Exhibitor booths at trade shows buzz with technicians eager to learn, and manufacturers report that phones are ringing off the hook. Educational seminars overflow, and sales surpass everyone’s expectations. Nail art continues its sweep through salons across the United States.

“Five years ago there were women you couldn’t put the stuff on, and there were areas of the country that hadn’t heard of it,” says Beverly Bennett of A Show of Hands in Meriden, Connecticut, speaking of nail art. “Now they’re ordering and reordering.”

Nail art may be nothing new on the East Coast or in California, but all points in between are discovering that nail art is profitable and fun. Nail technicians can do art as an additional service, and some have given up any other service but nail art, says Sue Tumblety of Bloomingnails in Morganville, New Jersey, “I just sat here for the first three months, but now my appointment book is almost full.”

If you’re holding out against doing nail art because you think you’re not artistic or because it looks too difficult, think again. Training is available from many manufacturers and is recommended for airbrushing and more intricate designs, but there is a vast amount of product available that you can teach yourself to apply. Many companies provide detailed how to’s, classes, and even video guides.

“Anyone who thinks airbrushing is a hassle needs the right education.” Says Diane D’Agnolo of Professional Nail Resource in Phoenix. “There aren’t any tricks. It’s just really knowing what you’re doing.”

Educational classes offer much more than technique – they can also other inspiration “Energy goes around the room when people start exchanging ideas I encourage people to discuss what they’re doing and really know what clients are looking for,” says D’Agnolo. “Students need to learn how to sell and how to promote art, besides learning new design ideas. They get information on how to actually make money at it instead of wasting dollars.”

Other technicians avoid nail art because they feel it’s gaudy. Many technicians only experience with nail art is competition nail art, which is necessarily detailed and flamboyant because it is a test of skills and talent. Just as sculptured nails done in competition vary greatly from salon nails, competitive nail art is not something you would send most clients home wearing. The same is true with many nail art advertisements. In order to get your attention, I have to put in ads that show wild, heavy metal art,” says LynnRae Ries of San Francisco Nails in San Leandro, California. “The camera is unable to pick up the nuances of subtle nail art that would be suitable for the professional woman.”

Can’t Choose One? Try All Three

Nail art generally falls into three categories fancy handpainted, and airbrushed. Fancy art includes striping, stones, gems, dust, glitter, snakeskin, feathers, foil, and decals – any product applied other than paint, polish, or gel. Handpainted art includes not only brush-painting, but marbleizing colored gel art, squeeze painting, and embossing.

Airbrushing s a method of nail art that uses paint pressed through a spray device to create myriad designs.

Many nail technicians understand the versatility of working with all three mediums. Each differs certain advantages, and all three can be used alone or combined for one-of-a-kind look.

Fancy Nail Art

Fancy nail art encompasses all types of nail art that isn’t done with a brush. You can use it to add sparkle to painted scenes, or alone to create abstract designs that appeal to the most conservative of clients. Most fancy nail art products are relatively inexpensive, and clients will spend freely to add subtle, individualized touches to their nail. Using the same elements again and again, the design possibilities are limitless.

Stones, dust, glitter, confetti, and bullion are just a few of the fancy extras you can use to adorn clients’ nails. For open-minded clients, create more complex designs or combine these elements with other forms of nail art. Nail artists who want to express themselves in a bolder fashion may choose feathers, snakeskin, and decals.

Applying stones to the nail is simple, but does require a steady hand. To begin, apply a top coat over dry polish to create a tacky surface. Pick up a stone with the moistened tip of an orangewood stick and place it on the nail. The tacky surface will hold the stone in place until you apply a top coat. Glitter, confetti, and other small materials can be sprinkled over the nail. Use small amounts of these items to avoid waste and to maintain greater control.

Once all art is placed, gently coat the entire nail with a nail art sealer. Add a second coat after the first completely dries. Top coat works as a sealer, but manufacturers recommend a nail art sealer because it is thicker than most top coats.

Striping tape is a thin strip of reflective tape available in a variety of widths. Striping tape can be placed anywhere on the nail and is attractive alone or with other fancy nail art.

Once polish is dry, stretch tape ½-inch over the cuticle for added control over placement. Striping tape has adhesive backing and is easiest to work with when the polish is dry so that you can reposition the tape without damaging damp polish. Lay the tape 1/8-inch from the free edge to prevent it from lifting. If you do go to the edge of the nail, file the edge instead of folding it under. Coat with nail art sealer.

Foils used for nail art are thin, almost translucent, versions of the aluminum foil used in the kitchen. Available in a variety of colors, you can create a mix of colors or you can combine foils with with other elements.

Foils are backed with paper and transferred onto the nail with a rubber-based adhesive. Coat the nail with adhesive where you want the foil to lay, let the adhesive dry, and press foil on the adhesive. The adhesive must be dry before you transfer foil or the transfer will pick up both the adhesive and polish.

