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How I Paint My Nails

I've been meaning to get around to this 'behind-the-scenes' post forever.  Partly because I see nail newbies asking for advice pretty often and partly'll's kinda hilarious.  This post isn't necessarily how you should do your nails.  It's just how I do mine.  Everyone's nails are at least a little different, so nothing's universal, but here's what I do and what I use.  Brace yourself...there's nail nudity ahead!

  • textured, low-lint paper towel

  • manicurist's acetone (with glycerin added)
  • Nicole by OPI Strengthener Plus
  • nail polish (L'Oréal Owl's Night, this time)
  • Seche Vite top coat

Before I start in on my procedure, my workspace needs a mention.  I paint my nails at my computer desk.  It's a good level for me and I have all of my nail stuff close to hand...and the internet to goof off on while they dry.  Including a desk lamp in my list of tools may seem a little strange, but it's absolutely vital to the way I paint.  Coverage, cleanup, etc all turn out best for me when my work area is well-lit and the Jansjo is bright and extremely flexible.  I love that lamp, even if I don't take swatch photos under it anymore.  The background in the following photos is another essential for me, a double-folded piece of low-lint paper towel.  I take a piece about 8" long and fold it in half twice.  I rest my hand on this piece for the whole process.  I learned pretty quickly that it's a good idea to have everything laid out before I even start, so that I won't smudge one coat while getting what I need for the next.

Once everything's set up, the first step is removing all traces of the last manicure (I use a "scrub tub") and getting my nails completely clean.  Schmutz, lint, goobers, fuzz, etc. can cause trouble for both appearance and wear, so I get that stuff gone!  I use an old, frizzed-out cleanup brush dipped in acetone to really scrub everything away.  The lamp helps me make sure they're as clean as they can be.

Not pretty, but they're clean and ready for base coat.  I use Nicole by OPI Strengthener Plus, which is technically a treatment and, crushingly, discontinued.  If you're looking for a base coat to try, I suggest Revlon ColorStay Gel-Smooth Base Coat.  It's not right for me, but Zeus and Player 4 both get amazing results with it and it's a Nail Board favorite.  Anyway...I wrap my tips and coat the undersides of my nails (if they're long enough), then do two coats and a quick cleanup of any that gets on my skin.

Now for the polish!  I wrap my tips first.  If you wondered what that meant when I mentioned it above, it's just running a thin coat along the edge of the nail, like this...

Sometimes I do the undersides with polish and sometimes I don't.  Generally, I don't.  I usually only do it if I'll be wearing a very dark and dramatic polish.  I didn't this time.

If you're new to doing your nails, the most important thing to keep in mind...and this should be your "It's the end result that matters!"  With almost all polishes, the first coat won't be enough.  Don't even try to make it look good, just get it on there.  Consider it a primer. pinkie really wanted to be included, but it's too damn short!

There it is, my hilarious "dirty secret"...I make a damn mess!  While I do clean a gap along my cuticle line, I can't stand a gap down the sides of my nails.  (This is my twist on the classic MeganChair method.)  My nails have a very sharp c-curve, and I've never found a way to get polish right up to the edges without getting it EVERYWHERE.  Remember, "It's the end result that matters!"  The second coat adds opacity...and amusement, in my case.

I do try to keep it away from the cuticle, but I'm not always successful.  Again...the mantra..."It's the end result that matters!"

My handy Jansjo lamp is also great for showing any patchiness.  It's slight this time, but Owl's Night does need a third coat.

The polish is done, but...the mani clearly isn't!  Time for that cleanup brush...

I use a light touch and never try to get everything off right away.  I take a few passes at each nail, cleaning the brush on the towel, dipping in for clean acetone, then back to the nail.  What's that mantra again?  "It's the end result that matters!"  When they all look done, I reach for the top coats.  I do a coat of the Beauty Secrets top coat first.  Seche Vite needs to be applied to wet polish, but brush cleanup takes a little time, so this coat ensures good results with the notoriously finicky quick-dry stuff.  Once they're wet again, then it's time for Seche Vite.  I wrap my tips with both top coats.

I don't have any strong feelings one way or the other toward Beauty Secrets top coat.  It's just kinda what I have and it doesn't streak stamping.  I might rebuy it when I run out, or I might try something else.  One coat of it goes on before one coat of Seche Vite.

