just practice.”

Artists get inspiration and ideas from life itself. Whatever is around you is a potential source for art. Any other artist’s work can influence your own. Once you begin doing nail art, your eyes will open to these sources and your repertoire will expand.





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