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Nail Art For Dummies: How to Create 3 Simple Nail Art Looks

Let me get one thing straight: I’m no nail pro. My roommate has often laughed at my hours-long attempts to create elaborate stripes and swirls on my nails using pieces of Scotch tape as guidelines and an entire arsenal of Essie, only to mess up a few too many times and wipe the whole thing off. But nail art doesn’t have to be complicated, or so I learned. Using two detail nail brushes (thinner than regular brushes) by Mattese Elite Nail Art, I created three patterned nail art looks that are easy to nail – pun intended.

Look 1: Graphic

Can’t commit to one look? Want to get your feet (or, rather, hands) wet with nail art, without attempting to recreate ten miniature replicas of the Mona Lisa? A few punchy, bold designs are an easy way to jump into nail art.

1. Paint your nails with a solid color. I chose New York Color “Spring Street,” a bright tangerine in a quick-dry formula.

2. Using a detail brush, let your imagination run wild – anything goes! I created a half-moon, diagonal racing stripes, a checkerboard, a row of dots, and horizontal stripes. Not inspired? Try painting zig-zags, bows, hearts, your favorite emoticons, peace signs, or spelling out a word. Nautical-inspired fashion and florals are two perennial spring favorites, so try your hand at painting on anchors or flowers – it’s easier than you might think!

Look 2: Color Blocking

Color blocking is an easy trend to translate to your nails because it’s so simple – just draw your lines and fill them in! This version uses diagonal chevron stripes to separate the base and accent colors.

1. Start with a solid-colored base. I used Essie “Cocktail Bling” and used three coats to ensure the finish was completely opaque.

2. Using a detail brush, draw two diagonal lines extending from the bottom outer corners of each nail to meet at the top center to create a chevron. I found it was easiest to touch the tip of the brush to the corner, then lay the brush down flat as I dragged it diagonally to the top of my nail. Your lines can be thick or thin, depending on the effect you’re going for, but make sure they’re (relatively!) consistent.

3. Pick a second color for the accent, I used Essie “Lapis of Luxury,” but any color that’s darker than your base should show up well. Angle your brush to fill in the upper corners of each nail. Don’t worry about going over your chevron lines – you can always touch up the lines once your accent color dries.

Look 3: Leopard

1. Start with a solid-colored base. My friend Morgan painted and modeled this look; she chose Sephora by OPI “Bare to be Different.”

2. Cover each nail with droplets of your accent color. Depending on the look you’re going for, you can experiment with varying size spots or keep them all the same. If your spots are coming out too sheer, build up the opacity and let the polish dry between coats.

3. Wipe your detail brush on the lip of the jar so it’s not dripping with polish – you want to be able to control your handiwork here. Outline each leopard spot with your detail color, leaving some only half- or three-quarter-lined for a more natural look. Patience and a steady hand are the keys to this look!

Tips to Get Nail Art Right

Still hesitant to try out nail art? Here are a few tips for getting it right:

  • Practice makes perfect. Steal a foolproof tip from Teen Vogue’s assistant beauty editor Laurel Pantin for mastering nail art. “When you’re painting patterns, your best bet is to practice drawing the pattern on a sheet of paper, with both hands, before you start on your nails. Make sure it’s something you can draw easily with your dominant and non-dominant hand!” 
  • Use the right tools. Investing in a specialized detail brush for nail art makes a world of difference – seriously! The thinner brush will allow you more control over where your polish goes, which means you’ll have more control over your design. I used nail polish with detail brushes by Mattese Elite Nail Art, retailing for $5.95 each at Ricky’s NYC and online.
  • Make it last. The trick to making your manicures last is to start with a base coat and finish with a top coat. “My favorite base coats are Orly Bonder and Perfect Formula Pink Gel Coat. For a top coat, I’m a big fan of Seche Vite – it dries really quickly and is super shiny!” suggests Pantin.
  • Keep yourself occupied during dry time. Waiting for each coat to dry can be a drag, so pop in a movie or hang out with friends to make the time go by faster. There’s no worse way to ruin your nail art than painting on designs before your base coat is dry and smudging the color.
  • Opt for quick-dry polish. If you make a mistake on a nail, wiping off the ruined polish and repainting with quick-dry polish speeds up the process considerably. Quick-dry formulas are especially great for beginners who aren’t too confident with nail art. According to Pantin, Sally Hansen and Insta-Dri Fast Dry Nail Color both make high-quality fast-drying polishes at drugstore prices.
  • Don’t just limit yourself to polish. Some of the best manicures are made with far more than polish. Pantin explains, “Lace was a big trend for spring. To translate that to your nails, you could try laying a piece of lace over your nail, and painting a bright color over it. Let it dry a bit and then pull off the lace—it works like a stencil.” You can also try experimenting with rhinestones, newsprint (the type will rub off on your nails!), and ribbon.

Happy painting!

Originally from Boston, Hannah is now a sophomore at New York University and loves life in the big city. Her favorite things include poking fun at celebrities on Twitter, yoga, leopard print shoes, Frank Sinatra, and her little sister Julia. Hannah was Her Campus's first editorial intern in Summer 2010 and has since continued her involvement with HC as the High School Editor and head of the High School Ambassador program. She is a former Seventeen and Huffington Post intern, where she researched and wrote about celebrities and once made lunch for Kylie Jenner. Read her short-form ramblings at @hannahorens.