Don’t try to cover the whole nail with one application, because as the top coat shrinks, bubbles will appear and the foil may lift or tear. Instead, apply foil in small sections.

For a French manicure using foils, cover the entire nail with a clear top coat or paint the nail bed with a translucent pink polish. Once it’s dry, apply adhesive on the free edge only and use pearlized or opalescent foil.

Decals are similar or handpainted or airbrushed scenes, but you escape the work. There are numerous premade designs available. You can cut decals if you don’t want to use the whole design.

Polish must be dry or it will affect the ink in the decal. Working on a dry polish surface allows you to reposition the decal as necessary. If the decal dries too quickly, add a drop of water to the nail surface to remove it.

To apply decals, read the accompanying directions. Decide which elements you want to use and cut them out. Put a dime-sized drop of water on a non-porous surface (a small mirror works well) and set the decal on the water. The paper backing will absorb the water in about one minute, and the surface will soften. Push the backing to the side very gently, using your fingernail or tweezers to remove it.

Once the decal is satisfactorily positioned, blot any excess water with a tissue. Use a top coat over the entire nail when the decal is dry, gently stroking once down the center and once on both sides. Two coats of top coat should protect the decal.

Snakeskin creates a unique, attractive design. You can cover the whole nail with it or you can combine it with stones, striping, or other fancy art. Snakeskin has to be conditioned before it’s applied or the skin will discolor when the top coat is applied.

First, cut the skin to fit the nail and rub snakeskin conditioner on the back with your fingers. Adhere to the nail with nail glue and add any other art you want before applying nail art sealer.

Feathers will appeal to your clients who like to be very different. Cut feathers from the thick end to minimize waste. Once it’s the size you want, position the feather on the nail over tacky polish and coat with nail art sealer. Several coats of top coat will leave the feather smooth and protected.

Handpainted Art

By handpainting designs you can create any image imaginable. Your tools are water-based acrylic paints or embossing paints, gels, and polish; your canvas is the client’s nail. Handpainting requires a lot of practice or a lot of natural talent. Only highly skilled and practiced technicians can freehand a design without advance planning. Practice your designs on paper and nail tips, and show clients your samples as a selling tool.

Control and confidence are the keys to success in handpainting, and these qualities only come with practice. When you’re ready to try freehand, start with clients you feel comfortable with, perhaps even offering them complimentary nail art in exchange for letting you practice on them. Work on the quality of your technique first, then on your speed.

Selecting the right brush is very important in handpainting. Brushes are numbered according to their fineness – the lower the number the finer the brush. A #0000 brush is popular with nail artists because it has very few hairs and allows great control for detail work.

Water-based, non-toxic acrylic paints are highly recommended for handpainting. These paints are much thinner than regular nail polish and allow the control necessary to create fine lines and detailed scenes. Control is everything when you are freehand painting.

Aspiring to perfection is the most common mistake that beginning nail artists can make, says Liz Fojon of Phenomonails of Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Your hands will stiffen up and become awkward if you try too hard for perfection. Relax; clients won’t know you made a mistake unless you tell them, so accept the small imperfections that make your art unique.

Seal designs with a nail art sealer, and have clients reapply the sealer every two days to preserve the art.

Squeeze painting is similar to handpainting except that you use a fine nozzle applicator instead of a brush. The preparation, practice, and paint materials are the same as those used for handpainting. Hold the bottle like a pencil and apply as if you were writing. Control the flow of paint by squeezing the bottle. The most common mistake made with squeeze paints is not being accustomed to the amount of pressure needed. As with brush handpainting, practice makes perfect.

Seal squeeze painted designs with nail art sealer, and clean the applicator tip with wire or a needle to keep it clear.

Embossing is a 3-D nail art technique that employs a thick plastic paint and an embossing tool. With this method, you can create intricate, raised designs. Embossing uses three basic strokes – dots, commas, and straight lines – to create infinite designs. The trick to learning this technique is putting the strokes together in proportion.

Apply a base coat over the natural nail or a top coat over polish. When this coat is dry, create your design with the embossing tool. For the best results, rest the embossing tool in the palm of your hand and support the applicator with your fingertips. Don’t hold it like a pencil because that position gives you less control. Brace your hand on the working surface and hold the nail you’re working on at an angle.

Colored gels are light-cursed gels that can be used like paints for nail art. You can create almost any design with colored gels that you can with paints and polishes. For an airbrushed look, apply a coat of colored gel to act as polish, then cure. Apply a second coat and add a diagonal stripe of another color over this coat.

Repeat this step with least once more color. Wipe your brush clean and run it perpendicularly through the stripes. Cure the gel, add a final coat of clear gel, and cure again to give the design a high-gloss finish.

