HOW TO: Paint Your Nails With These 5 Steps

The first time I polished my nails, I just kind of flailed away at it, like an octopus playing the drums. Except with nail polish. It was a mess.

May 11, 2012 at 12:30pm | Leave a comment

If you’ve never painted your nails, you are not alone. The nail polish retail market has remained a growth industry over the last five years -- but salons are going just as strong. Getting a manicure is an affordable luxury for many people and there’s no reason anyone MUST learn to polish their own nails. Naked nails are awesome nails, too.

It’s just that I’m kind of obsessed with femme skills. And for me, learning to paint my nails was a means to an end. It was a way to stop biting my nails. In fact, I still gnaw on my nails if they aren’t painted. Which is one reason my nails are almost always painted. I’m pretty good at it now, but the very first time I painted my nails, I’m sure it was an utter mess.

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A clean and bare nail awaiting its inevitable fate - nail polish.

Sometimes you have to start at the beginning (a very good place to start -- when we read we begin with ABC, when we sing we begin with….). "Sound of Music" references aside, I think we do, as adults, often expect ridiculous things from ourselves.

If you’ve never painted your nails, for example, of course there is a learning curve. So if you’re going to give this a shot, remember that, as with any other skill, painting your nails takes practice. Not doing it perfectly doesn’t reflect on your intelligence. 

And if you’re asking my opinion, here’s what I think you should do:

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Two basecoats are sometimes better than one.

1. Use basecoat.

Basecoat is generally clear. Think of it as a primer for your nail polish. It prepares the nail surface, smoothes the surface and gives the color something to grab on to. It also forms a barrier between your vulnerable fingernail and the color you’re about to put on. That color can stain!

Without a basecoat, you’re going to wind up with yellow nails. That’s not the end of the world by any means, but it can look odd. Basecoat generally has a higher resin content than regular nail polish, so if you’re sensitive to nail polish, you might want to do some gentle experimenting with basecoat.

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Apply your basecoat in smooth, even strokes.

I use two basecoats. One is a ridgefiller and the other is a strengthener. I apply a thin layer of each.

Then I “wrap the tips,” which is just fancy lingo for painting the undersides of your fingernails with strengthening basecoat. What good does this do? It helps prevent tip wear -- your color won’t pull back from the top or get worn off as quickly. And it provides an extra layer of support to your long nails.

Long nails are so odd sometimes. I’m still not used to mine being this long. It’s an experiment; we’ll see how long it lasts.

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Wrap the tip with basecoat for protection.

2. Use thin coats of color.

Nail polish is formulated, generally speaking, to go on in multiple coats. You find a few polishes, every now and again, that are opaque in one coat, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

Open your nail polish bottle. Check out the brush. It might be flat -- there’s a growing trend toward that these days -- but it might also be round. Either way, wipe off some of the excess nail polish. But not all of it. You’re not dry brushing here.

It’s actually better to have a bit too much polish so it puddles at your cuticles than it is to have too little polish so that you have to keep going back over things.

Going back over things will turn gloopy really quickly.

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Three strokes should, in theory, cover all your ground.

3. Use the rule of three strokes.

The first time I polished my nails, I just kind of flailed away at it, like an octopus playing the drums. Except with nail polish. It was a mess. Then, in a copy of Cosmo, I discovered the only useful thing I have ever read in Cosmo: the rule of three strokes.

It’s not a sex tip. It stipulates that you should be able to cover the surface of your nail in polish with three strokes -- one down the center and then one down each side. This is the Platonic ideal of nail polish technique. It minimizes going over and dragging nail polish.

It takes some practice. And sometimes, in frustration and a hurry, I throw it right out the window. But I’ve used it as a guideline for all these years and it’s been a good one.

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Yes, it's messy around the cuticles - this is okay!

4. Clean as you go.

This step is the only one you can sometimes skip. But it’s still best practices to clean as you go. I use pointy q-tips, dipped in nail polish remover. Don’t skimp -- use a new q-tip for each nail if you need to. Use two! Keep the q-tip moist and kind of twist it along the edge of your nail. The goal is really just to clean up the edges and take care of any puddling around your cuticles.

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Cleanup with a pointed q-tip and nail polish remover.

5. Use a quick dry topcoat.

Now, you’ve probably not letting each coat dry completely between layers. That’s totally fine. Nail polish doesn’t work quite like acrylic paint, after all – the new layers reactivate the layers underneath. Think of these as oil paints – the thicker the layers, the longer it will take the whole thing to dry.

That means a quick dry topcoat is just about the most useful thing ever. It won’t dry all the layers immediately, but it’ll prevent some of the more “Oh my shitballs, why did I do that?” moments.

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Quick Dry topcoat is the best invention.

It’ll also help you fix things, if you do smudge, by keeping the top layer clean and smooth. If you wind up with a wrinkle, you can nudge it gently back into place with a fingertip. Or you can lick it.

This doesn’t taste good and I doubt it’s good for you. But it does help smooth out any imperfections so you don’t have to start all over.

Give yourself, even with the quick dry topcoat, a good five minutes at least to just sit there and not touch anything.

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Oh, look, it's a manicure! You did it!

Listen, don’t be upset if your nails are messy the first go ‘round. Topcoat is great for sealing your nail color and extending its wear, but it’s also fantastic at disguising some messes. Topcoat is usually self leveling -- that means it’ll give you a smooth finish even if you don’t get it on so perfectly yourself. Let your tool do its job; feel free to use a generous coat of topcoat.

These five steps are the basics you need to get started. But there are a few other ways you can set yourself up for having a good time with this. First, pick a color you love. Next, have everything you need on hand – and that includes nail polish remover. Also, take your time. Speed will come with practice.

Related to taking your time is the idea of setting aside a time to practice. I know we all want to do our nails 20 minutes before we have to rush out the door for some event where we want to look our best. But this is the exact worst time to try anything new -- the additional pressure and stress will almost inevitably result in disaster.

You might notice in these photos that I have three different colors of nail polish going on. That’s because I’m playing with nail polish, seeing how a new polish (Floam!) works and giving an accent nail a try (Orly Bus Stop Crimson and China Glaze Liquid Leather). I’m doing this on an afternoon when I don’t have anywhere else to be.

Painting your nails is a skill just like any other. Cut yourself a break and expect a little bit of mess. There’s plenty of things in life to stress out about. Painting our nails shouldn’t be one of them.