...which of course winds up going outside of the lines a little.  No big deal because..."It's the end result that matters!"  This is the final cleanup, the big one, the one that really counts.  If any pigment or shimmer is left on my skin after this last round with the brush, I break out a paper wiper.  In all this time, I've still never found anything that does it quite as well.

The glycerin reduces the drying effect of the acetone (the idea comes from loodieloodieloodie, but I skip the water), but my skin still needs a little something at the end of the process.  I love Burt's Bees Lemon Butter Cuticle Cream for this because it doesn't make my skin too shiny for the end result...the swatch photo!

I hope my naked nails and semi-reckless application didn't scare you too much!  It all works out in the end, doesn't it?  This is is the how/what for my full manicures, but my swatching process isn't drastically different.  For swatches I use NYC Matte Me Crazy as a base coat and Grand Central Station as a top coat.  Matte Me Crazy doesn't do well as a "real life" base, but it's good for swatches.  It also dries slowly, meaning that I can usually slide half-dried swatched polish right off of my nails for a much quicker removal than if I'd used an actual base coat.  Grand Central Station doesn't wear well on me and it's not as thick as Seche Vite.  I use 2-3 coats of it for most swatches.

If you're wondering about Owl's Night, it's from L'Oréal's 2011 Project Runway collection.  I lucked into it at a Rite Aid one day in late-ish '12.  My polish gremlins have their ways of bringing me my lemmings!  It's loooooong gone from stores, but should still be ETF (and fairly cheap) online.  It's beautiful and you need it.


  1. Oh man, I paint the second polish layer exactly the same way haha. I make a huge mess every time. My nails are also very curved and I hate having a gap on the sides so much. I don't bother being TOO careful around the cuticle either though, because I also hate having a giant gap there. I do clean it up, but I try for as minimal a gap as physically possible because if not, my nails grow so fast that by day two it looks really strange. I really do need o remember to start wrapping my tips, though. I usually forget.

    1. lol I knew I couldn't be alone in that! I know I *could* be all careful and pull the skin away from the nail and all of that, but I've tried it and cleaning up is actually faster for me.

  2. Amanda, love your blog! Thanks for this post--very informative. Sorry for these major newbie questions, but here goes:
    1) which hand do you paint first?
    2) are you right-handed or left-handed?
    3) Do you do base-coat-to-top-coat on one hand then switch to the other, or do you go back and forth between both hands so that both hands are done at around the same time?

    1. Thanks! :D I don't mind questions at all!

      I'm right-handed. I start with the left, but I go in a weird pattern. I do left then right with the base, then polish like that too, but to make sure the SV goes on over a wet coat I do both top coats on the left before doing both on the right. I used to do one hand entirely and then the other...but I switched at some point last year.

  3. Love Owl's Night! I have to get it someday.

    It's interesting to see the process of someone who has a strong c-curve, because my nails are the exact opposite - fairly flat - and if I paint to the edges on my ring, middle, and index it looks like I have duck feet nails. SO not my thing. I have to leave a gap on the sides for them to look "normal." Discovering this trick, along with cleanup and quick-dry topcoats, are what made me really fall in love with doing my nails. Before I always hated their shape and cut them as short as possible, and only painted them on special occasions.

    1. Yeah, with that nail shape it helps balance. With my nail shape it just feels like I missed a spot. lol

  4. Thanks for the tip to paint the free edge first. I wouldn't have thought of it and I do sometimes get a glob at the edge if I paint them after the nail. And that's just not pretty.

    1. Welcome :) I think I learned it from people on Nail Board. I've done it that way for so long I can't remember.

  5. I seen owl's night the other day at big lots

  6. Gah I love that color ! I need to dig mine out one of these days. I am the exact opposite of most polish lovers. I hate the actual process of painting my nails - I don't have the patience for it. I'm just a sucker for all the pretty colors. #storyofmylife

  7. Bleubelle I am the same way. I have lots of beautiful colors. But with Amanda's mantra ."It's the end result that matters!" really hit home for me, and in a weird way, very comforting to me.

    Now, with a new nail mantra in my mind, I just have to pick one of my bazillion colors!


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