Be sure the client is happy with the design before you cure the nail because the design can be removed only by filling or growing out. It can, however, be covered with colored nail polish.

Marbleizing creates a swirled, marble-like design with nail polish (like our cover model is wearing). Start with a base color and add drops of one, two, even three other colors. You can brush the additional colors in diagonal or horizontal stripes, or use droplets near the free edge and cuticle area. Using a marbleizing tool or a straight needle, gently swirl out from the center of the droplets or stripes and mix with the base color. Don’t mix like you’re beating eggs; just swirl with a light touch, creating curves and swirls.


Most nail technicians connect the name with the end product, but do you really know what air-brushing is? Airbrush systems consist of the compressor, airbrush, and a hose connecting the air-brush to the compressor. Airbrusher mix pressurized air with paint to create a fine mist of paint. 

Airbrushes are used to paint walls, furniture, cars, clothing, and to retouch photographs. Many technicians like airbrushing because it is as versatile as other forms of nail art, and it has a smooth textures.

You can freehand airbrush and create any design you want, but to recreate the same design on several nails you need to use stencils. Stencils are precut pieces of plastic that you hold over the nail and spray through. You can also use elements from stencils by masking off the rest of the stencil and using just the portion you want for a unique design.

Before you start airbrushing, check your airbrush for leaks by attaching it to the compressor and turning it on. Make sure the brush is clean before adding your paint. Test the air pressure by spraying paint on a piece of scratch paper and adjusting the needle for desired spray.

Prepare the nail by removing all polish and oil. Then add a base coat on the natural nail to prevent the paint from flaking.

Next, spray your base coat. Different intensities of paint are achieved with different bases: darker colors for depth, white for brightness, and pearl for sparkle or glitter.

You’ll soon learn to add just enough paint reservoir located on the gun to do 10 nails. Until you become adept, just spray excess paint onto scratch paper before adding new color. Set up designs to go from lighter to darker colors so you don’t have to clean the airbrush in between colors.

You can adjust the spray by changing the ratio of air mixing with paint. For heavier applications, reduce the air mixture; for lighter layers, increase the air. As with other designs, plan your air-brushed designs beforehand and practice on paper or tips.

Many technicians say airbrushing is fun and profitable, but others get frustrated and bury their airbrushes in storerooms before realizing their true potential. Clogging, “bubbling back” (paint bubbling back into the reservoir), broken needles, and even corrosion of the gun can turn technicians off before they have a chance to be turned on to the high profits.

Clogging and bubbling back are usually caused by cracked fluid nozzles, loose nozzle caps, poorly seated nozzle washers, blocked air-feeds, or a bent needle.  How do you avoid these problems? Follow instructions, thoroughly clean your airbrush once a week (more often if it’s used heavily), and send it for service as soon as you notice a problem. Run airbrush cleaner through the airbrush after each service to clean out residual paint.

There are many small parts to an airbrush and you should not take the airbrush apart unless you know how to properly reassemble it. Be sure that you won’t void any warranties by tampering with the pieces.

Take advantage of educational classes offered by airbrush manufacturers and distributors. Most equipment problems are avoidable with proper training and correct airbrush maintenance, and technique problems become a thing of the past once you master control of the spray.

After a half-day class, most technicians can begin earning money doing simple airbrush designs. Many technicians say they recoup their initial investment within a few months.

Airbrush systems outfitted for nail technicians cost anywhere from $400 to $1,000. Systems can be bought for less, but manufacturers caution against buying a general use system, as they do not allow for frequent, fast color changes and the other special needs of the nail technician.

With a little practice and a lot of imagination, nail technicians can exercise their creativity and talent to expand service tickets and increase profits. Nail art also provides an outlet for your creativity and adds variety to your day. Fojon reminds nail technicians, “I have people coming from two hours away to get nail art, and if they’re coming that far then obviously there is money to be made. The costs are low, profits are good, and it’s a lot of fun. Clients can get a manicure at another salon, but they can’t get the art anywhere else so they remain very loyal.”

The following companies contributed information to this article: A Show of Hand (Meriden,CT), Becky Lynn Co. (Valencia, CA), China Glaze (Beverly Hills, CA), Designs by Donalyn (Sacramento, CA), East Cost Air Brush Masapequa, NY), EmbossArt (Hopper, UT), IBD (Gardena, CA), Jani Nail Designs/Sweet Lady Jane (Chatsworth, CA), Lindy’s Nail Products (Nirthbridge, CA), Pacific Air Brush (Anaheim, CA), Professional Nail Resource (Phoenix, AZ), San Francisco Nails (San Leandro, CA), and Snails Italian Jewelry (Miami Beach, FL). A Show of Hands, East Coast Air Brush, Lindy’s Nail Products, Jani Nail Designs/Sweet Lady Jane, and Spectra Nail provided decorated nails. Pacific Airbrush furnished airbrush equipment.

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